A field visit and the importance of the context

A few months ago, I travelled to the district of Pali, Rajasthan, for my first field visit. It was an essential step from the program model in black and white on the paper to complex, multicolour reality with its infinity of details. Among other observations made in the 5 schools we went to, accompanied by field coordinators and volunteers, two major takeaways stuck out.

Firstly, visitors can only be struck by the students’ eagerness to learn. We had the opportunity to witness how activities of our Creative Learning and Teaching set were implemented. The first activity was to build one’s name with Hindi letters spread on the ground. One child at a time was squatting in the middle of the circle, which, I first thought, could be quite boring for the other children sitting around, especially given the number of them! Not in the least bit. They all watched intently, some of them even joining the centre to assist their classmate. The second activity was an English letter recognition exercise. Each child would visibly hold in their hands a letter of the English alphabet, while a child standing in the centre was given the instruction to find the “M” for instance. If s/he found it, the child holding the “M” was to quickly tell another letter so as to keep the child in the centre running. Everyone was enjoying themselves, laughing and learning.

CLT Hindi CLT English

In this residential school (KGBV), 19 out of about 80 girls were enrolled by Educate Girls

In this residential school (KGBV), 19 out of about 80 girls were enrolled by Educate Girls

The second takeaway concerned the context, or what some call “external independent variables”. Indeed, models are never implemented in a social vacuum. Context matters and influences the outcomes, be it positively or negatively. (As far as revelations are concerned, it’s a bit lame, I know). Here, such variables include the infrastructure for example. Some classrooms had bare walls, while alphabets, images or maps would hang in other ones. These small details can create an environment more conducive to learning. Social actors also have a role, and both the volunteers’ level of involvement and the teachers’ attitude towards Educate Girls and their degree of professionalism can affect the success of our program, boosting or restricting it. If teachers are laid-back and expect nothing but their monthly pay, it would certainly not help children achieve better learning outcomes or motivate a freshly enrolled girl to stay in school. But no NGO holds sway over the reform of the whole system of public education.

Headmaster's office

Headmaster’s office

School improvement plan, facilitated by Educate Girls. Most indicators are green, i.e. "good" in that school.

School improvement plan, facilitated by Educate Girls. Most indicators are green, i.e. “good” in that school.

A government school elsewhere

At the age of 16, I spent 1 year in a public high-school in Ecuador. My experience in that school was enriching and repelling at the same time. Teaching was based almost exclusively on rote learning. In the philosophy class, we literally had to copy-paste obscure write-ups about classic theorists. Unsurprisingly, no one ever came to understand Hume’s or Descartes’s thoughts, not even the teacher. Rote learning and the complete absence of reflection-based examination set perfect conditions for cheating to thrive. Crumpled paper balls would fly in the air during the exams, sometimes landing on the wrong place and causing a lot of giggling. Teachers’ absenteeism was striking. The PE teacher came a few times during the year, mostly to have us write down the dimensions of a basketball ground. But still, twice a week, we had to wear the special uniform for physical education, lest we were sent home. They were very strict on this kind of formal rules. Our maths teacher also showed up a couple of times although I don’t recall seeing him properly teaching. On his first appearance, he had actually come to sell us a CD-ROM with the solutions of the exercises (he could at least do the maths when it came to his income). Anyway, when teachers didn’t come, that is, most days, we had lots of fun, dancing on the tables and then swiftly jumping back at our desks when the inspector came in, which occurred every day though. Nevertheless, boredom overcomes one quickly. Even I wanted to drop out.

Philosophy class

Philosophy class

Physical education Every Monday morning, all students would gather in the patio to sing the national hymn, elect the “reina del colegio” or listen to the history teacher with his droopy moustache explaining that no sex before marriage was the best way to avoid pregnancy (needless to say, sexual education was not in the concepts directory of that school). Amongst the 3000-ish female students aged 12-18 of that single-sex school, few had daily contact with same-aged males. Nevertheless, and maybe because of that, many would end up pregnant and drop out – but this is a separate discussion. Alternatively, they ended up, after 12 years of schooling, not being able to conjugate the verb “to be” in English and thinking that Jesus and dinosaurs lived at quite the same time. After that year, I came back to Switzerland – a place where public schools enjoy a relatively high quality and private schools are mostly meant for low-achievers – and I had never been as happy to begin school again.

