Monday, October 31, 2011

Inside Primary Schools: A Study of Teaching and Learning in Rural India*

The report titled: Inside Primary Schools: A Study of Teaching and Learning in Rural India, which was prepared by ASER Centre ( in collaboration with UNICEF and UNESCO was released by Prof. R Govinda, Vice Chancellor, National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi on 28 October, 2011.

In her introduction, Dr. Rukmini Banerji, Director-Programs and senior member of Pratham's national leadership team said that the present report is based on a longitudinal study and covers government primary schools. The present report looks deeper into the problems associated with learning outcomes unlike the previous reports that used to be much wider and larger in their scope. She acknowledged UNICEF and UNESCO for their support.

Suman Bhattacharjea of Pratham explained the salient features of the report to the audience. She informed that although there are more children in schools now but they are not learning well. The present study builds on the School Teachers Effectiveness and Learning Levels of Students (SchoolTELLS) methodology and approach in a number of ways. The SchoolTELLS study done by Dr. Geeta Kingdon of the Institute of Education, carried out in 2007–08, was an in-depth, comprehensive study of 160 private and government primary schools across 10 districts in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which explored a variety of village, teacher, student, and household characteristics along with different dimensions of functioning of schools, organization of classrooms, use of time etc. About the methodology part, Suman told that 5 states i.e. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan were purposively selected. Within each state, 3 districts were purposively selected. In each district 60 government schools with primary sections were sampled, and up to 25 students from Std 2 and another 25 from Std 4 were then randomly sampled from the enrollment registers of each of these schools. She noted that most schools have less than 25 children. The sample size for the survey: 24,000 households, 1,700 classrooms, 29,000 children, 900 schools and 2,200 teachers.

At the heart of this study is an assessment of learning outcomes in language and mathematics for a large cohort of almost 30,000 Std 2 and Std 4 students randomly selected from the enrollment registers of government schools in five states across the country. Of this cohort, about 22,000 students were administered both a baseline achievement test in the period September-November 2009 and an endline test in the period September–November 2010. The two tests were thus administered roughly one calendar year apart but spanned two academic years, meaning that by the time the endline test was administered children had moved into Std 3 and Std 5.

Suman Bhattacharjea said that usual assumptions about ‘age-appropriate grade’ and ‘grade-appropriate learning levels’ do not match ground reality. In the real world, children vary in age, ability level and availability of learning support outside school. Although ASER Centre's research showed that children’s learning levels improved over the course of a year, in every state most children are at least two grades below the level of proficiency assumed by their textbooks. Teachers’ ability to teach matters. But educational and professional qualifications do not guarantee effective teaching. Neither higher educational qualifications nor more teachers’ training are associated with better student learning. Nor are teacher background characteristics such as age, gender, or experience. What does matter is teachers’ ability to teach. Teaching capability include: content knowledge, ability to spot common mistakes, ability to explain textbook content in simple language or in easy steps and ability to create questions or activities for children. Teachers understand the importance of ‘child friendly’ practices. But classrooms are not child friendly at all. Suman concluded that teaching and learning are misaligned in Indian schools.

Prof. R Govinda appreciated the effort made by ASER Centre in bringing out the results of the interim study. He informed that ASER Centre is known for bringing out the annual reports, the first of which came out in 2005. He said that Human Development Reports, which used to be released enthusiastically in earlier days, are now released in a complacent manner. The Inside Primary Schools report by ASER Centre explains what happens to children who are in school. The Right to Free and Compulsory Education (henceforth RTE) has sanctified and legitimized age-grade framework, which is based on certain assumptions such as: average age of a particular class is same; children of the same age have the same educational capabilities. The report deconstructs these myths. There should not be the same curriculum for a particular class across India. Curriculum should be prepared according to the need of the community. Little research has taken place on student absenteeism in classes. The report finds that language capabilities of teachers are poorer than their mathematical capabilities. Only 15 percent of trained teachers could pass Central Teacher Eligibility Test.

Prof. Govinda said that the government should focus on teachers. He informed that pre-service teacher education has frozen since 1990s. Although in-service teacher training packages of 7/ 10 days are there, they are not making much impact. Most schools are not aware about RTE. Revolution regarding education is happening at Shastri Bhawan and not at schools. Input orientation is the focus of government now. The RTE is not doing anything different from Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. If more schools start working and teachers start teaching, then more money is required. The UPA 2 may reduce spending on NREGS and SSA since the government is facing cash crunch. A critical mass of empirical studies is required to make dent on policies. India is research starved in the field of education.

