India: On Its Way to Learning Its Lesson
India has made progress in terms of increasing the primary education attendance rate and expanding literacy to approximately two thirds of the population. However, the country continues to face stern challenges. Despite growing (and HUGE) investment in education, more than one third of the population is still illiterate, only 15% of Indian students reach high school, and just seven percent of that go on to actually graduate high school. The quality of primary and higher education is significantly poorer than that of other major developing nations. As numerous studies show, the main problems are:
- Children’s learning outcomes are markedly insufficient and well below the average of the other BRIC countries (e.g. Brazil, Russia, China). Put simply, this means that kids who went to school for six years can hardly read or write!
- A high rate of teacher absence – up to 30% of their working time teachers are simply not at school and when they are there administrative work absorbs 25% of their time. There is also a serious lack of good teachers.
- The main purpose of education is focused on “manufacturing” academics instead of providing a diversity of professions essential to a functioning society/culture.
- The average size of classes (approx. 50+ children per class) is way too big to allow for anything close to personalized learning.
Booming but unequal investment in education
Education is a huge topic in India and the Indians love to educate their children. Parents invest up to 30% (!) of their income – on average – for their education. The parents’ (not the children’s!) goal is to eventually get a government job for them (meaning to have a lifelong income including guaranteed bribe money – no matter how good or bad they do their job) or to send them abroad – in both cases to make money so that they can support the family later on. And the parents spend the money on boys rather than girls.
What we currently see in the political arena is that the Indian government and the state governments spend a huge amount of money on education. They focus on teacher training, IT infrastructure, e-books… and very often they cooperate with international NGOs and institutions such as UNICEF, the British Council and many others to improve education on a larger scale. Great and useful initiatives – but they still don’t focus on the child as the center of educational efforts.
From the economic point of view, the private education market is exploding. Literally. And the forecasts are amazing. The offers, at least in urban areas, seem endless and yet not affordable for 95% of society. So the gap between those who have access – meaning money – to education and those who haven’t becomes bigger and bigger. The private sector is serving the parents’ desires: government jobs and international degrees – meaning hardly anyone is or will be educated to solve local problems and to understand local needs and provide local solutions according to international standards. This is simply NOT included in the educational thinking in India.
Many foreign education players are planning to enter India – mainly from the UK, the USA and Australia and mostly at college level. There are some great examples of outstanding private schools, such as Riverside School in Ahmedabad or Woodstock College, which embrace child-centered teaching and learning – but they are few. Few islands in a huge rough sea.
Learning from Finland
Last week I attended long discussion with a government official (Principal Secretary of Education) of Madhya Pradesh, one of the Indian states. We were discussing what India could learn from the Finnish model of education – a country they hardly look at.
Here are only a few points which we think India or a state like Madhya Pradesh should carefully look at. Firstly the variance in quality among Finnish schools is the least of all nations tested within the PISA studies, meaning that Finnish students can get a good education in virtually any school in the nation. That’s equality of educational opportunity, a good public school in every neighborhood.
What makes the Finnish school system so amazing is that Finnish students never take a standardized test until their last year of high school, when they take a matriculation examination for college admission. Their own teachers design their tests, so teachers know how their students are doing and what they need. There is a national curriculum—broad guidelines to assure that all students have a full education—but it is not prescriptive. Teachers have extensive responsibility for designing curriculum and pedagogy in their school. They have a large degree of autonomy, because they are professionals.
Admission to teacher education programs at the end of high school is highly competitive; only one in 10—or even fewer—qualify for teacher preparation programs. All Finnish teachers spend five years in a rigorous program of study, research, and practice, and all of them finish with a masters’ degree. Teachers are prepared for all eventualities, including students with disabilities, students with language difficulties, and students with other kinds of learning issues. Most of the Finish public schools are just like (or even better than) many of our best private progressive schools in the west. They are rich in the arts, in play, and in activity. They have beautiful campuses, including some with outstanding architecture, filled with light. And they have small classes.
In India, this would mean a fundamental change WITHIN the system and we believe the outcome of the government investments would increase significantly – for the wealth of the children and the wealth of the country!