Landmark survey tracks decade of changes in India’s rural schools

Michelle Hibler



“… if he studies, he won’t have to do daily wage labour… he can get a small job or do some work somewhere. He can read and understand for himself…”

“…if the need arises, she can take up a job. An educated girl is not dependent on anyone…”

“… education is essential to make a living, to have respect in society, and to be joined with those who are making progress.”

These are just a few comments from parents of school-aged children in rural north India, most of them uneducated, all hoping for better lives for their children. These parents were from the close to 1,600 households surveyed in 2006 to assess changes in primary education in villages of north Indian states, a decade after a first survey. The resulting Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) made a significant contribution to primary education policy in India. IDRC supported both surveys.
Researchers based at the Institute of Social Studies Trust in New Delhi found many improvements over the decade. They also identified areas in which more remains to be done.
For the better

In recent decades, the Indian government launched a number of policies and programs to improve elementary education and access to it. Among them, a National Policy on Education in 1986 was followed by Operation Blackboard to improve facilities. The 42-district District Primary Education Programme of 1994, aimed at universalizing primary education, had spread to 272 districts in 18 states by 2000. All of India was targeted by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program, launched in 2002 to provide universal primary education through community ownership of the school system.
As detailed in PROBE revisited: A report on elementary education in India, a great deal of progress has been made: more government schools have been built and even more now have better facilities — two weather-proof classrooms instead of one, for instance, drinking water, and toilets. More than 85% of schools serve a hot mid-day meal; in 1996, only 63% of school provided food assistance, usually in the form of dry grain to be taken home.
Meals may be one reason for the surge in school enrolment: in 1996, 20% of 612 year olds were not in school. That dropped to barely 5% in 2006. The researchers surmise that government incentives, such as free uniforms — now provided in half the schools — also contribute to higher school participation. So do free textbooks, now distributed in almost all primary schools.
Community involvement in the schools has increased: about 75% have village education committees. Equally important, says the report, “stark social disparities in school enrolment have virtually disappeared at the primary level, whether it is the gap between boys and girls, or between children of different communities.”
For the worse

The bad news is that just as much has not improved. Despite a massive recruitment of teachers, the teacher-pupil ratio is still high. And, notes the report, as in 1996, many schools are failing to deliver education: “close to half the schools did not have a single teacher teaching” at the time of the team’s unannounced visit, say the authors. “Some teachers were absent, others were found to be sipping tea, knitting, or whiling away time simply chatting.” And “even in schools where teaching was going on, children were getting a raw deal,” says the report. “Mindless rote learning still dominates the classroom.”

Other concerns:
  • more than half the schools lacked a head teacher
  • 19% percent of schools had only one teacher for all classes
  • nearly 40% of teachers were “contract teachers” with little training or experience
  •  school enrolment does not mean attendance: only 66% of primary school students were marked present. Actual attendance was even lower.

The efforts continue

Nevertheless, the authors conclude that “the ‘good news section’ is perhaps more substantial than one might have predicted in 1996 at the time of the completion of the PROBE report.” And while there are no instant fixes to the problems that persist, they point to the 2009 Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act as “a tool that can be used in various ways to bring about further change.”

And there is a model, they say, in Himachal Pradesh, where a “schooling revolution” has taken place. The authors ascribe that to responsible management of the traditional schooling system, based on government schools and regular teachers, “with a little help from a relatively egalitarian social context.”

Michelle Hibler is Chief, Writing, Translation, and Publishing of IDRC’s Communications Division.


PROBE revisited, by Anuradha De, Reetika Khera, Meera Samson, and A. K. Shiva Kumar, was published by Oxford University Press in 2011. The PROBE project was a collaborative venture between the Institute of Social Studies Trust, New Delhi and CORD (Collaborative Research and Dissemination), funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).