Home / Opinion / Online-views /  India’s secondary education challenge: it’s not elementary, my dear

The latest Annual Status of Education Report findings—that while 86% of adolescents are enrolled in the formal education system, only 53% of all 14-year-olds can read a simple text in English and just 44% can perform a simple division—highlight the sobering status of secondary education in India today.

After being pushed along this curricular conveyer belt till they turn 14, undereducated adolescents are left to navigate secondary schooling on their own. Enrolment numbers drop as a result and many do not even complete Class X. Even among those who persevere, the government’s National Achievement Survey (NAS) of 2014 found only 16% of Class X students across all types of schools who could correctly answer more than half the mathematics questions put to them.

Having created this artificial administrative distinction between primary and secondary, the need to urgently reform secondary education in India must at least now be recognized. Children are being schooled but not educated. Lessons are being taught but not learnt. The learning crisis is compounding.

If money is a predicator of government priority, the torpor in secondary education is clearly visible in the low spending on the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA)—the government’s flagship programme aimed at providing universal access to quality secondary education. While the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-2017) had recommended Rs27,466 crore to be allocated to RMSA, only Rs19,372 crore was allocated and even less spent. In 2016-17, per-student allocations drop from Rs6,663 per annum to Rs3,960 per annum between primary and secondary levels, despite the far fewer students who make it this far.

These low investments have had a direct bearing on everything from infrastructure quality to access. Digital India sends most of its children to high schools without access to computer labs or even libraries. Learning becomes a second order problem when basic facilities are found lacking. Yet, as the elementary education experience demonstrates, inputs and infrastructure are essential but not in themselves sufficient to improve quality. The transition from schooling to learning is far more complicated. Our many mistakes and few achievements in elementary education however can help bridge this chasm.

The first step to building this bridge is to accurately measure the distance that is to be covered. Regular assessments can serve as checkpoints to assess absorption and assimilation. Teaching must be tailored to student needs instead of government mandates on curriculum. Last year, the Right to Education Act was amended to capture learning outcomes and NAS (a competency-based evaluation covering 2.2 million students across 110,000 schools) was launched. This “tool to understand what exactly the child should be learning in various classes, how to teach this through activities, and how to measure and ensure that children have reached the required level" was however limited to elementary education. If learning is an incremental process, surely so should be its measurement.

Measurement, just like schooling, for its own sake is of little use, however. Syllabus completion and high pass percentages have thus far guided teachers. The added pressure of board examinations in Classes X and XII only drives teaching further away from learning. Aspirations and needs of the adolescents on the cusp of adulthood are left unaddressed and they gain neither the expertise nor knowledge required in this fast globalizing economy. For measurement to be meaningful and actionable, the curricular benchmarks against which students are measured require an overhaul.

Having charted a new road map, movement along it will need close monitoring. Classroom interactions, which without foundational skills inculcated at the elementary level, are even more challenging, must be enhanced. Pedagogical innovations including supplementary materials targeted at actual learning levels, and remedial education to effectively address these needs are essential.

These recommendations may seem obvious but they are also extremely ambitious. They require a complete transformation of the governance and incentive system currently operating in education. For teachers to have autonomy and flexibility to innovate—appointing qualified and trained subject teachers is not enough—systemic institutional reform is essential. Management and planning structures need to be strengthened to ensure that objectives are changed from curriculum completion to learning. Moreover, since finances guide priorities, this will require strengthening the planning and budgeting system to focus on school needs and increasing flexibility in spending with a focus on quality education.

India has such limited access to basic education that any conversation about quality education is seen as aspirational bordering on utopian. Meanwhile, our much-touted demography, which is expected to bring dividends, is finding itself starved of investment. Skilling missions will not suffice. Education standards must be improved drastically and rapidly. In order for national ambitions to fructify, personal ambitions must be allowed to flower.

Avani Kapur is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and director of Accountability Initiative.

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