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Save Bihar's students

With officials busy making money, leaving little time for improving standards of education, students in Bihar suffer; discusses Arun Srivastava

Save Bihars students

Ever since Nitish has taken charge as Bihar chief minister, he has been claiming of his success in reaching education to the doorsteps of the poor and empowering them. In the initial years of his rule, he had provided some incentives, books, dresses and cycles to students, as underlined by UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDG), particularly to girls. The UN, in September 2000, had proclaimed eight development goals. Achieving universal basic education is one of the goals.

The Nitish government only had to implement the programme, but it failed miserably. Like other state governments, Bihar was also paid by the Union government under 'Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyan'. Though there was no dearth of funds, there was a clear lack of commitment. After some time, Nitish turned his attention to populist programmes, like the shelter scheme. Unfortunately, the shelter homes earned notoriety for the sexual exploitation of girls. One girl also died under mysterious conditions.

The abject decline in the state's education has been unravelled by the Annual Status of Education (ASER) report of 2018. The report points out that education under Nitish has dipped. It highlights the declining trend in learning levels across government schools, especially since 2016. If 44.6 per cent of Class V students were able to read a Standard II text in 2014, it has come down to 35.1 per cent in 2018. A similar fall can be witnessed across all levels.

The 2016 report had also pointed to a falling learning outcome, with one out of four children leaving Standard VIII without even basic reading skills. The annual status of education report 2018, released on January 16, has underlined the poor state of school education in Bihar, which is marked by low classroom attendance, growing attraction towards private schools and a continuing trend of dipping learning outcomes.

This is despite several incentives and improvement in school facilities like provisions for playground, library, toilets and drinking water. The report, while underlining the poor state of school education in Bihar, also points to the government's apathy in promoting education.

The most disheartening development is the decline of learning levels in upper primary, the foundation for secondary and higher education, in both reading and arithmetic. In 2018, around half of Standard VIII children struggled even with simple division. Even after this revelation, the state government has not taken any initiative to improve the foundation skills of students for higher grades.

Last year, the report had underlined that even among the 14-18 age-group, the problem of learning outcome, as demonstrated in elementary schools, was a matter of big concern. Its survey in 2017, in Muzaffarpur, had shown that 22.2 per cent students in the 14-18 age-group could not even read a Standard II-level text, while nearly 35 per cent could not even do division.

It may sound paradoxical, but after the launch of MDG, the standard of education has fallen. Officials are busy making ill-gotten money, with little time for improving the standard of education. The overall decline in learning levels in almost all grades is a cause of major worry. A decade ago, Bihar's learning levels were above the national average. Bihar was among the top ranking states in mathematics, but that is not the case anymore. The impact of a weak foundation was clearly visible in the last three board exams when a large number of students failed. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the government was also contemplating diluting the standard of questions to improve the pass percentage.

A survey on the youth of rural India presented a gloomy picture of Bihar on some basic parameters. ASER has selected one district each from the selected states for the nationwide survey. In Bihar, it was Muzaffarpur. Like its previous report, the 2018 report raises several worrying questions. Only 50 per cent of students in Standard V can read a Standard II-level text, reveals the study. Children are also struggling with basic arithmetic skills. More than 56 per cent children enrolled in Class VIII cannot solve a three-digit by one-digit division problem correctly.

Last year's ASER report had revealed that only "28 per cent had used the internet and 26 per cent had used computers, while 59 per cent had never used a computer and 64 per cent had never used t internet". The revelations in this year's report are even more grim. It points out that one out of four children in rural India leaves Class VIII without basic reading skills and over half of them cannot solve a basic division problem. The report also revealed that the learning deficit, visible so far in elementary school children, is now being reflected among young adults too.

"When your secondary level students are not learning like elementary students, the problem becomes bigger. It is because of two reasons – one, this 14-18 years age-group are ready to enter the workforce and, thus, have a direct bearing on the economy; second, the families depend more on this young cohort for doing free work," says Rukmini Banerji, chief executive of Pratham Education Foundation.

ASER team members visited 15,998 government schools in 596 districts in rural India. A total of 3,54,944 households and 5,46,527 children in the age-group three to 16 were surveyed. Bihar is one of the poorest states in India. The educational attainment is low and the quality of education as measured by learning outcomes is still very poor.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Arun Srivastava

Arun Srivastava

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