New Delhi: At least 25% of school children in the four-eight age group do not have age-appropriate cognitive and numeracy skills, making for a massive learning deficit at a very early stage, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) released on Tuesday.
The government-run preschool system is losing out to private schools in terms of enrolment, said ASER 2019, which this year focuses on early education. The report, based on a survey conducted in 26 districts across 24 states by education non-profit Pratham, also highlights a gender gap in schooling.
The lack of age-appropriate skills is alarming as this gap at an early age can impact the entire education supply chain in India.
Just 37.4% of children below six are able to recognize at least letters and only 25.6% can do additions, according to the report. Similarly, only 34.8% of children in Class II can read a text meant for the level below. And at Class III, only 50.8% can read texts meant for their juniors two levels below.
The report underlined the need to focus on the early years to improve the basics of education. A focus on the “breadth of skills" and activities that strengthen cognitive skills rather than formal subject-learning in the early years may generate substantial benefits for later academic performance, it said.
The study also showed how a better education level among mothers can lead to better outcomes among children in preschools and early schools. Numeracy skills among Class III children of illiterate mothers are much lower than those whose mothers had studied till Class XI or above. Only 29.2% of Class III children of illiterate mothers can do a two-digit addition. This rises to 64% for the same student cohort of mothers, who have studied at the level of senior secondary or above.
The findings also showed that more girls are enrolled in government institutions and more boys in private institutions. Among four-five year-old children, 56.8% of girls and 50.4% of boys were enrolled in government schools or preschools, whereas 43.2% of girls and 49.6% of boys were enrolled in private preschools or schools, the survey found.
“The gap in enrolment between boys and girls is larger among 6-8 year olds, with 61.1% of all girls versus 52.1% of all boys in this age group going to a government institution," it said.
“Government policy and practice has not kept pace with people’s aspirations as the Indian economy liberalized," said Pratham CEO Rukmini Banerjee. “Most of the young mothers in the next decade will not be very young as the median age of marriage has increased over the years from 18.2 years in 2001 to nearly 21.7 in rural India and 23.4 in urban India by 2016. There is also the improvement of education among women. Such changes in the profile of young Indian mothers need to be taken into account when thinking of the education inputs to be designed for the young children."
Coherence between central ministries is essential for improving early childhood education policymaking, but it is better to encourage state and district administrations to have a greater say to make early education effective, said Yamini Aiyar, president of the Centre for Policy Research.
The government preschool system is managed through the Centre’s Integrated Child Development scheme, under the ministry of women and child development, while schools come under the education ministries at the Centre and in the states.