The first government of independent India had announced that all children under the age of 14 would get free and compulsory education by 1960. Six decades later, we see the current minister of human resources reiterating more or less the same promise. The failure to ensure that every child is in school is without doubt one of the most glaring failures of the Indian state.
Arjun Singh has now said that this government will write a new law to guarantee free education to every child under 14. It sounds like a good idea—but actually attacks the wrong problem. India in 2007 is vastly different from India in 1947, or even 1990.
There has been an autonomous surge in school enrolment and attendance. The World Bank says that India now has a net school enrolment ratio of 90%; it was 77.6% in 1990. This will improve further by 2015.
School attendance has also improved. The data for the most vulnerable cohort—rural girls between the ages of six and 10—is also encouraging. Attendance in this group had shot up by 20 percentage points between 1993 and 1999, according to official surveys, from 55% to 75.1%.
The problem lies elsewhere. Once the child is in school, there are inadequate incentives to stay there. Teacher absenteeism is rampant. Schools do not have even basic infrastructure. Curricula are outdated and poorly designed. So, while there are still too many children who have never seen the inside of a school, the more relevant problem today is to ensure that children stay in school at least till class X and learn basic skills. The signs here are discouraging, as evident from the high dropout rates and the lack of basic language and math skills, as shown in the surveys done by education rights group Pratham. Economists such as Abhijit Banerjee of the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have devised sensible solutions to problems such as truant teachers.
Public policy needs to focus on education outcomes, not access. Empowering parents and local communities through education vouchers will be a useful first step.
Ram and Sita are in school. The problem: they cannot read and count.
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