Primary Education in West Bengal State and Birbhum District
West Bengal boasts a reasonably respectable 92 percent primary school enrollment rate, but this figure does not reflect whether enrolled children actually attend school, how often they attend, or what they gain from attendance. Literacy rates are much lower: although literacy had risen to 69.2 percent in 2001, this figure obscures regional, urban-rural, gender and caste-based inequalities. The rural literacy rate amongst women and girls above seven years old is 53 percent (72 percent for men), and only 30 percent amongst rural Scheduled Tribe (adivasi) women and girls (GoWB 2004).
Birbhum district, where Suchana works, is a poor district, which ranks 14th out of 17 districts in terms of Human Development Indicators. The general literacy rate is 62 percent, but nearly half of the women in the district are illiterate (47.8 percent), and amongst the adivasi population the latest available figures suggest that 75 percent of men and boys and 94 percent of women and girls cannot read.
In West Bengal, achievements in quality education are limited by the fact that 34 percent of teachers are untrained. Teachers also work under extremely difficult circumstances: teacher-student ratios are high at 1:47, and nearly 60 percent of schools have only two classrooms or less, implying that it is the norm for more than one grade-class to be taught in one room. Primary schools have an average of three teachers, reinforcing the implication that one teacher commonly has to teach nearly fifty multi-grade children in one room, and some of them in no room at all (GoWB 2004). In Birbhum district, 23 percent of schools have only one room to teach four classes in.
Under these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the quality of teaching and learning in some local schools is very poor. Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen’s recent research on primary education in West Bengal found that 50 percent of a sample of class III children were unable (or unwilling) to write their own names. This research in general found a great deal of enthusiasm for education, but various weaknesses in delivery. It also found that the most significant determinant of literacy levels amongst primary aged children was the existence of after-school private tuition arrangements. This is resulting in something of a two-tier system within government education: those whose families can afford private tuition succeed, while those whose families can’t, don’t (Pratichi Trust 2002). This is particularly significant in a situation where a large percentage of children in state primary schools are first-generation literates, which means they cannot elicit ‘free’ help from home for writing-based tasks.
Although the government has recently put a fair amount of emphasis on primary education, and things are changing, this change is only realistically likely to be fast enough to put a small minority of the current generation of school-aged children in a position to take on the challenges of their changing world.
Suchana’s Early Learning Group is working with a new generation of children – mostly adivasi, and mostly girls, but all of them suffering from a struggling education system and rural disadvantage in a poor district. Without at least a good grounding in basic education, these children will be ill prepared to take up any new opportunities offered by the changing economy in India, and are even less protected by the state than their parents were. More importantly, without basic literacy they will face enormous difficulties in representing themselves as agents in the development process and in organising to articulate and claim their rights.
Government of West Bengal, 2004, West Bengal Human Development Report, Development and Planning Department, May.
Pratichi Trust, 2002, The Pratichi Education Report: A Study in West Bengal, No. 1, Pratichi Research Team.