Education is not simply a private affair whereby we can say that good money buys good education and little money buys not-so-good education, says Shubhashis Gangopadhyay
The Odisha government ran an interesting pilot scheme last year with the help of funding and technical assistance obtained from the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom government. My colleagues and I were involved in implementing the pilot scheme and analysing its impact.
The programme was conceived to address the issue of school dropout among girls after class VIII. This issue is especially important among scheduled caste and scheduled tribe girls. In this programme, each SC and ST girl in class IX was given a cash transfer if she maintained a school attendance rate of more than 75 per cent.
The objective of the programme was not only to reduce the dropout rate but also to improve attendance in schools. A total of 2,832 girls in 167 schools were covered.
During the course of our involvement with the pilot scheme, in addition to various surveys at various times, we also carried out a series of discussions with the programme beneficiaries and their families.
The purpose of the discussions was to gain some insights into and understanding of why such dropouts happen. Since we are talking about girls in class VIII and the district where this scheme was being undertaken was mostly rural, it was interesting to see how much of our received wisdom was actually observable in this district and how much of it was pure prejudice.
First, let us consider the reasons for dropping out. The received wisdom here is that secondary schools are further away from the village and this distance, coupled with the lack of transport and lack of safety (for girls), is a major reason why girls drop out after class VIII.
The question still remains regarding why they continue till class VIII if they want to drop out in class IX. The obvious explanation that is given is midday meals that, in many schools, are given only till class VIII. However, this increased dropout rate in higher classes is not something that is prevalent only among the poor.
If we simply look at the data, we observe that about 30 per cent of the dropouts stopped attending school because they were about to get married or had been married. Many of these girls getting married are, obviously, minors and that calls into question the awareness and sensibilities of the parents and the households where the marriages are taking place.
But the next main reason was that the girls themselves did not want to go to school. What is interesting here are the reasons for their reluctance to go to school. It was a mixture of two things: the school environment was unfriendly and the student could not understand what went on in class.
Being SC/ST girls, the environment in school could be unfriendly, especially in schools where they are in a minority among non-SC/non-ST groups. What interested us was their claim that they did not understand what went on in class. If we couple this with the fact that some parents feel that schooling is a needless activity, we actually get the major reason for not going to school: that the girls and their parents do not feel the need to go, or see the usefulness of going, to school.
Even when it comes to marriage, there are instances of minor girls eloping with their boyfriends or asking their parents to get them married and let them give up schooling. And parents themselves may arrange their daughters' marriages after class VIII because they know that the girls do not want to attend school.
Why do the girls not understand what goes on in class? Why do they realise this only after reaching class IX? The answer is immediate. Students cannot be held back in lower classes -- there is automatic promotion till class VIII. This does not encourage teachers to evaluate students and they, therefore, do not feel the need to check whether they are following the class. That happens once they come to class IX. And then it is too late to catch up and so they drop out.
The point I am trying to make here is one made to me by my good friend and economist Santhakumar. Even if you open schools, get teachers and make them come to school, the students may not come. There is a lot of focus on the supply side and that is as it should be.
However, at the same time, if we do not take into account the fact that parents and their wards are not demanding education, we will fail in our objective. Education is not simply a private affair whereby we can say that good money buys good education and little money buys not-so-good education.
Education has externalities in addition to private returns for the educated. I, an uneducated person, gains from being in a society where you, an educated person, reside. In other words, I will gain from being in an educated society rather than in an uneducated society, regardless of the level of my own education. And, therefore, if we want to build schools and hire teachers, we should.
But if our students and their parents do not want to be educated in school, we must try to figure out why. And even if we find that there is a good reason why children drop out from schools, we may not want that to happen. This is because my child going to school is good for you and your child.
I do not think we will successfully send all children to secondary school unless we adopt this approach. Discussions on schooling should not be limited to returns on education, how it will help manufacturing grow, or how we will have a knowledge-based society; we must start emphasising that getting everybody to go to school is good for everybody else.