Karin Hulshof, UNICEF Representative for India said that UNICEF is proudly associated with the present study titled: Inside Primary Schools. She demanded that schooling should be converted into learning. She read out the key findings of the report prepared by ASER Centre. She said that 20 percent of children surveyed are first generation school goers. Less than half of all households have any print material available, so children do not have materials to read at home. Children whose home language is different than the school language of instruction learn less. Child-friendly practices, such as students asking questions, using local examples to explain lessons, small group work, have a significant impact on children’s learning. She urged that textbooks should undergo revisions.

Wilima Wadhwa, statistician, ASER Centre informed that the ASER 2011 is in the field.

During the panel discussion session, Prof. Michael Walton, Harvard University, USA while appreciating the report titled Inside Primary Schools mentioned that people are more concerned about learning outcomes and not quality of infrastructure, qualification of teachers etc. There is difference between what is being expected from school children and what is being achieved by them. Student absenteeism, which requires more research, is a bigger problem than teacher absenteeism. Correlation between child attendance and outcomes is observed by the present study. Incidence of child friendliness is low in Indian schools. Teachers know about child friendly practices but they don’t practice it. Effort made at home influences learning outcomes. Educational levels of families are generally low across the sample.

Vimala Ramachandran, ERU Consultants Pvt. Ltd. (, New Delhi stated that methodologically the report titled Inside Primary Schools is a good study. Teaching and learning at classes 1 and 2 are not happening properly. In 1/4th of the classes, teachers are present to teach for 30 minutes. Average time devoted by teachers is 10-15 minutes per class. Teacher training regime is a big scam. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan teacher training regime needs to be questioned. Corruption debate should cover the education sector as well. Training on demand for teachers should be at place. It has been wrongly assumed that people outside the education sector are trying to privatize research. Larger educational institutions funded by the government are not in sync with the reality. There is a huge gap between policy and practice. The cumulative burden of non-learning on the part of teachers is on the high and is detrimental to education.

Dr. Sharada Jain, Sandhan, Jaipur said that teachers can hugely benefit from the study titled: Inside Primary Schools prepared by ASER Centre. By going through the findings of the report, the teachers can know themselves. The report points out that there is diversity among children in a particular class. The stereotype of libraries needs to be broken. Additional reading material should be available at the classrooms. In India, teachers are assumed as conduits for attaining certain objectives. But this has not worked successfully. It is required to think what motivates the teachers to do things differently. The main question to be asked to teachers in Central Teacher Eligibility Test is whether they like being with children. She opposed the idea of having the same type of textbook for a particular class across India.

* Based on the minutes taken during the report release event as well as the content of the report titled Inside Primary Schools 

Photo courtesy: The Hindu

Further readings:

Policy Brief-Inside Primary Schools: Teaching and Learning in Rural India,

Press Release-Inside Primary Schools: Teaching and Learning in Rural India,

Report: Inside Primary Schools: Teaching and Learning in Rural India,

Missing in rural India: Smiling teachers, child-friendly schools by Aditi Tandon, The Tribune, 29 October, 2011,

RTE fails to lift education in rural areas: Report, The Economic Times, 29 October, 2011,

Village students 2 grade below in proficiency: study, The Indian Express, 28 October, 2011,

Teaching quality still a concern, post-RTE by Prashant K Nanda, Live Mint, 29 October, 2011,

Survey shows learning gap in rural primary schools across 5 states, The Times of India, 29 October, 2011,


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Proposed changes in the NREGA: Why do I oppose them?*

Here are my observations pertaining to the proposed reforms in the NREGS:

1. Rising NREGA wages have not entirely ended distress of the rural poor. 

One of the objectives of the National Rural Employment Guarantee (2005) Act (NREGA) is to enhance the livelihood security of the people in rural areas by guaranteeing hundred days of wage employment in a financial year, to a member of any rural household who volunteer to do unskilled manual work. The Act aims to create durable assets and strengthen the livelihood resource base of the rural poor [mind it the law was not invented to help either the rich farmers (kulaks) or the industrialists]. The kind of works undertaken under NREGS address causes of chronic poverty like drought, deforestation, soil erosion so that employment is generated on a sustainable basis.

