by Dhanuraj and Rahul V Kumar
The observations of high dropouts in Wayanad and Palakkad among the ST community forced us to ponder on what was the actual challenge facing Kerala in school education. The general understanding among the experts in education sector is that Kerala has moved from its first generation challenge of providing universal education to a set of second generation challenges where as SSA trying to address the first generation challenges. The second generation challenges consider quality and inclusion as major factors needing attention of the state while the access and availability are considered to be the first generation challenges. In various interactions we had with stakeholders in the educational sector we found that these first and second generation challenges while continuing to exist, there are more inherent problems facing the sector in Kerala.
On the forefront of these problems is the tight control and regulation which prevents innovations in education. We found the existence of informal and single teacher schools which indicated the demand for such systems as against the institutional system (which has become the norm). In Wayanad alone there were reportedly 38 such schools. In 2010 there were approximately 1500 students studying in such schools. Teachers continued to teach in these schools irrespective of the fact that they earned a meagre salary of less than Rs 3000. However, the state administration and the SSA continues to believe that these systems need to be formalized and institutionalised as per the existing standards (they cite MHRD instructions to justify their stand). In that process what has happened is that some of these one teacher schools are closed down. In our field trips, we were not able to track most of those children who discontinued their education because of the closure of one teacher school. Education is still seen in Kerala as emanating from formal and standardized institutions based on criteria set by the state. It is curiosity which drives the process of education and not compulsion and conformity. Famous educationist Sir Ken Robinson views the conformity system in education as directly affecting creativity in schools. What is killed in the process is imagination and innovative practices.
Many of the stakeholders continue to believe that the state could do more in the field of education. They perceive education in a principal-agent framework. The assumption is that education can be made attractive through incentives by the state made to its agents. However, this is a complex web. It is extremely difficult to identify the kind of incentive (whether midday meals or umbrellas or cash transfers) that could attract children to classes or for that matter who should be receiving it (teachers or students or parents). Identifying incentives to lure children to the classes has been a traditional response of the state to show inflated enrolment figures. But it is obvious that these incentives which ranged from scholarships to free umbrellas have not solved the issue at least for groups like the ST students in the districts that we visited. It largely reflects the cost of resources and man power wasted on these efforts. Several options came up during our discussions and most of it had direct implications on the taxpayers’ money. A consensus on the right incentive and the right target was never reached.
So we were forced to ask the question: Has Kerala failed to identify the right kind of incentive to cure the second generation challenge, or have we failed to expand the scope and purpose of education? Such an expansion in scope and purpose, we believe, ought to be the priority considering the fact that information technology and communication is developing at an unprecedented pace as never before. Apart from the innumerable problems highlighted by experts for the increase in dropout rates the most obvious was the state of poverty which had direct influence on high dropouts of ST students. This is indeed a major issue that needs to be addressed.
There are no simple steps to solve poverty but there are underlying issues which if addressed could provide people with alternatives. In our discussion with experts what was repeated time and again was the view that the ST dropouts were students who were waiting to be helped. ST groups were always categorised as the “others” who never understood the importance of education. Hence policies targeting specific groups were forcing them to join the mainstream and perform standardized tasks. In education what we saw was that such standardizations backfired. Sitting in class was often difficult beyond a few hours for some of these students. The problem is simple when it is assumed and believed that ST students who dropout are not rational enough to understand the need for education. However, the state and its administrative instruments bypasses the need to re-examine its lags and problems. It need not be that the “others” are irrational it can be that the administration is “irrational”. Poverty limits mobility as well as the ability to choose from different options. When the government subsidises and directs the process of education to particular groups it is reaffirming limited mobility and choice for these groups. How? When you are paid to stay in the same place and to educate under the similar circumstances there seems little choice or incentive for you to move ahead.
It was quiet evident in our discussion with peoples representatives and teachers unions that they prefer the status quo with greater intervention from the government at various levels. These have created denser bureaucratic networks and newer constituencies of people looking forward to depend on these networks. In time this has also reduced incentives to depend on individual insights and experiences to move ahead.
There is a brewing crisis in Kerala’s school education. This is reflected in several recent studies most notably by Annual Survey of Education Report (2014) and NCERT. The findings of the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) in 2012 was substantiated by these findings. All these findings indicated that the Kerala was indeed losing its position as a forerunner in school level achievements. The case of Wayanad and Palakkad were pointers towards the gaps in educational achievements. A very minimal number of students master the ability to read and write when they progress through the schooling system in Kerala. Although there is sufficient access to higher education, failure of the school level system significantly influence the quality of higher education in the state. The phenomenon of near universal pass at the tenth grade by giving extra marks to students who even fail to achieve ten marks for individual exams displays gross misunderstandings on what education implies. The state follows a system which endorses a ‘certificate economy’ as a prerequisite for jobs. This in turn undermines the ‘skill economy’ which should have taken its place. It is high time that we expand and widen the scope of the term ‘education’ providing it with the option of flexibility as per the demand.
* The Authors are Chairman and Research Consultant of CPPR. Their views are personal and does not represent the views of CPPR.
This the second part of the Series which appeared in Pallikkuttam magazine brought out by Rajagiri Educational Institution. Read the first part of the series here https://www.cppr.in/article/debating-keralas-claims-on-literacy/