What do India’s out-of-school children do?

Census data shows that a majority of children who are out of school do not have to work, supporting the NSSO’s finding that education being viewed as unnecessary is a major reason for school drop-outs


Despite succeeding in increasing enrolment through schemes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, India is struggling to keep its children in school, and the reasons are not necessarily economic. Photo: Sneha Srivastava/Mint
Despite succeeding in increasing enrolment through schemes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, India is struggling to keep its children in school, and the reasons are not necessarily economic. Photo: Sneha Srivastava/Mint

A report published by the National Sample Survey Organisation last year included a rather curious finding. More than 32 children out of 100 who dropped out of school in the age-group of 10-14 years did so because they did not think that education was necessary. The number was almost double those who dropped out to supplement family incomes or attend to domestic chores. The findings can be seen in detail in these pages. (See here for details )

Recently released census data supports these findings. In 2011, nearly three in four persons in the age group of 5-19 years who were not attending an educational institution were non-workers.

Non-workers are defined as those who were neither working nor available for work in the preceding year. Although the share of non-workers among those attending an educational institution is significantly higher, the data dispels the notion that a majority of India’s young population that is not attending an educational institution is doing so to earn a living—meaning that child labour is not something that plagues the majority of India’s children.

The data classifies the 5-19 year-old population not attending an educational institution currently into two sub-groups: those who were attending an educational institution earlier and those who have never attended one.

In what appears to be a curious phenomenon, the latter group reports a higher share of non-workers and a lower share of main workers than the former.

Main workers are defined as those who have worked for six months or more in the preceding year. These numbers seem to suggest that even a cursory brush with education increases the probability of finding work as well as finding it for a longer time.

It is one thing to expect a premium for education in the regular job market. But does the labour market for children also have some sort of a premium for education? Santosh Mehrotra, professor at the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says this might indeed be the case. Since the population in this age-group is too young to take up jobs requiring heavy manual work in sectors such as construction, the completely illiterate ones might have to wait for some time to become part of the regular workforce, Mehrotra explains. On the other hand, being able to read and write can help one get jobs which require doing relatively less demanding physical work such as that of a help in a grocery shop.

These numbers also need to be viewed in the context of the fact that there was a significant reduction in poverty in the period from 2004-05 to 2011-12, which was also accompanied by a rise in rural wages. Although the poverty line set by the Tendulkar Committee (formed in 2005 to devise a formula to assess poverty) does not mean much, the increased earnings might have been enough for parents to ensure that their children did not have to work, Mehrotra added.

The data also underlines the discrimination faced by girl children vis-à-vis their male counterparts in both education and employment. While the proportion of girls not attending an education institution is higher than boys, and the gap increases with age, their proportion among non-workers is also higher than boys. The latter figure needs to be read with the rider that most girls are expected to attend to household chores, unlike boys.

Overall, the share of population in the 5-19 year age group not attending an educational institution currently is less than 30%. These headlines numbers might not reveal the true picture of our education system. While the share of children above the age of 8 years who have never attended school does not go beyond 13%, drop-outs start increasing at an alarming rate after the age of 14 years. This means that despite succeeding in increasing enrolment through schemes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, India is struggling to keep its children in school, and the reasons are not necessarily economic.

Surveys on learning outcome have often highlighted the fact that despite going to school, children are unable to perform even basic tasks such as reading a paragraph or solving elementary arithmetic problems.

It is entirely possible that poor quality of teaching or no teaching at all might be driving students away from schools, even if they do not have to work or earn money to support their families, Mehrotra added.

When seen in this context, the NSSO report’s findings that a significant proportion of out-of-school children find education unnecessary might be on the same page with industry reports that find India’s graduates unemployable. Neither believes that our education system is imparting useful skills. If India is serious about exploiting its demographic advantage, it must pay heed to these warning signs.

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