Issues plaguing school education

Education is vital for individuals to develop and grow to their potential and widen their livelihood opportunities. World leaders have acknowledged the vital role of education. Nelson Mandela viewed education as the “most powerful weapon you can use to change the world” while Kofi Annan noted that “education is the premise of progress in every society, in every family”. Our discussion on public policy imperatives on health, nutrition, food security, and the young child’s well-being, has also demonstrated that a critical ingredient to improvement in these sectors is education.

Though the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act) has refocussed attention on school education in recent years, some fundamental problems continue to plague the system. Despite the constitutional and legal obligations of governments, education budgets have remained modest and woefully inadequate to requirements. While there has been a reasonable expansion of coverage and enrolment in schools, the fundamental issue of poor learning outcomes, especially in government schools, has not been addressed. Poor households – both parents and children – remain alienated from the education system. Further, the education policy has not come to grips with the legitimate aspirations of poor households for “English” education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly devastating for school children. The vast majority of the country’s estimated 260 million school children did not set foot in school for almost 18 months since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. During this period, they only depended instead on various forms of distance education. But this has only aggravated the situation of students, particularly those from low-income households.

Gaps in enrolment

At India’s independence in 1947, literacy was a low 12 per cent, while school enrolment averaged 40 per cent. The country has since witnessed a rapid expansion in the number of schools. Over 85 per cent of villages now have schools, 21 per cent of villages have upper primary schools (classes 6 to 8), and around 11 per cent have high schools. The country has 0.78 million primary schools and 0.44 million upper primary schools that feed into 0.15 million secondary schools.

Along with the growth in the school network, enrolment has also increased at a rapid pace. By 2015, primary school enrolment had gone up to 97 per cent, and attendance was reasonably high, at over 70 per cent. However, enrolment at the secondary level remains low, with the net enrolment rate (NER) remaining below 50 per cent. In addition, the dropout rate in the age group of 6 to 13 years is as high as 45 per cent. Dropout rates are exceptionally high among socially disadvantaged groups.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2019 survey shows that while gross enrolments are high, significant age-specific gaps exist. Within each cohort of the same age, there is an enormous variation in which grade children are enrolled. While the RTE Act mandates that children enter Class 1 at age six, only 60 per cent of children enter Class 1 between five and six years of age. The remaining 40 per cent fail to get enrolled in school at the appropriate age, primarily due to a lack of parental awareness. A perverse gender gap is also apparent with close to 10 per cent more girls than boys enrolled in government institutions; the reverse is true in private institutions, reflecting a parental preference for boys in providing their children with quality education. These gaps in age-appropriate enrolment and gender inequities are contributory factors to low learning levels and have a long-term adverse impact on girls and children from low-income families.

Our discussion on inequity in school education must go beyond access to schooling for all children. The poorest households send their children to government schools, while children of relatively better off households attend private schools or better-endowed government schools. In effect, children from the poorest households, the landless, and the most deprived social groups – the SCs and STs – are still alienated from actual schooling, though they may have been enrolled and even attend school.

Children are not learning

As shown by Pratham’s ASER survey, a central issue in school education at the primary stage is the low learning levels. While there could be a debate on the methodology adopted by Pratham in assessing learning levels, it is undisputed that despite the recent focus on measuring outcomes, learning continues to show only marginal improvement at best. Policymakers have focused on access but have ignored quality. Children from poor households and those enrolled in anganwadis have far lower cognitive skills and foundational ability than their counterparts in private pre-schools, leading to their inability to accomplish early language and early numeracy tasks. The performance of children is also strongly related to their age. 25 per cent of Class 1 students in government schools is below 5 years of age, though they should rightly be in anganwadis, with the result that none of them can read a Class 1 level text. 12 Though the performance of Class 1 children in private schools is somewhat better, the higher learning levels may partly be an effect of the fact that these schools have a higher proportion of students of the appropriate age group in each class.

ASER surveys show that, by Class 3, the average Indian child’s language and numeracy outcomes are already well behind curriculum expectations in both government and private schools. For example, according to the government’s specification of learning outcomes, children are expected to be able to recognise numbers up to 99 in Class 1. But the survey reveals that only 50 per cent of children in Class 3 can read a Class 1 level text. Similarly, only 40 per cent of Class 1 students can recognise double-digit numbers, and even in Class 3, 30 per cent are unable to do so. In respect of Class 5, covered by an earlier 2011 ASER survey, less than 50 per cent could read simple Class 2 level texts, and less than one-third could solve a two-digit subtraction problem. The survey further observed that only 1 in 3 children could read a simple story or solve Class 2 level mathematics problems. These ASER survey results also indicate that, though the gap between private and government schools is rising, the learning outcomes continue to be poor even in private schools. Given the significant gaps at the foundational levels, the learning curve remains flat even after several years of schooling. In the absence of any review of learning levels, many children go on to Class 5 and beyond without learning to read or write. The low learning levels continue even as children move up the ladder. By Class 10, only 39 per cent of children have reached the required level.

Social and economic conditions are major factors that influence student achievement. These factors include gender, class/ caste, household financial status, and parental education. And as noted before, parents who are better off in terms of their socio-economic status, and are concerned about their children’s educational achievement, send their children to private schools, which largely explains why these children perform better.

With learning at such abysmal levels, it is not surprising that children, even after eight years of schooling, are not significantly improved in their ability to face the world as adults, compared to those less lettered. Most children end up being neither functionally literate nor numerate, primarily because of the system’s obsessive and misplaced focus on rote learning, and the need to pass exams trumping conceptual understanding.

Excerpted with permission from An Alternative Development Agenda for India, Sanjay Kaul, Taylor and Francis Books India.