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India has a long way to go until kids’ learning levels improve, Pratham’s Rukmini Banerji says

Recipient of the 2021 Yida Prize for Education Development, Dr Rukmini Banerji said the education sector in India still has a long way to go.

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New Delhi: The policy framework for the new National Education Policy (NEP) may be in place, but collaboration among various government departments is the only way forward, said Dr Rukmini Banerji, CEO of the Pratham Education Foundation.

In an interview with ThePrint, Banerji, who was the recipient of the prestigious 2021 Yidan Prize for Education Development, cited the example of pre-schools and anganwadis (child care centres in rural areas) to elucidate her point.

“If we want to get the maximum out of pre-schools and anganwadis then the system needs to set common goals and work towards it, for now pre-schools are under the Ministry of Women and Child. Their goals are different from that of the Department of School Education, so the way in which schemes are treated on the ground for the same children, are different by different departments,” she said.

The NEP is based on a 5+3+3+4 structure wherein a strong base of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) from age 3 is also included.

Speaking about receiving the Yidan prize on 28 September, a top recognition in the field of education offered by the global philanthropic foundation Yidan Prize Foundation, Banerji said that the motto of her organisation remains the same — “Every child in school and learning well”.

However, she added, “As a country till the time the ASER numbers improve we have a long way to go.”

The Annual Status for Education Report (ASER), an annual report released by Pratham, provides estimates of children’s enrolment and basic learning levels for each district and state in India.

The latest version of the report, released last year, had highlighted the disruption caused to education in India due to the Covid-19 pandemic, indicated by a shift of students from private to government schools in rural areas.

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Inception of ASER 

Banerji’s brainchild, ASER began in 2005 and since then has become an annual database of the learning levels of Indian students in urban and rural areas.

“We were in the process of developing a reading platform across the country. To develop our own understanding we had to find out the learning level amongst children. There was an increasing number of enrollments but the learning outcomes were still not desirable, parents would blame the teachers for it and vice versa. We wanted to find out what it really is,” she said.

Banerji and her team at Pratham brainstormed to find the one factor that determines learning outcomes and works across states, systems and languages for children.

“We came to the conclusion that reading was the most important parameter to gauge learning. Understanding and being able to read the alphabet is something that students need to do across subjects,” said the Pratham CEO.

She added: “Math needs the student to understand the question, which is written in words to be able to solve the problem. So we decided to use the learning outcome in reading as a measure.”

Initially, the project was meant to determine learning levels in rural areas but it eventually developed into ASER, a national-level report.

According to Banerji, the simple act of conducting the survey impacted not just children but entire villages.

“During our initial days of survey we realised that every time an educator would sit with a child and give them personal attention it would impact the child positively. We saw increased participation from children, at the same time when we would hold the survey and talk to the children, parents and teachers would show interest in the conversation. This is how a conversation started with stakeholders and we saw increased participation,” she said.

Also read: Over 2.9 crore children in India don’t have access to digital devices, govt report reveals

‘There was a need for applied research in India’

Banerji was trained as an economist at St Stephen’s College in New Delhi and the Delhi School of Economics.

She was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University from 1981 to 1983, and completed her PhD at the University of Chicago in 1991. Banerji returned to India in 1996 and joined Pratham.

On returning to India and joining the education sector, she said, “It wasn’t like a grand plan but when I came here for my month-long break, I saw that there was a need for applied research in the country. People either studied one school or an entire city as whole, local authorities at the same time did not have any research or data on schools.”

Banerji noted that much of her work has been inspired by the development of education in Chicago.

“When I saw in Chicago in the 1990s the public school system there was undergoing major change. While it was very common for them there, the Indian system of education was in need of such changes. The lack of ground research and data in cities like Mumbai and Delhi prompted me to stay back and do that work in the country,” she said.

Also read: Why 1.25 lakh private school students in Telangana moved to govt schools in 2021


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