Reina del colegio

The dwarfing problems of public education

Public education, i.e. the education available to the poor, in Ecuador and certainly in a majority of developing countries, faces huge structural problems. Actions taken by NGOs or civil society bodies should be replaced, and understood, in the context of these major public policy challenges.

It is certainly not my intention to overgeneralize and throw every government teacher in the developing world into the same pot. That being said, there are without a doubt some similarities between the education available to underprivileged Ecuadorian and Indian children.

  • The teachers themselves often didn’t receive a good education; they display no apparent pedagogical formation; and the remuneration system lacks effective incentives. In Riobamba, Ecuador, a teacher had to get by on about 300 USD a month back then. In India, after a few “probation” years at a low salary, teachers’ salary suddenly shoots up. That’s where the incentive system stops, and when many teachers are said to relax their efforts. Designing an accountable, results and citizen-oriented public service and creating the right incentives for civil servants to perform, decentralizing decisions, allowing more ad-hoc flexibility, e.g. in budget allocation, etc., all of this builds core claims of the New Public Management (NPM) doctrine. NPM, albeit not lacking serious flaws, holds the seeds of a change for the better, still remains confined to a minority of public services in a minority of countries as of now. In India as almost everywhere, government jobs are still known and chosen above all for the security they provide. For instance, Indian civil servants, if they are parents, receive 2 years of parental leave with a full salary over the first 18 years of a child’s lifetime.
  • Beyond the incentive system, some room for improvement could surely be found in teachers’ formation in pedagogical schools. Plus, as an effect of an internal brain-drain, good teachers flee to private schools, thus creating a two-tier educational system. Given the primacy of education as a trigger for socio-economic development, motivated and professionally trained and behaving teachers have a key role. Girls in school
  • Partly thanks to the MDGs, education has benefitted from a big push with the subsequent cash flow from the Indian government having significant impact. However, one needs to look at where exactly the monies flow. According to the Paisa report for 2012-2013, 2% only of the public grant allocated for primary education is used on children (children’s entitlements, mainstreaming out-of-school children, remedial teaching) in Rajasthan (versus 24% in Kerala), whereas 76% of the grant was spent on teachers (an increasing share).
  • Fund-related problems reach even deeper and concern accountability and transparency. In fact, funds often fail to materialize on the ground. As a friend who used to monitor resource distribution in government schools in various States puts it, the State of Kerala ranked as a high performer because “only” about 20% of funds granted to education disappeared into other pockets.
  • Teachers’ absenteeism is an issue in Indian government schools too. The same friend told me what thankfully remains a mere anecdote. A teacher had single-handedly appointed another more or less educated person to teach in a school, whom he paid about 1/6 of his salary. Confronted with the facts, he played innocent and, rejecting any hint of guilt, placidly explained the school was too far away from his home, and as long as the children are taught… A study found that about 83 percent of teachers were present on the day the schools were visited, but only 72 percent were teaching (Educational Consultants India Limited/ SSA in 2009, Global Education First Initiative 2013, p. 6)
Children in a rural school, Chimborazo, Ecuador

Children in a rural school, Chimborazo, Ecuador

Results on quantity

The government’s big push for access to primary education has come with pressure for results. According the Right to Education Act 2013, every child in India (with a few minor exceptions) should have a school within a radius of 1-3 km. This has been achieved, with 95% children having a school within half a mile from their home, and it is a commendable result. However, it is difficult to truly grasp the full picture of education in India as it stands, given the above mentioned pressure and a certain lack of transparency.

As part of my fellowship, I spent some time collecting data. It is not quite as simple as going to the official statistic website and downloading the relevant data in a few clicks. The least we can say is that is blurry and a high tolerance for ambiguity is necessary. Depending on the source, the number of out-of-school children (OOSC) in India varies by four of five times as much: 1.7 million OOSC is what is stated by a recent UNESCO report, based on data from various government agencies versus over 6 million OOSC according to an independent survey (SRI-IMRB 2014), which is a source also used by UNESCO/UNICEF. At least, this tremendous gap is somewhat consistent with the gap existing for 2008 (2.3 mio versus 8 mio OOSC). The data published by the government concerning enrolment is criticized by a number of NGOs for showing serious underestimates.

