The official ASER statistic – that a quarter of all children in Std VIII cannot read a Std II level ‘story’ – just does not convey the reality of the situation. I am in a village in Bodhgaya block in Bihar, watching 16-year-old Reshma try to read. She is focused on the task, trying very, very hard. We sit quietly nearby, listening as she takes a long time over the passage, spelling out words and stumbling her way through the handful of simple sentences.
Many years and many ASERs have come and gone since I first asked a child to read a passage aloud. When the children are shorter than I am, obviously still ‘children’, it does not feel quite so bad. One can at least hope that they still have time and opportunities ahead of them to acquire the skills that will help them propel themselves through school. But Reshma looks and sounds like the young woman she is, and she has spent a significant part of ten years of her life sitting in classrooms. Even so, she cannot read a simple text. And so not surprisingly, she failed the Std X board exam earlier this year.
Pichle dus saal mein bahut kuch badal gaya hai. Aaj kal to is umar ke bachhe sab school jaate hain (“A lot has changed in the last ten years. These days all children in this age group go to school”), says one of the first people we speak to in Reshma’s village. Aaj kal jo bachha dusvi pass karta hai, usko ‘so-so’ maana jata hai. ‘Educated’ banne ke liye kum se kum graduation karna jaroori hai (“These days a child who completes Std X is considered just ‘so-so’. To be educated, one has to at least be a graduate”). Families have high aspirations for their children. And indeed there are few 14-18 year olds to be found in the village – they are all in school. The local school only offers Std I-VIII, so the older children commute to nearby villages or to Bodhgaya to continue their education, believing that they are on the path to a better future.
What will happen to Reshma, and her path to a better future? Because she can’t read, she’s unable to comprehend the words on the sample marksheet that is part of the learning assessment we are administering. Her Std X board exam results would have been communicated to her by someone else. Perhaps, if she’s exceptionally motivated, her confidence and self-esteem will not be shattered after this massive public shaming for something that is in no way her fault. Perhaps she will go back and try again. If she does, it isn’t clear where she might find the support she will need to quickly get from basic literacy and numeracy all the way through the demanding Std X curriculum. If she decides not to try again, vocational options are few and far between, and those that exist are far away and need resources to access – making it that much more difficult for girls. She can’t look for formal employment until she turns 18, and in any case without a Std X certificate she will find it hard to get a job.
I simply haven’t the heart to ask her the question we often ask of children – what do you want to become when you grow up? Through no fault of her own, at an age where the world should be full of possibilities and options to explore, Reshma’s path to a better future seems to have already hit a dead end.