The quality of education has a direct bearing on any economy. With some 240 million students or nearly 20% of the Indian population in school, their quality of learning or lack of it assumes significance for the competitiveness of the country. Quality of education has been a prickly issue in India for several years as it has an impact on the quality of life, efficiency at the workplace, and labour productivity issues. The latest Annual Status Of Education Report 2018 (Rural) or ASER 2018 holds a mirror to a country that is aspiring to be a knowledge power. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said on 26 September 2014 that there is no dearth of talent in India and “Mars success should be made an opportunity to make the world aware of Indian talent", the ASER report shows Indian children have a huge learning deficit. The highly respected annual report, which collected data from 596 districts in India, shows that one in two students (50.3%) in Indian schools lack basic reading ability not just of their own grade but also of those of three levels below. This is a 2.2 percentage point increase compared with the situation in 2014 and a dip of 3.1 percentage points compared with 2010. The situation with regard to arithmetic is equally abysmal—just 44.1% of class VIII students can do simple division. This strike rate is almost same as in 2014 and 4 percentage points less when compared with 2012.
This poor learning outcome in India is despite the Right to Education (RTE) Act having been in force since April 2010 making eight years of education compulsory for children and the Centre floating schemes such as “Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat", apart from states’ efforts. Access to elementary (classes I-VIII) schooling is almost universal and the number of children out of schools is below 4%, but a quality deficit, that too for more than a decade, raises questions about the priorities of governments at the central and state levels. The situation is bad at the secondary level too. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) report of 2011, India is placed only ahead of Kyrgyzstan in learning standards in a survey of students from 74 countries. Last year, the World Bank said Indians born today are likely to be just 44% productive as workers, way below their Asian peers.
Some may argue that the ASER data or the other surveys are only reiterating a problem without offering solutions, but experts and academicians feel that highlighting the problem over the last 14 years has only brought in awareness among all stakeholders, including the political class both at the centre and in states. As Yamini Aiyar, president of the Centre for Policy Research, points out, it is a long time to have only awareness, and a quantum jump in the education sector is the need of the hour. As the problem has now been diagnosed and public advocacy has got the momentum, the governments and civil society need to focus on three aspects—a bigger spending on education, maybe 6% of gross domestic product instead of the present 2.7%, political willingness to improve education, and a drastic change in the quality of teacher education. Nine years after RTE, more than 600,000 teachers are untrained and the quality of training schools is worse. Teachers’ efficiency will improve only with administrative incentives, better pay and a systematic change in the professional development of this cohort.