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Indian Strategies to Achieve Universalisation of Elementary Education

K. Gopalan

Four and a half decades ago, we in India had taken a pledge through our Constitution that within a period of ten years from 1950, free and compulsory elementary education would be provided to all children up to 14 years of age. Since 1950, determined efforts were made towards the achievement of this goal. Over the years, there have been very impressive increases in the number and spread of institutions as well as enrolment. Today, India has about 574,000 primary schools (classes I-V) and 156,000 upper primary schools (classes VI-VIII), the number of teachers in them being 1.705 million and 1.082 million respectively. The enrolment at the primary and upper primary stages is 109 million and 40 million respectively. The Indian elementary education system is thus one of the biggest such systems in the world, providing accessibility within 1 km to over 825,000 habitations covering 94 per cent of the country’s population. During the past one decade the enrolment rate has grown close to 100 per cent at the primary stage.

However, universalisation of elementary education (UEE) in its totality is still an elusive goal and much ground is yet to be covered. Drop-out rates continue to be high (36.3 per cent in classes I-V and 53 per cent in classes VI-VIII), retention of children in schools is poor, achievement levels are low, and wastage is considerable. Despite increased participation of girls, disparity still exists, more particularly among scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs). In the National Policy on Education (NPE) 1986, with revised modifications in 1992, we resolved to achieve the goal of UEE by the turn of the century, emphasising three aspects: universal access and enrolment, universal retention up to 14 years of age, and a substantial improvement in the quality of education. The resolve is spelt out unequivocally and emphatically in the programme of action (POA) 1992, which gave unqualified priority to UEE. One is therefore pinning great hopes on the new innovations and alternative strategies which are being applied to ensure that the shortcomings and inadequacies, which did not allow us to realise this goal so far, are overcome, and the new resolve will not have to be extended further.

The Education for All (EFA) Summit of the nine high-population countries held in New Delhi in December 1993, which was an offshoot of the World Conference on Education for All held in Jomtien, Thailand, in March 1990, culminated in a policy declaration and framework of strategies for its implementation. The policy declaration called for providing basic education facilities for every child and consolidating efforts towards basic education for children, youth and adults. In the context of an integrated approach of basic education for all people, literacy and adult education programmes are to be improved and extended, eliminating disparities of access and improving the quality and relevance of basic education. It can be said that the Indian NPE 1986 and its POA 1992, while resolving to ensure free and compulsory education of satisfactory quality to all children up to 14 years of age by the year 2000, adumbrated the policy statement made at the EFA Summit.

The purpose of this paper is to briefly describe some of the new innovations and strategies that are being applied in India today to achieve UEE by the turn of this century.

New Innovations and Alternative Strategies

Some of the major initiatives and strategies are:

  • Disaggregated target setting and decentralised microplanning, which will provide the framework of universal access and community participation.

  • Strengthening alternative channels of schooling such as the non-formal education (NFE) system for those who cannot avail of conventional full-time schooling.

  • Introduction of minimum levels of learning (MLLs) at primary and upper primary stages to improve learner’s achievement.

  • Improvement of school facilities by revamping the scheme of Operation Blackboard (OB) and connecting it to the MLL strategy.

  • Establishing linkages between programmes of early childhood care and education (ECCE), primary education, literacy and UEE.

  • Addressing the more difficult aspects of access, particularly to girls, disadvantaged groups and out-of-school children.

  • Restructuring of teacher training in view of the changed strategies and programmes.

  • Availing of external financial support for basic education.

  • Launching the National Elementary Education Mission (NEEM).

Disaggregated Target Getting and Decentralised Microplanning

Our experience with UEE encompasses the entire Third World experience. On the one hand, we have States like Kerala, which have achieved universal literacy as well as UEE in terms of school participation with social indicators as good as those of the best among the Third World countries. On the other, we have States like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, with indicators as bad as those of the Sub-Saharan countries.