(Some portions of the above paragraph have been lifted from: MGNREGA 2005 Report to the People, 2nd Feb. 2006-2nd Feb. 2010, Ministry of Rural Development,

The works to be undertaken under NREGS are as follows:

* Water Conservation and water harvesting
* Drought Proofing (including plantation and afforestation)
* Irrigation canals including micro and minor irrigation works 
* Flood Control and Protection Works
* Minor irrigation, horticulture and land development on the land of SC/ST/BPL/IAY and 
* Land reform beneficiaries
* Renovation of traditional water bodies including desilting of tanks
* Land Development
* Rural Connectivity

Source: MGNREGA 2005 Report to the People, 2nd Feb. 2006-2nd Feb. 2010, Ministry of Rural Development,

Utilizing rural labour for agricultural activities such as sowing and harvesting (and may be other farm activities) was never the objective of the Act since its inception. After all, why should the large farmers be subsidized by allowing them to employ cheap NREGS workers? If the objective is so, then the government should not further reduce subsidies on other inputs like electricity, seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, water.

It must be kept in mind that labour cost is only 20-35 percent of the entire cost borne by the farmers. Farmers also rely on family labour. In fact, the higher cost of inputs (like seed, fertilizers, pesticide, electricity) is worrying the farmers greatly as their prices have skyrocketed more as compared to the cost of labour. Please check the article titled: Is the MNREGS Affecting Rural Wages? by Jayati Ghosh, Macroscan, 4 February, 2011,  

Critics of State supported subsidy regime might argue here that to reduce wasteful expenditure by the government & end inefficient use (overexploitation) of resources like water (that caused falling groundwater table in many areas of Punjab), there should be targeting. So make way for newer schemes like UID with the prudent mix of technology and economics, and here we enter again to another big debate.    

Actually, in the current context one thing comes to my mind. Some economists are eager to prove that NREGA is Pareto inefficient. If for improving the condition of the labouring class, NREGS is worsening the condition of rich farmers and industrialists, then this proves their point. So a market fundamentalist State must intervene to help the rich, whether they pay taxes regularly or not. By the way, agriculture is not taxed in India unlike what was proposed by economist Nicholas Kaldor long back.

Agricultural and rural labourers fall within the category of informal sector. They are not getting the benefits which people in white collar jobs enjoy. Why are we silent about it here? Until recently, the NREGS workers were not entitled to minimum wages. Please read: Maximum Dithering for Minimum Wages!

The recent article titled: The truth behind rural wages in India by Akshat Kaushal (published in The Business Standard, 14 October, 2011, tells us that real wages for carpentry, sweeper, blacksmith, mason and cobbler have stagnated between 2000 and 2010. Real wages for ploughing, tractor driver and unskilled labourer in rural India grew at an annual rate of 0.80 per cent, 0.42 per cent and 1.19 per cent, respectively during the same time period.

The number of persons in workforce (as per usual status) in rural India has declined from 342.9 million in 2004-05 to 336.4 million in 2009-10 despite implementation of NREGA. (Please refer to Employment in India: What does the latest data show? by Subhanil Chowdhury, Economic and Political Weekly, 6 August, 2011, Vol XLVI No 3, Unemployment rate in rural India is 10.1 percent, whereas unemployment rate in urban India is 7.3 percent, according to the Report on Employment & Unemployment Survey (2009-10), Ministry of Labour and Employment, Labour Bureau, October, 2010, Hence the situation of rural labour is not that rosy.

The Planning Commission in the past found merit in relaxing the labour laws in order to make the Indian industrial sector more competitive in the global arena. This is unforgettable. A survey conducted by FICCI (which influences the Government on key policy issues) in the months of August and September, 2011 shows that labour shortages and increased demand for wages have been faced by several companies as a result of NREGS (FICCI Survey on Labour / Skill Shortage for Industry,

2. My personal opinion is not going to affect what the officials in the Planning Commission think or the changes that are in the pipeline for reforming the NREGA.

If the big farmers (thanks to Sharad Pawar) and industrialists find NREGA guilty of pushing up the wages (and hence cost of agricultural production, industrial production, tea plantation cost,  construction, so on and so forth), then the deflationary curbs are bound to happen. This also means confining 100 days of employment under NREGS to those times when agriculture faces slack season such as maintenance of water bodies during heavy monsoons (he..he..he). Has there been a proper, serious study (well sampled one) regarding NREGS that it is triggering higher cost of agricultural production? First, do this and then demand for the needful changes. There is scope for debate on the NREGS reforms in the current democratic setup.

