New Delhi: India has made significant progress in meeting human development goals, including universal primary education and gender parity in its school system, in the last 15 years, according to a global report by the UN education and cultural agency Unesco.

The report—Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report 2015—has, however, criticized the country on three counts: the large number of illiterate adults, the quality of learning outcomes and the mushrooming of private schools in urban slums. Globally, there are about 781 million illiterate adults, of which 265 million are Indians, the report said.

“India has made striking progress towards reaching the measurable ‘Education for All’ goals. Since 2000, when countries committed themselves to the goals, India has reduced its out-of-school children by over 90% and universal primary education has been achieved. This year, India is predicted to be the only country in South and West Asia to have an equal ratio of girls to boys in both primary and secondary education," the UN body said.

Aaron Benavot, chief author of the report, said India had 16 million out-of-school children in 2000 and in 2015, it is just one million. “India has many things to celebrate in terms of education achievements, yet some more needs to be achieved," he said in a telephone interview.

Benavot said that early childhood education, universal primary education, the huge reduction in out-of-school children and gender equality are big achievements for India, a country where more that 220 million children are in schools. The Unesco report said India also made significant progress in increasing its net enrolment, suggesting “a more equitable distribution of economic gains".

“India has successfully moved towards reaching the EFA goals, especially in ensuring near universal elementary education and enrolment of girls. India’s efforts have been backed by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. To ensure continued participation of girls in education, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (Save the Girl, Educate the Girl) initiative has recently been launched in India," the report said, citing human resource development (HRD) minister Smriti Irani.

The report, however, said that India continues to be a laggard in reducing adult illiteracy. “The rate of illiteracy is likely to have dropped slightly from 18% in 2000 to 14% in 2015, which means that the target of halving illiteracy has not been achieved. Only 17 out of 73 countries with a literacy rate below 95% in 2000 halved their illiteracy rate by 2015," the report said.

Benavot said the quality of learning in India also needs to improve, a point several surveys have indicated in recent years. According to the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) published in January 2015, India appears to have partially arrested the decline in the quality of learning of schoolchildren in rural areas, but there is little to cheer about the country’s performance.

In 2014, the proportion of all children in class 5 who could read a class 2 textbook was up by a minuscule 1.1 percentage points—from 47% in 2013 to 48.1% in 2014. This implies that every second class 5 student in rural India cannot read the text of a class 3 levels below, the ASER report said.

Globally, just one-third of the countries have achieved all of the measurable Education for All goals set in 2000. Only half of all countries have achieved the most watched goal of universal primary enrolment, the Unesco report said.

The report said that funding of education remains a key challenge in the face of economic uncertainties and urged countries and donors to keep their focus on education.

“An extra $22 billion a year is needed on top of already ambitious government contributions in order to ensure we achieve the new education targets now being set for 2030," the report said.

Unesco director general Irina Bokova said that despite not meeting the 2015 deadline, millions of children are in school. However, “the agenda is far from finished. We need to see specific, well-funded strategies that prioritize the poorest—especially girls—improve the quality of learning and reduce the literacy gap so that education becomes meaningful and universal," Bokova said.

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