One of the new strategies to achieve UEE is adoption of disaggregated target setting and decentralised planning. Our long experience with the pursuit of UEE has established that UEE is contextual. The contextuality varies widely across the country. Even in a State like Kerala, where participation is near universal, much requires to be done in respect of quality and achievement. In such states, the pursuit of UEE would be mainly in the areas of quality, facilities and achievement, while in other states participation and demand aspects would need more attention. Therefore, the attempt would be to prepare district-specific and population-specific plans for UEE within the broad strategy frame of microplanning through people’s participation. Microplanning has been defined as a family-wise and child-wise design of action to ensure that every child regularly attends a school or an NFE centre and completes 8 years of schooling at a pace suitable to him or her and attains an essential level of learning.

Guidelines for operationalising microplanning have been prepared and distributed to the state governments. The concepts of microplanning and local level capacity building have been given currency and efforts launched to decentralise educational planning and management. Microplanning exercises have already been undertaken in several states to ensure that all children receive primary education of satisfactory quality either through formal schools or through part-time NFE centres.

To operationalise the strategy for UEE through disaggregated target setting and decentralised planning, a new scheme titled District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) has been evolved. The concept of DPEP is a beachhead for effecting improvements and full-scale development of the entire elementary education sector. The overall goal of the programme is the reconstruction of primary education as a whole in the districts instead of piecemeal implementation of the various schemes. The fundamental principle of DPEP is capacity building at all levels to evolve further strategies which are replicable and sustainable. The specific objectives of the programme are:

  • to reduce differences in enrolment, drop-out and learning achievement among gender and social groups to less than 5 per cent

  • to reduce the overall primary drop-out rate to less than 10 per cent

  • to raise average achievement levels by at least 25 per cent over measured baseline levels and ensure achievements of basic literacy and numeracy competencies and a minimum of 40 per cent achievement levels in other competencies by all primary school children,

  • to provide, according to national norms, access for all children to primary education classes (I-V), i.e., primary schooling wherever possible or its equivalent non-formal education.

The programme would strengthen the capacity of national, state and district institutions and organisations for the planning, management and evaluation of primary education. NEEM has recently been set up to oversee, among other things, the implementation of this programme throughout the country.

Alternative Channels of Education such as  the Non-Formal Education (NFE) System

Non-formal education has become an accepted alternative channel of education for children who cannot attend full-time schools due to various socio-economic constraints. To reach this large segment of marginalised children, we in India have been running, since 1979-80, a programme of NFE for children in the 6-14 age group, who have remained outside the formal system. These include drop-outs from formal schools, children from habitations without schools, working children, children who have to remain at home to do domestic chores, and girls who are unable to attend formal schools for a variety of reasons.

The enlarged and modified version of the NFE programme now in operation visualises NFE as a child-centred, environment-oriented and flexible system to meet the diverse educational needs of the geographically and socio-economically deprived sections of society. Non-formal education is designed to overcome the shortcomings of the formal school and make education a joyful activity. Decentralised community participation through village education committees (VECs) in planning, running and overseeing the programme has been considered crucial for its success. Although the focus of the programme is on the educationally backward states, it also covers urban slums and hilly tribal and desert areas in other states as well. Today, the programme is being implemented in 20 states and union territories through the state governments and voluntary organisations. While there are more than 226,000 NFE centres in the state sector, there are about 29,000 run by voluntary agencies. About 44 per cent of all the NFE centres are exclusively for girls, who are the main victims of socio-cultural and socio-economic factors. The estimated enrolment capacity is about 6.3 million children. Under the NFE programme, efforts are now being made to further improve quality, allow greater flexibility to implementing agencies and relocate NFE centres on the basis of microplanning/area survey. The NFE programme is being linked to ground realities, allowing for continuous experimentation. Development and scaling-up of effective NFE models that can help the learners to learn at their own pace is a major thrust area.

Minimum Levels of Learning (MLL)

The need to lay down minimum levels of learning (MLL) emerged from the basic concern that irrespective of caste, creed, location or sex, all children must be given access to education of a comparable standard. The MLL strategy is an attempt to combine quality with equity. It lays down learning outcomes in the form of competencies or levels of learning for each stage of elementary education. The strategy also prescribes adoption of measures that will ensure achievement of these levels by children both in formal schools and in NFE centres.

