Last week, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) published by the non-profit Pratham Education Foundation reported some disturbing findings about the state of education in rural India, which still accounts for a little under 70% of India’s population of 1.2 billion.
The findings essentially told us two things. The good news is that enrolment in elementary education is almost 100%. The bad news is that the education outcomes, as measured by abilities in reading, writing and doing maths, have deteriorated among children between the ages of six and 14.
The bottom line is that India has a crisis of learning. This obviously has grave implications for the future of an economy that was looking to harvest its demographic dividend, leave alone the circumstances of a social crisis being created by generating an army of semi-literate people unable to take advantage of the new economy.
Unfortunately, the issue failed to get sufficient traction either in the media or among the leading political contenders for power in the next general election. This could either be due to the preoccupation with the likely political ascendance of Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi and the tragic saga involving Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor, or due to the perception that there is no immediacy about the concern.
Regardless, it will be a cardinal blunder to overlook this shocking revelation, either for the outgoing administration or the incoming one that will take charge in May. Both qualitatively and numerically—Census 2011 reports that 73% of the 233.5 million children in the country between the ages of six and 14 live in rural India—the story is staggering.
Yes, it is a structural flaw in the country’s strategic planning that it has carried since independence, but the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance has to share a bulk of the blame because it had made the right to education one of is missions and had also garnered sizeable funds by levying an education tax. So it is legitimate to ask what the government did to correct this trend, especially since the Congress continues to claim, through elaborate television advertisements and in the just-concluded session of the All India Congress Committee, that its 10 years at the helm has led to a transformation of the country. It is not enough to focus on the positives (yes, there are many). And this is why:
* Nationally, the proportion of children in grade three able to read at least a paragraph of grade one is still abysmally low. In 2013, only two out of five children could achieve this standard.
* Similarly, the proportion of children in the fifth grade at the all-India level who could read a second grade text remained unchanged at the level of 47%. It has decreased every year from 52.8% in 2009.
* Nationally, the proportion of all children in the fifth grade who could solve a three-digit by one-digit division problem was 25.6%, or just above one in four children could do basic math.
What the ASER study also confirms, which we know anecdotally, is that people of this country motivated by their aspirations are willing to eke out that extra bit from even their limited incomes to pay for either admitting their children in private schools or arranging for private tuition. (An aside that they know their priorities very well.)
According to the study, nationally the proportion of children in first to fifth grade with some form of private input was 45.6% in 2013. And yes the less well-off too are willing to pay. At the all-India level, 25.2% of children living in pucca houses took tuitions and the proportion, not very different, was 23.2% for those children living in so-called kutcha houses.
In the age group 6 to 14, private school enrolment increased from 18.7% in 2006 to 29% in 2013. There are wide variations across the country. In Manipur and Kerala, more than two-thirds of all children in this age group were enrolled in private schools, while the proportion was less than 10% in Tripura, West Bengal and Bihar.
Similarly, the proportion of children in grades one to five who took private tuition classes was 22.6%, while it was 26.1% for grades six to eight. Like with private schooling, the incidence of private tuition varied across states with more than 60% children in Tripura and West Bengal availing of it, while the proportion was less than 5% in Chhattisgarh and Mizoram.
What the ASER study tells us is that this privatization of education in the country has helped, but not to the desirable degree. Yes, there is a difference between the quality of education offered by private institutions and that by government schools in rural India, but it is a gap that is seen to be made up through the input of private tuition. Given that the overall quality of education, as evident in the ability to read and do math, is so low, this outcome is a double whammy for parents opting for private education. Not only do they pay for it, but they have to also make do with poor quality.
In the final analysis, it is clear that the country is afflicted by a learning crisis. The only silver lining is that the situation can be corrected with minimal interventions. But for that the heart should be willing and the first step is to admit to the problem. Pratham has demonstrated with its work that improving outcomes don’t need more resources. Instead, as a section in the 2013 report states: “We don’t need more allocations, what we need is more effective use of the allocations we already have.”
Are politicians listening?
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com