Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Educating our Kids : The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan

A school that I visited last week in Dehradun awakened me to one of the many changes that are quietly taking place in the country. The school, which usually fell silent after the last student had left for home in the afternoon, is buzzing with activity all through the day. Till the evening shadows lengthen, the class rooms are full, the play grounds abuzz with activity and the staff room is busy. No, the school is not running a double shift. It is just that after the regular fee paying students have left, another batch of students from the near by slum communities come in and utilize the school facilities and the classrooms. The arrangement is sponsored and paid for by the government under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) program.


Contrary to the usual belief that nothing in the government works, the SSA is a great endeavor to universalize elementary education. Although the 1990s saw noteworthy progress in education indicators in India, wide-ranging gaps were prevailing across states and districts. For example, the net primary enrolment ratios ranged from 63 percent in Bihar to 98 percent in Kerala. Inequity across scheduled castes and scheduled tribes was pronounced. However because of efforts like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the number of Indian children out of school went down from 25 million in 2003 to about 7 million in 2006 (exceeding the target), thus steadily moving towards universal enrolment (about 185 million children were enrolled at the elementary level in 2006).

Although, there is no doubt that the average drop-out rate in primary classes suggests a consistent decline; but the same is still too high to attain the status of universal retention at the primary level of education. Universalisation of education comprises four components- universal access, universal enrolment, universal retention and universal quality of education.

The SSA has ambitious goals. It was launched in 2001 to universalize and improve the quality of elementary education in India through community ownership of elementary education. In order to effectively decentralize the management, it has involved Panchayati Raj institutions, School Management Committees, Village and Urban Slum Level Education Committees, Parents’ Teachers’ Associations, Mother Teacher Associations, Tribal Autonomous Councils and other grassroots level structures.

SSA, apart from being a programme with clear time frame for Elementary Education, also offers opportunities to the states to develop their own vision of elementary education. It had set 2007 as the deadline for providing primary education in India and 2010 as the deadline for providing useful and relevant elementary education to all children in the 6 to 14 age group. In order to improve the quality of elementary education in India, the SSA has emphasized on improving the student teacher ratio, teachers training, academic support, facilitating development of teaching learning material and providing textbooks to children from special focus groups etc.

The SSA is getting carried out in collaboration with state governments to cover the entire country and address the needs of its children in 1.1 million locations. Keeping an eye on sanitation and the girl child, the government has built under the programme nearly 222,000 toilets at primary schools. Similarly, nearly 187,000 new schools have been opened in the last seven years - courtesy the SSA.The campaign has also helped construction of over 656,000 additional classrooms and provided drinking water facilities at 175,413 schools.

The programme seeks to open new schools in locations which do not have schooling facilities and reinforce existing school infrastructure through provision of additional classrooms, toilets, drinking water, maintenance grant and school improvement grants. In the budget of the last two years (2007-08, 2008-09), the government has allocated over Rs.262 billion ($6 billion) for universalising elementary education to achieve the millennium development goal (MDG) of universal primary education.

The challenge has been a sizeable one but the rewards have been many. The achievement stories range from children in far-flung villages to slum clusters in India’s many expansive cities. As always, it is evident most effectively not in figures but in real life stories like the children in the school I visited in Dehradun last week, whose education is being taken care of by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. And for once I am happy that the educational surcharge levied every time I pay a service tax on any transaction is reaching the right people in the right way, and the government machinery is working. The story is not all bad.

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