The focus of the MLL strategy is development of competency-based teaching and learning. Preliminary assessment of the existing levels of learning achievements has revealed that they are quite low across several districts. Minimum levels of learning in respect of three subjects, namely language, mathematics and environmental studies, have already been laid down for the primary stage. It has been stressed that the emphasis should be on concept formation rather than on content. The burdens of non-comprehension and overload of content are forcing children to resort to rote memorisation. The issues of content versus concept, understanding versus rote memorisation, unachievable content load versus achievable set of competencies, have been integrated into the new MLL approach. Minimum levels of learning have been specified in terms of competencies expected to be mastered by every child by the end of a particular class. The programme has been initiated throughout the country with the help of voluntary agencies, research institutions and others concerned. Minimum levels of learning for the upper primary stage are now being finalised.

Revamping the Scheme of Operation Blackboard (OB)

Recognising the unattractive school environment, unsatisfactory condition of school buildings, inadequate physical facilities, and insufficiency of instructional materials in primary schools, which function as demotivating factors for enrolment and retention, a scheme symbolically called Operation Blackboard was introduced in 1987-88 to bring all existing primary schools in the country to a minimum standard of physical facilities. Under this scheme, each school is provided with: (i) at least two reasonably large all-weather rooms along with separate toilet facilities for boys and girls; (ii) at least two teachers (one male and one female); and (iii) essential teaching and learning materials including blackboards, maps, charts, a small library, toys and games, and some equipment for work experience.

External evaluation of the scheme indicated the lack of training of teachers in using the teaching materials, specification of a large number of uniform facilities to be provided without modification according to local needs, and lack of provision for breakage of equipment. Effective steps have since been taken to remove these drawbacks. The scheme of Operation Blackboard has also been modified and expanded to provide a third room and a third teacher to primary schools where enrolment exceeds 100, and it has been extended to upper primary schools. The scheme is concentrating on rural areas and SC/ST areas, and girls’ schools are being given the first priority.

Establishing Linkages between Programmes of early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), Primary Education, Literacy and UEE

Early childhood care and education (ECCE) is viewed as a crucial input in the strategy of human resource development, as a feeder and support programme for primary education, and as a support service for working women of the disadvantaged sections of society. Since the age-span covered by ECCE is from conception to 6 years, emphasis has been given to a child-centred approach and play-way and activity-based learning in place of formal methods of teaching including introduction of the 3 Rs. Keeping in mind the role of ECCE as a support service in UEE, it is deliberately directed to the most underprivileged groups, those who are still outside the mainstream of formal education. The aim of ECCE is that every child should be assured access to the fulfilment of all basic needs. It involves the total development of the child in every aspect including the physical, psychomotor, cognitive, language, emotional, social and moral. The present ECCE programmes include:

  • the integrated child development service (ICDS)

  • the scheme of assistance to voluntary organisations for running early child education (ECE) centres

  • balwadis and day-care centres run by voluntary agencies with government assistance

  • pre-primary schools run by state governments, municipal corporations and other agencies

  • maternal and child health services through primary health centres, sub-centres and other agencies

The ICDS is today the biggest programme of early childhood development, serving about 15 million children and 3 million mothers.

Appropriate linkages are being established between ECCE programmes, primary schools, NFE centres and other related schemes of UEE.

Promotion of Access to Girls and Disadvantaged Groups

As with all educational indicators, gender disparities are conspicuous in regard to enrolment and retention. Over the past 25 years, enrolment of girls at the primary stage has grown from 5 million to 47 million and at the upper primary stage, from 0.5 million to 16 million. But disparities persist. Today girls account for only 46 per cent of the enrolment at the primary stage and 38 per cent at the upper primary stage. The drop-out rates of girls at the primary and upper primary stages are higher than those of boys. Regional disparities are also conspicuous. The very low female literacy (20 to 29 per cent) in some of the major north Indian states causes grave concern. The rural girls are doubly disadvantaged by non-availability of educational facilities and by their domestic chores.

Concerted efforts are now on to reach out to the girl child in rural and remote areas and urban slums by designing special NFE programmes with a view to getting them back into the formal stream. The NFE programmes are being dovetailed into the total literacy campaigns (TLC) to reach out to the girls in the 10-20 age group. Programmes for continuing education are being designed to ensure that neo-literates and school-going girls have access to reading materials.

An important constraining factor for female education is the lack of women teachers in rural areas. Therefore, special efforts are being made to recruit women teachers and to augment teacher training facilities for women so that adequate numbers of qualified women teachers are available. Co-ordinated efforts are also on to provide the necessary support services to enhance their participation and performance.

