The dropout rate in India continues to stump both policymakers and educationists. The Unified District Information System for Education Plus 2019-’20 report released on June 29 does not give us much cause for celebration, especially when you compare it with another document “Education at a glance” put out by the Union Ministry of Education.

It has shown marginal difference since 2014-’15 but the pattern remains resolutely fixed.

What report says

A higher percentage of boys drop out at the primary level than girls (Class 1 to Class 5). However, at the upper primary level (Class 6 to Class 8), more girls than boys drop out. The dropout rate reverts to its original position at the secondary level (Class 9- Class 10) where a higher percentage of boys drop out than girls. This is how the situation was in 2014-’15 and this is how it is in 2019-’20.

So, what has changed? For each category of school education, the percentage of those no longer enrolling in school has decreased. For instance, the percentage of girls dropping out at the primary level has declined three times over the last five years (from 3.88% to 1.2%). The dropout rate for girls at the upper primary and secondary levels is not as stark as that at the primary level. For example, the difference is 1.88% at the secondary level.

Much like boys, girls begin to drop out from the primary level. A little over 1% of girls do so. That percentage can go down even further if 12 states can arrest their dropout rate. In fact, three states – Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya contribute the highest to the dropout rate of girls at the primary level. Manipur contributes the highest at 8.7%.

What is a trickle at the primary level becomes a deluge at the secondary level. According to the 2019-’20 report, a little over 15% of girls drop out at the national level. Actually, the percentage at the national level hides the variations observed at the state levels.

Representational image. Photo credit: Sam Panthaky / AFP

As many as 14 states exceed the national percentage, with the highest being Assam at almost 33%. In fact, 12 states of the 14 states are located in the North East and East of the country. The other two states that have a dropout rate for girls at the secondary level higher than that of India are Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. It is a moot question why southern and western states of India do better in terms of educating their girls than other parts of the country.

What is surprising is the number of girl students who have left the school system over the years. According to Unified District Information System for Education 2013-’14 report, over 6 crore girls were enrolled at the primary level. Six years later, in 2019-’20, about the same number should have been enrolled at the upper primary level. However, the 2019-’20 report states that a mere 35 lakhs are enrolled.

However liberally one may adjust for variation between the two categories of education, it is difficult to explain such precipitous a fall.

Reducing dropout rate

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s 2019 report on India’s children with disabilities shows that about 28 lakh girls in the age group five years to 19 years suffer from a disability. Over 20 lakh disabled girls reside in rural areas. The condition they suffer from range from autism to “in-hearing”, “in-seeing” and “in-movement” disability.

The 5-19 age group includes a large number of school-attending girls. The Unified District Information System for Education Plus report shows that schools have created some infrastructural facilities, especially ramps and toilets, for such children. Both governments and schools need to do more to promote disability-inclusive development. As a first step, the report should focus on them prominently as it does on minorities such as Muslims and Other Backward Class.

The Unified District Information System for Education reports do not list reasons for school going children dropping out of schools as some government reports do. There are several reasons girls drop out of school.

These can broadly be grouped into three categories: home- or family-related, school-related and child-related. Tending to domestic chores is a significant matter. About 30% of girls discontinue education because they engage in domestic activities such as tending to siblings, animals, cooking and washing. In the case of about 15% of girls, the family’s financial constraints force them to abandon school. Early marriage weans away girls from schools.

School structure, curriculum and pedagogy also push girls out. Distance of school from home, poor quality of teaching, non-availability of female teachers, medium of instruction and school hours are some of the important reasons why girls drop out of school.

Family and school pressure weigh down on the girl child. They are unable to cope with studies, lack guidance and support, are unable to comprehend course content and disinterest retard their progress.

Reducing the dropout rate in girls will require more than policy intervention.

Pradeep Krishnatray is former director, Research and Strategic Planning at Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, New Delhi.