In Nirmala Sitharaman’s marquee 2021-’22 budget, the allocation for education was 6.1% less than the allocation made in 2020-’21. The ministry of education got an allocation of Rs 93,224 crores. Of the total, the school education and literacy sector was allotted the majority of funds, with Rs 54873.66 crore. The remaining Rs 38,350.65 crore was allotted to the higher education sector.

Gross Enrolment Ratio at the elementary level (Classes I-VIII) has been consistently high, at around 97%. This indicates that almost every Indian child is going to school. Despite this, students don’t seem to be learning anything in school at all. Only 44.2% of all students in government schools in Class V in India are able to read a Class II text. The situation is worse for numeracy: only 22.7% of all students in government schools in Class V are able to do division. India has been in the midst of a learning crisis for a long time now.

The potential impact of this is enormous. An entire generation of children are entering the economy and the workforce with severe learning poverty. Only a small percentage of children are becoming well-equipped to handle these challents. This leads to the creation of different “classes” of learners. A function of caste hierarchy, this leads to inequalities in opportunity.

Developing standards

The Budget speech this year focussed on how 15,000 schools across the country will be strengthened qualitatively and will serve as exemplar schools. Among other schemes, a national professional standard for teachers will be developed. But had no mention of how this would help solve the basic problem of children not being able to read or perform division.

None of the other schemes announced – such as setting up of 100 new Sainik Schools in partnership with NGOs and 750 Eklavya Model Residential Schools in tribal areas – address this issue either. It is no doubt important to focus on improving access to education and infrastructure. But when children evidently don’t seem to be learning much in schools, it is important for budgetary allocation to factor learning outcomes as well.

Students in a government-run school in Secundrabad in March. Credit: Noah Seelam / AFP

Of all students in India today, 47.5% go to private schools in India. Those numbers are growing rapidly. Rural private school enrolments have increased from 4% in 1993 to almost 27% in 2018. The emergence of private schools is a serious indicator that parents are dissatisfied by the quality of education in government schools and are choosing private schools, despite the significant cost.

However, there is a speculation that there will be a huge reverse migration of children from private schools to government schools. The pandemic has revealed the importance of a strong and inclusive public education system, with focus on learning outcomes. Of all children in private schools in India in class V, 65.1% are able to read a class II text, as compared to the 44.2% in government schools, according to the non-governmental organisation Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report.

Of all children in private schools in India in Class V, 39.8% are able to do division as compared to the 22.7% of children of the same age in government schools.

Pandemic and education

With students being out of school for a year thanks to the pandemic, this learning crisis is bound to have increased, with very few having access to online technology to be able to continue learning. What needs to be seen is how schools will retain students and ensure they don’t drop out after a year of not attending schools, a problem that the Budget seems to have assumed will not happen.

The new National Education Policy, the first in decades, found only passing mention in the Budget. The policy emphasises early learning for all children, a revamp of the curriculum to focus on foundational numeracy and literacy in early years, a move away from rote learning and a new assessment system that measures skills and learning rather than memorisation. This would need more spending, along with increasing spending and focus on learning outcomes.

Education policy in India needs to focus not just on improving access, but to improve quality of learning while also monitoring and evaluating policy interventions and continuously investing in the professional development of teachers. A 6.1% drop in the Budget and a lack of focus on learning outcomes keeps India on the path of an entire generation having unequal opportunities.

Vishal Vasanthakumar is a graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is currently an independent researcher focusing on politics, caste and education.