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Educationist Dr Balaji Sampath in an interview with inmathi.com as part of its ‘Vaerkaanal’ (Finding Roots) programme, sheds light on why Tamil Nadu primary school students have fared poorly in learning and arithmetic in the survey of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER).

Sampath is the secretary of the NGO Aid India, which for 27 years has worked with poor and oppressed communities in 2000 villages, and has been educating children, including those from Scheduled Tribes such as the Irulars, in Tamil, English, arithmetic and science.

Tamil Nadu, a state well-known for having good outcomes in education in the country, has earned a bad name in the ASER survey done in November, 2022. The report found that 42 per cent of class 1 students are unable to identify numbers. Yet, the TN Education Department is not ready to accept the ASER findings.

Asked about ASER, Sampath says he himself was deeply involved in the survey from 2005 to 2011. Though not part of subsequent ASER surveys, he has read the survey reports and interpreted the data, most recently of 2018 and 2022.

Answering questions about ASER’s survey and sampling methods, he says the sampling is focused on primary school children’s learning skills and only in villages. Out of a district, 30 villages are taken up for the survey. For a subsequent survey, 20 new villages are selected along with 10 villages already covered in the earlier survey.

Compared to the 2018 ASER survey, the 2022 exercise shows that education outcomes are improving in the country. Despite the economic reverses the country suffered on account of Covid, there was no dip in enrolment in schools in the post-pandemic period. The enrolment rate at the national level is 98.4 and in Tamil Nadu 99.8 per cent

Survey volunteers do not go to schools in the villages, as they know they can only get data on enrolment, not about students’ learning levels, nor about children who stay back in their homes. So, they do a door-to-door survey, covering children in the 3-16 age group. In reality, the survey is about the 5-14 age group, as those aged 3 to 4 are usually enrolled in anganwadis.

The children are given stories from class 2 lessons under the exercise known as Standard 2 test, regardless of which class they belong to, anything from class 1 to class 8. First, children’s ability to read a passage, mostly, a small story is checked. If they are unable to read an entire passage, they are given short sentences. If they cannot read sentences, they are given just words. If they cannot read words, they are asked to identify alphabets. So, the exercise of gauging a child’s reading skill is conducted at these four levels.

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Similarly while assessing children’s mathematical skills, they are given exercises of subtraction and division. Addition and multiplication is excluded.

Dr Balaji Sampath- secretary of the NGO Aid India

Volunteers visit the biggest school in a village to gain first-hand knowledge of the infrastructure, teachers’ teaching methods and their attendance. Interestingly, the survey records teachers’ attendance the day of the team’s visit and also the previous day, as in some northern states, teachers absent themselves, without prior intimation, for the inspection if they sniff out an impending ASER visit, Sampath says, sporting an amused smile.

As for the data collected by the ASER survey, Sampath says there is no likelihood that it is skewed.  “In fact, there is certain data that enthuses Tamil Nadu, in particular, and the whole country, in general,” he said.

Compared to the 2018 ASER survey, the 2022 exercise shows that education outcomes are improving in the country. Despite the economic reverses the country suffered on account of Covid, there was no dip in enrolment in schools in the post-pandemic period. The enrolment rate at the national level is 98.4 and in Tamil Nadu 99.8 per cent. The TN figure is indeed a feat that can earn the state government appreciation, Sampath says.

Moreover, a post-pandemic jump recorded in enrolment rate in government schools adds yet another feather to the government’s cap.

Since the start of the 2010s, enrolments in government schools all over the country have been low. But it has been reversed post pandemic. At the national level, the enrolment rate in government schools rose up from 65 per cent in 2018 to 73 per cent in 2022 and in Tamil Nadu it increased from 67 per cent in 2018 to 76 per cent in 2022. It augurs well for the government schools which, however, will have to sustain this optimistic trend, he remarks.

During the peak of Covid, it was feared that girls would be confined to homes, made to focus on domestic chores or add to the family income and thus kept away from schools. But the ASER data shows that 99 per cent of girls and 97 per cent of boys in the 15-16 age group remained school in Tamil Nadu in 2022

Behind Tamil Nadu’s good record on this count are several factors including the free noon meal and breakfast schemes, ‘Illam Thedi Kalvi’ (education at home) scheme and several initiatives taken by the Tamil Nadu government to beat the negative impact of Covid on education.