We in India are unambiguous about removal of disparities and attainment of equality of education opportunities for SCs, STs and other backward sections including girls. A number of strategies aimed at accelerating their rate of enrolment and retention have been detailed and are being implemented. Because of the affirmative policies of the government, the enrolment of these categories has increased considerably at the primary stage. The participation of SCs and STs at the primary level is more or less in proportion to their share in the population. Drop-outs, though declining, continue to be significantly large [primary stage (classes I-V), SC 49 per cent, ST 64 per cent; upper primary stage (classes VI-VIII), SC 68 per cent, ST 79 per cent]. Gender disparities are conspicuous among SCs and STs.

To ensure universal access and enrolment of SC children in rural areas, priority is given to the needs of SC habitations and hamlets in opening primary and upper primary schools. For SC children access and enrolment are assured primarily in the formal schools. Where they are not able to attend these, provision is made for non-formal and distance education centres. Every ST habitation is being provided with a primary school or other suitable institution. In tribal areas, the educational plan is being implemented in an integrated manner. Pre-school education, non-formal education, elementary education and adult education are being organically linked and integrated to ensure achievement of total literacy of the entire population.

Adequate incentives are given to the children of SC, ST and other backward sections in the form of scholarships, uniforms, textbooks, stationery and midday meals. All schools, NFE centres, and pre-school centres in SC/ST habitations are being equipped with necessary infrastructural facilities in accordance with the norms laid down for Operation Blackboard and for achieving MLL. Operation Blackboard has already covered almost all schools in tribal areas. Indigent SC/ST families are given incentives to send their children, particularly girls, to school.

Restructuring of Teacher Training

Teacher performance is the most crucial input in the field of education. In the ultimate analysis, the national policies on education have to be interpreted and implemented by teachers as much through their personal example as through teaching-learning processes. With a view to improving the quality and competence of teachers, a centrally sponsored scheme of Restructuring and Reorganisation of Teacher Education (RRTE) was launched in 1987.

During the period 1987-90, nearly 1.8 million teachers were trained under the programme of mass orientation of school teachers (PMOST). Most of them were primary and upper primary teachers. The main objective of the programme was to orient teachers in the main priorities and directions envisaged in the NPE 1986 and to improve their professional competence.

Among the other main components of the RRTE, as far as elementary education is concerned, are:

  1. setting up of District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) in all districts to provide good quality pre-service and in-service training to elementary school teachers and adult education/non-formal education personnel and to provide resource support to these systems

  2. organising Special Orientation Programmes for Primary Teachers (SOPT) with a view to providing training to teachers in the use of OB materials and orienting them towards MLL strategy with a focus on teaching of language, mathematics and environmental studies

More than 300 DIETs have already become operational and have started conducting training programmes. The SOPT launched in 1993-94 is now going on in almost all states and more than 115,000 teachers have already been trained. A National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) was set up in 1993 with statutory status for the effective implementation of all teacher education and training programmes and to achieve planned and co-ordinated development of the entire teacher education system throughout the country. The regulation and proper maintenance of norms and standards in the teacher education system is the responsibility of the NCTE.

Availing of External Financial Support for Basic Education

As a matter of policy and principle, India had not been seeking financial support from external agencies to implement its programmes of basic education. This situation changed in 1991-92, when a conscious and strategic decision was taken to avail of external assistance to achieve the goal of Education for All (EFA).

Today a number of agencies including the World Bank, Unesco, Unicef, Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), International Development Association (IDA), and the British Overseas Development Agency (ODA) are sharing our concerns in this area. A new phase has, therefore, emerged — a phase of partnership between the inherent potential of the country and financial and other support from external agencies.

Launching the National Elementary Education Mission (NEEM)

With the objective of mobilising all the resources — human, financial and institutional — necessary for achieving the goal of UEE by the year 2000, a National Elementary Education Mission (NEEM) was set up in August 1995 with the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) as its core. This Mission will monitor and implement all the meticulously formulated strategies based on microplanning, and will ensure that free and compulsory education of satisfactory quality is provided to all children up to 14 years of age by the turn of the century.


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