This year’s Budget is as sure a sign as any that the Union government does not understand the education crisis in India. It also does not seem to see the obvious connection between the huge skills gap (that so concerns this government), and poor and inadequate primary education.

While Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Monday spoke of education as part of his “fourth pillar” of his Budget, he dismissed the subject of school education in a few sentences. In addition, the premise for the agenda he claimed he was setting was faulty.

Introducing the allocations for education in his speech, the minister opened with this statement: “After the universalisation of primary education throughout the country, we want to take the next big step forward by focusing on quality of education.”

However, universal primary education has not yet been achieved, even if measured only in terms of enrolment. More than 30% of children enrolled in school drop out before Class 8. Of those who make it to high school, nearly 50% fail to move to the next level.

Quality control

That said, focusing on quality of education with or without universalisation is a very good thing. The problem of quality has never been fully addressed by governments fixated with enrolment, which is a more easily quantifiable indicator.

But there is nothing in the Budget to suggest that the government understands the issues of quality in school education or the resources required to try and fix the problems.

A brief paragraph deals with school education, where a small increase (Rs 500 crore) is announced in the Centre’s share of funds for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme for free and compulsory basic education, apart from the opening of 62 new Navodaya Vidyalayas.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is an important element in the drive for the (still incomplete) universalisation of education under the Right to Education Act. However, the programme is designed mainly to deal with enrolment and infrastructure. It has played a very limited role in improving the quality of education.

The creation of 62 additional Navodaya Vidyalayas is in line with the existing policy to create in every district one such centrally-administered selective model school providing for Classes 6-10.

The aim is to give a small number of “talented students” – chosen through an entrance exam – access to quality education. The beneficiaries are a tiny number of children, who have access to a better-than-average education that prepares them for the entrance exam.

Need of the hour

Neither the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan nor the Navodaya Vidyalayas can address the very significant problem of quality. This is because the crisis is rooted in the basics. The majority of primary school children in India – in government or in private schools – cannot read with comprehension or do basic arithmetic.

The increase in total allocation for school education in this year’s budget is a miniscule Rs 1,367.5 crore over last year. Coupled with the finance minister’s cursory mention of school education, it seems that providing quality primary education to the public is not a major priority for this government.

The Human Resource Development Ministry’s claims of transforming education and the government’s larger focus on skill development will come to naught without proper investment in improving the quality of school education.