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An Overview Of The Education For The Poor

We, in India, have a two-tier education system: one for the children of the well-off, who will be taught with the highest standards in expensive private schools; and one for the rest of the population. Education for the poor essentially delivers nothing to a very large and significant fraction of children, mainly hailing from the poor background.

A finding by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) suggested that close to 35% of the children in the 7-14 age group could not read even a simple paragraph and almost 60% of children couldn’t read a simple story. Only 30% could do simple mathematics. The results pertaining to mathematics were particularly stunning: little boys and girls who help their parents in their family stall or store do much more complicated calculations all the time, without the help of pen and paper. Then is education for the poor so bad in our country, that schools are actually making them unlearn?

How & Why Do They Drop Out From Schools?

From the outside, the efforts to improve facilities for education of the poor seem to be futile. The debate here about education isn’t whether education, per se, is good or bad. Everybody, rich as well as the poor, will agree that it is better to be educated than not. Then why don’t they educate their kids?

Schools, whether public or private, are present in most of the villages as well as in the cities. They are even free, at least till the primary level. But it has been observed that parents don’t want their kids ‘idling’ at home or the kids find their school boring. Absenteeism, however, isn’t necessarily driven by an obvious ‘need’ at home. For parents and children, the value of the foregone earnings and the forgone labor-market experience, is much larger because teenage children can work and earn money. Much of it also reflects children’s unwillingness to be in school (which might be universal, remember your childhood?), or perhaps the fact that parents do not seem to be able, or willing, to make them go. Health is also a primary concern.

Also, education isn’t just another form of investment, as we simply like to call it. Education for the poor involves the parents doing the investing and the kids reaping the benefits, maybe much later in their lives. Poor parents, however, are in a position of ‘power’ relative to their children: they decide who goes to school, who stays home or goes out to work, how their earnings are spent etc. Parents who are cynical about how much they would get out of a son’s earnings once he is old enough to push back, and who do not value education for its own sake, may prefer to take him out of school and send him to work when he is ten.

Although the economic return of education clearly matters, lots of other things probably matter as well, like hopes about the future, our expectations about our children, even how generous we feel towards them. A combination of unrealistic goals, unnecessarily pessimistic expectations and the wrong incentives for teachers contribute to ensure that the education for the poor fails in its most basic task. The poor eventually end up in schools that make it very clear that they are not wanted unless they show exceptional gifts and talents, while the well-off are treated with maximum compassion and are helped wholeheartedly to reach their potential. Thus, even the teachers ignore the children who have fallen behind and as a result, their parents stop taking interest in their education. This creates a trap. And if they give up, they might never find out whether their child could have made it or not. In contrast, for the well-off’s in urban areas, either the families assume that their children can make it, or they don’t want to accept that a child will remain uneducated.

Kids who drop out from the schools are thus victims of misjudgement at some point in their lives: maybe the parents who gave up too soon, or the teachers who never tried to teach them, or perhaps the student’s own diffidence. And the slots or vacancies that they leave behind are grabbed, in all likelihood, by the mediocre children of those parents who could afford to offer their children every possible opportunity to make it good. Also, students getting out of public or even private schools does not necessarily mean that they could not work better. Perhaps, there isn’t enough competitive pressure among the schools, or perhaps the parents are not sufficiently informed about what they should do.

The Way Out: Examples From The Past

During the Green revolution in India which phenomenally increased the technical know-how of farmers, the educated farmers earned significantly more than the uneducated ones. Thus, education increased faster in areas that were better suited to the seeds introduced by the Green Revolution. In these villages, girls were slightly more likely to be found enrolled in a school, suggesting that they were being taken care of in a better way. Parents then realized that educating their children had some significant economic value and hence they were happy to ‘invest’ in it. They also understood that education had a huge positive impact on various medical as well as social issues like child mortality, early marriage and teen pregnancy. Wages were also higher for those who received education. The educated people could read newspapers and find out when there is a government program available for them, and hence they were more likely to get a formal-sector job, even with those who were not able to run their businesses or practice agriculture better.

Education For All: The Need Of The Day

A civilized society simply cannot allow a child’s right to get a normal childhood and a decent education to be held hostage to their parent’s whims or greed. It will, no doubt, take some considerable effort for putting the poor on the same footing with the elite; but if there is a strong willingness in the system to really help them, they might have a fair chance for the same.

We need both: the government aided as well as privately funded focused education programs designed in such a way that they can survive and sustain the change of government in every few years. The unanimous political consensus, like we saw in the passage of the Right To Education Act, is desirable or even necessary. But without a change in the pedagogy or incentives, new inputs will not help too much.

Read more about education for the poor in our country, the reasons for its failure and the solutions.


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