However, here are some reliable statistics:

  • In India, enrolment figures have improved, though certainly not as much as officially claimed. Last year, there were still over 6 million out-of-school children (6-13) (SRI-IMRB 2014). And amongst those children, specific categories are over-represented: children from rural areas (5% more likely to be out of school than a child in India on average), girls, especially if they come from specific underprivileged groups (girls are 9% more likely to be out-of-school than a child in India on average).
  • Drop-out concerns particularly girls from marginalized groups such as Scheduled Casts (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), Muslims communities or from communities residing in tribal, hilly, desert, and remote habitation; their drop-out rate is considerably higher : 60.6 percent for ST girls, compared with 55.2 percent for ST boys (Global Education First Initiative, 2013).
  • Worldwide, in 2012, there were nearly 58 million children of primary school age (typically between 6 and 11 years of age) who were not enrolled in school and almost 100 million children who would not complete primary education, which amounts to 1 in 6 children in low and middle income countries, according to the UNESCO.

Boys in school

Educate Girls currently operates in 7 districts of the state of Rajasthan and focuses on enrolment, retention and learning outcomes of girls and children who mostly fit into several of the above categories (rural, girls, marginalized). The facts and figures are even gloomier for Rajasthan:

  • There are over 350,000 out-of-school girls in the state, which is 7.47% of girls (6-13) and even 8.11% in the rural part of Rajasthan (SRI-IMRB 2014).
  • Compared to the average risk for a child in India, a girl in rural India is 13% more likely to be out of school and a girl in rural Rajasthan almost three times as likely (273%). A child from a scheduled tribe in Rajasthan is twice (204%) as likely to be out of school.
  • Rajasthan is amongst the 6 states that amount for about 70% of India’s illiterate population (West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar are the others) (Dasra 2010). Along with Bihar, Rajasthan is the bottom state as far as female literacy rate is concerned: 52% female (+7 years old) can read (Census 2011, Government of India).
    Source: Government of India, Census 2011

    Source: Government of India, Census 2011

  • Attendance rate ranges somewhere between 60-69% in Rajasthan (71% in rural India overall) (ASER 2014)

To sum up, even though the number of out-of-school children has significantly decreased over the past years, multiple challenges still exist and large problem pockets remain to be filled, especially where several discrimination criteria combine, i.e. for rural, marginalized and girl children in specific states such as Rajasthan.

One more thing is sure: “access to education” does not yet mean “education”. Enrolment is pointless without ensuring the delivery of – even minimal – learning outcomes. Quality cannot be given up on. But as the UNICEF (UNICEF / Roshan Chitrakar, 2009) puts it, “[i]n the pursuit of expanding free and compulsory primary education for those who cannot afford to pay, quality is being compromised as something that can wait for future consideration.” (p. 63). “The excessive emphasis on meeting quantitative targets through free and compulsory primary education schemes is referred to as dichotomization of educational provision into ‘access first’ vs. ‘quality later’” (p. 13). Here’s the latest picture for government primary schools in rural India (statistics from ASER report 2014):

  • 48.1 % of children in Class V can read a Class II level text. The rest of the children are at different levels: close to 20% children can only read letters or not even that; 14% read words but not sentences; 19% read sentences but not longer text.
  • Only 50.5% of Class V children can do a 2-digit subtraction (and 26% a division). Close to half of all children will finish eight years of schooling but still not have learned basic skills in arithmetic.
  • These figures are substantially lower in many other states, out of which Rajasthan.

One last statistic:

  • The finance gap at global level to benefit from an expanded basic education of good quality by 2030 amounts to 22 billion USD a year… Huge? It’s 4.5 days of global military spending.


Camille is a LGT VP ICats Fellow 2015 and works as development manager at Educate Girls in Mumbai. She holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Management and has several years of professional experience in project management, communications & PR and legal & governance research. She has been committed for over a decade in a half-dozen NGOs relating to sustainable development, migrants & asylum seekers’ integration and social entrepreneurship.