3. I am not a huge fan of any political leader or bureaucrat.

Ramesh babu has recently advocated that all file notings under the RTI law should not be disclosed to the public particularly the correspondences between the various Ministers and the PM when the final decision is yet to arrive on any policy related issue. His view came to light when several UPA ministers such as Salman Khurshid, Veerappa Moily opposed the RTI sought note getting shared. The note was originally issued by the Ministry of Finance to the PMO that revealed the contradictory position of Pranab Mukherjee with P Chidambaram pertaining to 2G spectrum allocation. What more can we expect from Ramesh babu who is so critical of even a transparency enabling legislation like RTI. Please check: Jairam fuel in RTI debate, The Telegraph, 11 October, 2011,

The maxim goes like: Too much faith on a public servant is not good for democracy.   

4. What Bengal (i.e. the Left) thinks today, India (i.e. the Congress party) will think tomorrow.

It is often said that the Left Front government in West Bengal stayed in power for 34 years for helping the sharecroppers, landless labourers and the small and marginal farmers via Operation Barga. The Left Front was ousted out of power because of its unfriendly attitude towards the agriculturalists and its wrong land acquisition policies. It seems that the present UPA government and its policy makers are making the same mistake. While the UPA's comeback to power for the second term (2009 Loksabha elections) is often put on the employment guaranty scheme, this time (i.e. in the forthcoming 2014 Loksabha elections) the UPA might not make it thanks to the sheer number of scams that have cropped up recently and the overconfident, unemotional officials who are desperately tinkering with the NREGA rules and regulations.

The dictum goes like: If the politicians do badly, they won't be elected next time but if the bureaucrats do worse, they still manage to stay back. 

5. Mihir Shah's argument that NREGA reforms incorporating agricultural works in the crop fields would help the dalit, BPL and small and marginal farmers is faulty.

First of all, how come a BPL farmer is held as a landowner? Going by the standards, a BPL farmer should not own valuable assets like: car, land etc. Secondly, very few dalit farmers are farmers in reality and hence small and marginal farmers because traditionally they do not have title to land. Dalits and tribals have customary rights over forests and common property resources. But majority don't have their land registered against their names. The same happens for female agriculturalists. Thirdly, most small and marginal farmers (mainly comprising SCs and STs) have leased in their land. Improving land productivity may increase production but it may also augment the incomes of the rent seeking class who seldom invest in their lands to improve agricultural productivity and often indulge in conspicuous consumption.

6. Initially, the argument against NREGS was that the rising demand in rural areas due to improved wages was contributing to inflation. But soon this argument against NREGS was replaced by another argument i.e. NREGS is instigating shortage of labourers for doing agricultural operations. It has pushed up cost of production.

The article titled: Challenging the poverty dimension of inflation by Madan Sabnavis (published in The Economic Times, 13 July, 2011, shatters the initial argument. It says that on an average, the NREGS in reality provides 37 days of employment to households when they are entitled to 100 days in a financial year. This should not cause much worry to big farmers, industrialists and policy makers. Moreover, the expenditure made on food items by the NREGA workers is too low to entirely eat away the rise in agricultural production witnessed in the recent years (excess demand), hence setting off  inflation. Recent increase in food prices happened due to wastage as India is unable to manage its surpluses. There is dearth of storage facilities. 

7. NREGS arrests distress migration of labourers during droughts when there is not much opportunity left in agriculture.

During my visit to a village located in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan for witnessing social audit in October, 2009, some people complained to me that rising NREGS wages made agricultural operations costlier. I replied that in the wake of drought due to shortage of monsoon rains causing agriculture to suffer, NREGS helped in stopping distress migration of poor, rural labourers. For further information one can consult the report prepared by Committee on Agriculture (2009-2010) titled: Deficient Monsoon and Steps taken by the Government to Mitigate its Impact on Agriculture Sector,, which says that rain scarcity in 2009 was observed in 27 districts of Rajasthan including Bhilwara.

* Image courtesy: India Together  

Further readings

Mihir Shah, Planning Commission member and chairman of the committee to redraft rules and guidelines of NREGA interviewed by Sreelatha Menon, The Business Standard, 9 October, 2011,

Should MNREGA labour be used for farming?, The Business Standard, 12 October, 2011,

Aruna Roy to Sonia: Link NREGS, minimum wages, The Indian Express, 9 October, 2011,

After losing male workers to migration & NREGS, carpet industry eyes women by Prashant Pandey, The Indian Express, 19 August, 2011,

Labour shortage, wage hike hits Indian industry hard: Ficci, The Economic Times, 9 October, 2011,