Edited Excerpts from an interview
What are the Ministry’s big ticket programmes for primary education?
We at the Ministry have been implementing focussed programmes for two decades now. The first major programme that set the countrywide agenda for school education was the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP). Based on the experience of the DPEP, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was launched in 2001- 02 to universalise elementary education. In 2010, when the Right to Education Act (RTE) came into effect, SSA was declared its primary vehicle and was aligned with the spirit and stipulations of the Act. The support programmes to SSA are Mahila Samikhya programme (MSP) and, of course, the mid-day meal programme.
The Ministry had once claimed that under the RTE, all children will be able to go to school by 2020. Has it made any headway?
As a result of the substantial investment that we have made under SSA and RTE, a significant progress has been made in providing children access to primary and upper primary schools. While near-universal access to primary education has been achieved, only residual gaps remain to be addressed as far as access to the upper-primary stage is concerned. With opening of schools and development of infrastructure as well as massive social mobilisation, a significant increase has been registered in school enrolments. This increase is not only acknowledged nationally, but also by international development agencies. The number of out of school children has consequently reduced to less than 2 percent of the total eligible children. The number of out-of-school children (OOSC), which was estimated at 3 crore in 2001, was assessed to be at 1.3 crore in 2005 and 81 lakh in 2009. The latter two figures were arrived at by an independent agency. According to the annual work plan and budget prepared by districts across the country under RTE/SSA for 2013-14, the number of OOSC has come down to around 22 lakh.
What has been done to improve the infrastructure of primary schools across the country?
Infrastructure development has been a major focus of SSA, as 33 percent of the programme funds are earmarked for this. There would be little argument that infrastructure development in the form of new school buildings, additional classrooms, boundary walls, and repair and maintenance, has been the most visible and evident outcome of the investment made under SSA and RTE. We have been sanctioning funds to districts for infrastructure development and maintenance based on their own assessment and needs. SSA has even made allocations up to 50 percent for needy districts to improve infrastructure. Here I would like to underline that states must optimally use the various sources of funds, including those of their own and not rely only on funds available through RTE-SSA. The infrastructure developed by states before the inception of SSA must be maintained using state funds.
But in several villages, primary schools do not have basic facilities like toilets for girls.
There can be no two opinions on the necessity of toilets for girls in schools. SSA has been focussing on this for several years now. As a result, the percentage of schools with girls toilets has been steadily increasing. This has been made possible by sanctioning funds from within the SSA budget for girls’ toilets and also by establishing a vibrant convergence mechanism with the Ministry of Rural Development. I understand that this provision has not yet been universalised, but we are trying to make it possible soon.
Many experts believe that greater emphasis is laid on enrolment, not quality. As a result, we have some Class X students unable to write a sentence. How does the MHRD monitor this?
It is not correct to state that the emphasis is not on quality. In fact, right from the inception of the 11th Plan in 2007, quality has been the major focus. Particularly after the enforcement of the RTE Act, the agenda of quality education has taken the centre stage. A number of states have reformed their curriculum and textbooks in accordance with the national curriculum framework of 2005. Similarly, a lot of technical and financial resources have been invested into building capacity of teachers through teacher training programmes, operationalising decentralised academic support structures like block resource centres and cluster resource centres, and reforms in assessment of children learning, mainly through Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE). Unlike infrastructure development and enrolment, tangible outcome in quality improvement will take more time. We are monitoring the progress through our Project Management Information System (PMIS), feedback from our apex institutions like the NCERT and from other independent agencies and as well as research institutions.
The statistics on primary education are formulated by teachers and the state governments. What steps has the MHRD taken to ensure the authenticity of the data?
There are various mechanisms, both internal and external, that give feedback on the health of the programme and the progress achieved. While in some of these mechanisms like the District Information System for Education (DISE), the data is furnished by teachers and government functionaries, in other mechanisms, it is collected and analysed by national-level resource institutions as well as reputed institutions, universities and well-known education researchers. Therefore, I assure you that there are ample avenues for verifying different sets of data.
How do you evaluate the success of the programmes initiated by the MHRD?
There are many government and non-government agencies that measure the success of the programme and share their findings with stakeholders, including the MHRD. Our apex institutions have been conducting surveys and the findings are in the public domain. Forty one national level institutions, including universities and IIMS, have been engaged in independent monitoring of the programme of implementation in addition to commissioned studies by the Ministry. As far as the internal PMIS is concerned, we have a well laid-out mechanism for monitoring at various levels. The findings of these are generally available on the SSA website.