Talking about girls vs boys in education, Sampath says that during the peak of Covid, it was feared that girls would be confined to homes, made to focus on domestic chores or add to the family income and thus kept away from schools. But the ASER data shows that 99 per cent of girls and 97 per cent of boys in the 15-16 age group remained school in Tamil Nadu in 2022.

As for pre-primary children’s enrolment rate in Tamil Nadu, it is an excellent 97 per cent, whereas the figure is just 79 per cent at the national level, which is still better than in 2018, Sampath says, adding that children aged 4 enrolled in schools account for 99.2 per cent in Tamil Nadu and the figure at the national level is 88 per cent.

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All these data point to the efficacy of TN’s infrastructure in education and the widespread presence of anganwadis in almost all villages across the state.

Then the question arises why this is not reflected in learning outcomes. As per ASER, in 2018 only 26 per cent of class 3 children in TN could subtract. The figure at the national level was also a mere 28 per cent. The national figure of 28 per cent fell to 26 per cent in the past two years, but in TN subtraction skill among class 3 students nosedived from 26 to 11 per cent. A steep fall indeed!

Surveying class 8 students’ arithmetic division skill, ASER found that at the national level, girls’ performance was recorded at 43 per cent. TN girls recorded 50 per cent whereas TN boys recorded 38 per cent, along the lines of the general trend of girls performing better than boys.

In all, ASER data shows that TN children have lost 15 per cent skills in reading and arithmetic subtraction and division. Where, why and what were the mistakes made?

Answering crisply and paradoxically, Sampath says, “Efficiency is the enemy of outcome.”

Asked to explain his cryptic remark, he says that Tamil Nadu boasts of good infrastructure including proper school buildings, including toilets, playgrounds, libraries and so on. The state has also made many efforts to improve learning outcomes with schemes, such as Activity-Based Learning, ‘Illam Thedi Kalvi’ and so on.

As per ASER, in 2018 only 26 per cent of class 3 children in TN could subtract. The figure at the national level was also a mere 28 per cent. The national figure of 28 per cent fell down to 26 per cent in the past two years, but in TN subtraction skill among class 3 students nosedived from 26 to 11 per cent

For instance, there is virtually no village without anganwadis in which pre-primary children are enrolled in large numbers, as shown by the ASER survey. Teachers are dedicated to the mission of achieving the targets set by the TN government under various schemes.

But during Covid, our children were nearly denied education. Schools were shut and online classes did not have the reach or effect that physical classes did. As there is a strong network of educational institutions in TN, both government and private, it did not occur to parents to look for other means of education during this time, as people in states like Bihar did by hiring private tutors to make up for the loss of their children’s education.

Unlike in Tamil Nadu, northern states such as Bihar have poor education infrastructure and that major drawback worked in the favour of the children there. That was why private tuitions recorded 72 per cent in Bihar during the lockdown period and the figure dropped from 19 per cent to 9 per cent in TN and at the national level from 22 per cent to 13 per cent. So, the efficiency of traditional education infrastructure in TN, worked against it when everything was shut down during the pandemic, Sampath says.

Another major factor that Sampath pointed out for the skill loss of our school children is that our teachers are overburdened with administrative work. There is too much data collection and too many targets to achieve, and this diverts teachers’ attention from their core job of teaching, he says.

Officials are more intent on enhancing the physical infrastructure in schools and meeting targets set under various schemes rather than about teaching and enhancing the basic reading and arithmetic skills of the children. Besides, Tamil is the toughest of languages in the world and so, to gain an excellent command of the language is not an easy joke; it’s rather a feat. But, English, Hindi and other languages, for that matter, have simple structure and grammar and are easy to learn. However, there is an emphasis on teaching in the mother tongue in primary classes.

Sampath suggests that rather than setting big education targets and egging our teachers on to achieve them, it is better to fix smaller targets and take measured steps to achieve them. Our educational system must put greater stress on enhancing children’s basic skills rather than focus only on schemes, data, infrastructure and so on, Sampath says.

(About Balaji Sampath: After getting his B Tech from IIT, Dr Balaji Sampath pursued a PhD in the United States. Returning to India, he started the NGO Aid India with the support of friends. Apart from imparting education to the poor and oppressed, the NGO has built about 500 houses for those in need)


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