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Schooling in India

| March 26, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Jane Hofmeyr

My recent sabbatical in India and a previous trip in 2011 provided me with some fascinating insights into its schooling system.

The similarities and differences between schooling in South Africa and India were striking and so in this article I decided to focus on the government sector in both countries, and in the next article, on private schools in India.

India’s RTE Act

As in South Africa, education falls under the control of both the Indian Union Government and the states, with some responsibilities lying with the Union, and the states having autonomy in others. The various articles of the Indian Constitution provide for education as a fundamental right and this has recently been underscored by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) 20091 that makes education a right of every child between the ages of six and 14 and specifies minimum norms in elementary schools.

The Act also provides that no child shall be held back, expelled, or required to pass a board examination until the completion of elementary education. The Act requires surveys that will monitor all neighbourhoods, identify children requiring education, and set up facilities for providing it.

The World Bank education specialist for India, Sam Carlson, has observed: “The RTE Act is the first legislation in the world that puts the responsibility of ensuring enrolment, attendance and completion on the Government. It is the parents’ responsibility to send the children to schools in the U.S. and other countries.”2

Carlson is not quite accurate in his observation, because in South Africa, the Constitution and the South African Schools Act (SASA) 1996 do make it obligatory for the state to provide compulsory education for children and parents are required by law to send their children to school. Where he is correct is that in India the government is responsible for pupils’ completion of elementary education, while in South Africa it is not: schooling is only compulsory for children up to the age of 15, or until the end of the ninth grade, whichever occurs first.

In our Constitution, a child’s right to education is also a fundamental right and in any matter affecting a child the best interests of the child are paramount. The right to education is what nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) Equal Education, Section 27 and the Legal Resources Centre have used as the lynchpin of their legal actions against the Minister of Basic Education.

They want the minister to exercise her powers in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, to ensure that all school children in Limpopo have textbooks and that sufficient teachers are appointed in the Eastern Cape to adequately staff public schools. In addition, they are pursuing the legislation of minimum norms and standards for public school buildings and facilities that are binding on the education departments, as in the RTE Act.

Access and participation India has made progress in terms of increasing the primary education attendance rate (now some 96%) and expanding literacy to approximately two thirds of the population. Its improving education system is often cited as one of the main contributors to its economic rise. However, there is a great shortage of public schools, especially at the secondary school level, for India’s huge, young population.3World Bank statistics show that fewer than 40% of adolescents in India attend secondary schools.4

By 2007 South Africa had achieved a 103% Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) in primary education. (The GER was more than 100% because of the inclusion of learners who were not of the appropriate age, largely due to repetition.) Enrolment in secondary education was 91%. Furthermore, South Africa’s secondary school GER is very high when compared with the GERs of other African countries, which range from 36% in Lesotho to 75% in Botswana.5

Quality The huge challenge for both countries is the poor general quality of government schooling. The Economist reports that in India half of 10-year-old rural children could not read at a basic level, over 60% were unable to do division, half dropped out by age 14,6 only 15% of Indian students reach high school, and just 7% graduate.7

In South Africa we all know that the quality of our schooling is most inadequate, although there are signs of slow improvement. The results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) surveys show how poorly South African learners perform in mathematics and English as compared to other countries, and the Annual National Assessments of 2012 confirmed that the standard of literacy and numeracy is shockingly low in our public schools.

Visits to schools

I was able to visit a few government schools in Delhi and Rajasthan and as you will see, not a representative sample. In Delhi the government primary school had large, dusty grounds with a few big trees and drab and dirty buildings, badly in need of maintenance and upgrading. We observed the class of a teacher who had received in-service training from an NGO.

She was doing her best to make some key concepts understandable to the children with a few posters and a Big Book, but the classroom was dark with many pillars obstructing the children’s view of the blackboard. We were told that she was one of the best teachers in the school and I admired her commitment in a depressing environment. There is a school feeding scheme in government schools like we have in South Africa and this encourages attendance. At break we watched the children line up eagerly for their food.

Many of the children at the school were ‘railway children’: they and their families live on the concourses of railway stations. Departing very early from the main Delhi railway station on a train to the Taj Mahal, we saw family groups huddled under their blankets. There are no ablution facilities so the stench coming up from the railway tracks was overpowering. However, I noticed that most families had cellphones, typically Blackberries, because connectivity in India is very cheap.

In rural Rajasthan on the way back from a visit to some exquisite Jain temples, I seized another opportunity to see a government school. On an impulse I asked the guide to take me to one in a small village, where oxen turned a wooden water-wheel and the young girls were washing clothes at the village pump. We entered the school grounds and were told by a young ‘teacher’ that the principal was not there.

The buildings were dilapidated and the classes did not seem to be “My experiences and reflections reinforced how much South Africa has achieved in terms of access and participation in schooling and how far ahead of India it is in that regard.” 20 Independent Education • Autumn 13 engaged in any meaningful work. When they saw us the children ran out and clamoured to have their photos taken.

I recounted this experience to my colleagues and was told that absenteeism among principals and teachers in state schools was high. Government school teachers earn well (some R4 000–R10 000 a month) and often lazy, unscrupulous ones ‘sublet’ their jobs for, say, R1 600 a month to young, unqualified people who are effectively child minders! I wondered if the young ‘teacher’ in the village school had been one of those. This provided a new perspective on South Africa’s problems of absenteeism and lack of commitment among part of the teaching corps!

My experiences and reflections reinforced how much South Africa has achieved in terms of access and participation in schooling and how far ahead of India it is in that regard (not forgetting the vast difference in the scale of the challenge for India given its population of 1.21 billion compared to South Africa’s 51 million!).

Access meaningless without quality

My conviction was also strengthened that access to education is meaningless without quality schooling that teaches children the key skills that they need to live and work successfully in the 21st century. Key democratic rights; such as the right to education or to withhold your labour are very important but until their responsibilities are accepted by children, teachers, principals and parents, and proper accountability is ensured in our schooling system, we will never conquer the quality challenge. Acts and policies are all very well – and South Africa has enough of those – but what about implementation? As independent schools know only too well, norms can be passed but unless departments are made to implement them fairly and lawfully, they are meaningless and the best interests of the child are ignored.


1. See, for example, ry_Education_Act.

2. Ibid.

3. See, for example,

4. See, for example,

5. See, for example, ‘Trends in Education Macro-Indicators: South Africa, Department of Education 2009’, available at:

6. See, for example,

7. Ibid.

Category: Autumn 2013

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