Pratham, an education NGO based in Mumbai, recently facilitated and led a nation-wide survey on the status of education. This was not an elaborate survey but one that stuck to the basics: standard 2 competencies in language and math were tested for all children in the 6-14 years age group; schools were checked for pupil-teacher ratios (PTR) and basic infrastructure. The entire exercise was conducted by a total of 776 NGOs and institutions from all over the country, and published in the First Annual Survey of Education Report. This is no small feat, in an environment where political coalitions of a handful of parties find it hard to work together for progress.

It should both numb us and excite us that we have nearly 190 million children in the 6-14 years age group. What is exciting about this number is the tremendous human resources we have access to if we are able to train and tap this huge pool of young citizens; on the other hand what is numbing is that any statistic beyond this tells you that our problems are in the many millions. What do I mean? ASER says that 51.9% of children cannot read Standard 2 level material – this means 98 million children need remedial help in language. ASER says that 65.5% of the children cannot do division – this means that 124 million need remedial help in arithmetic. How we hope to do this by 2010 - when the mandate of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan ends?

Still, an exercise like ASER offers some hope too. What gets measured gets done - this is an old adage that can serve us best here. ASER has taken the first step and measured the problems we face. Understanding the hurdles we face in concrete terms should now allow us to do something about them.

ASER tells us that enrolment in schools is a whopping 93.4%, which in real terms means 12.5 million children - equal to over half the population of Australia - are not in school.

 •  A citizens' audit of education
 •  Series: Lens on Education
 •  "My name is Minu Bora"
 •  ASER findings (63 Kb, PDF).

But what? It is clear that governments alone cannot make the necessary transformation of our education landscape happen – high enrolment numbers have only very recently been achieved in many states, and this is just the first step. Unless civil society steps in to help and supplement the government's efforts, we will not be able to show progress in our children's learning abilities. Which means that just like ASER managed to pull together 776 NGOs, we must be able to pull together a coalition of many institutions and agree with the government on a common framework of supplementing school efforts so that children are able to be proficient in language and math.

There are some examples of these, including at Pratham; for example, the Accelerated Learning Programmes pioneered by Pratham have been tested successfully with thousands of children all over the country. Such proven solutions for enhancing learning could be implemented right away.

Implementation of innovative programs on a larger scale should also be tied to yardsticks to measure progress in public education. We need to set our goals for every year until the goal of ensuring that all children are in school and learning well is met. Such yardsticks should be in the form of acceptable outcomes for all children. The data from the first ASER suggests that mere enrolment is no guarantee of good outcomes, and our measures of success should therefore be more precisely tied to children's capabilities acquired through schooling. Some examples of these are that children should be:

  • able to read, write, and do basic arithmetic by Standard 3.
  • able to write in their first language
  • able to comprehend unfamiliar texts
  • aware of basic health and sanitation issues.

Other similar criteria can also be developed; this is absolutely necessary to ensure that our efforts at tackling illiteracy are meaningful. Between the Central government and State governments, we spend about Rs.60,000 crores every year on elementary education. Once such goals - and criteria to measure progress towards the goals - are set, we can calculate our returns on the investments made each year. Without such measurement enormous sums of money will continue to be spent each year - in some areas there is more money spent per child in government schools than even private schools! - and yet the outcomes will remain abysmal. Only when there is accountability in the system in the form of measured outcomes corresponding to expenditure, will reforms truly be achieved.

Reforms in education are certainly necessary on a massive scale, but these are not necessarily complex. It does, however, require a different mindset – education ministries at the Centre and States must begin to believe in the power of citizen participation in the management and operations of schools. School managements, as well as parents must be provided a strong sense of ownership in the education system; if this happens we could see a quick reversal of fortunes. We do not need committees that will spend weeks and months to arrive at well-known lists of problems and predictable recommendations. What we need is a slogan-like approach - Just Do It - that makes school managements responsible for the performance of the children, and holds them accountable to outcomes through strong parental participation. An objective set of criteria to measure performance will benefit this process, and get it rolling.

ASER will be back at the same time next year to repeat its measurements. What can we expect to see next year, and every subsequent year until 2010. Will we be able to say each year - with demonstrable progress indicated in the measurements - that our children are able to read and count better, and that the Millennium Development Goal of ensuring meaningful universal education will be met?