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Despite India being one of the world’s youngest countries in terms of age, our investment in human capital remains one of the lowest. With nearly one-third of our population belonging to the 5-19 years age group (Census 2011), there is a vast pool of human capital that needs to be tapped by investing right from the very start.

The introduction of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, which is only the third such policy document on education since independence, envisions India as a global knowledge powerhouse and gives an impetus to this cause. The policy aims not only to universalize education by achieving cent-percent rates of gross enrolment, but also to bring children who have dropped out back to school and prevent others from dropping out. Additionally, the policy aims to bring children as young as three years old under the school curriculum, thereby acknowledging the importance of early childhood interventions in education for better cognitive development (Heckman, 2000). Further, the NEP recognizes that one of the most important ways to achieve its goals would be to upgrade and enlarge the schools that already exist, build more quality schools in areas where they do not, and providing safe and practical modes of conveyances, as well as hostels, especially for girls, so that all children have an opportunity to attend a quality school of the level appropriate to their educational needs.

A major bottleneck in achieving these goals is a severe supply-side constraint, which is the unavailability of adequate schools in every village. The adverse effects of this supply inadequacy on the schooling of children, specifically in rural India, have been highlighted by a recent study published as a working paper by O.P. Jindal Global University in 2020. The study, titled ‘Role of Public Schools on Education Decisions in India’, used data from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) and found that nearly 23% of children across all states do not have access to a public school that is appropriate as per their last class attended “within their village". Among them, roughly 30% for whom the appropriate class is from grades 6-8 do not have access to a middle-level school. As many as 80% of the children whose appropriate class is from grades 9-12 do not have access to a secondary-level school. Most of them belong to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Maharashtra.

The study also highlighted significant intra-household variation in access to an appropriate school. That is, in roughly 34% of households, there are children with no access to an appropriate school living alongside siblings who do have access to one. With primary-level schools being omnipresent across all states—93% of Indian children have access to them—the study emphasized that what is more relevant is the presence of all three levels of schooling—primary, middle and secondary—within the same village.

The main finding of the study, therefore, was the importance of having full-fledged schools within Indian villages to improve school enrolment and participation, as the presence of an appropriate school within easy reach significantly improves the probability of a child going to school at all three levels of education.

The presence of a close-by school reduces the cost of transportation that a family would have to incur on a child travelling to another village to attend classes (note that attending a local private school could prove too costly for many). Further, it also helps in reducing time and effort expended on schooling, in addition to lowering the psychological costs that emerge from concerns over the safety and well-being of children who must travel some distance. This is particularly important for us to obtain better schooling outcomes for the girl child. As the study noted, patriarchal norms and additional concerns associated with the safety of girls mean that public schools within a village deliver better results for girls than boys. Also, the value of an appropriate school is significantly higher for a girl child at the secondary level of education.

Providing children with access to all three levels of school education within their village could thus go a long way in bridging gender gaps and improving educational outcomes. With the enactment of the Right to Education Act in 2009 and now with the introduction of the NEP, education is no longer just a need, but a legal right. It, therefore, becomes the state’s responsibility to ensure the fulfilment of this right.

The need for public schools in general has only become more acute since the outbreak of the covid pandemic, which has affected the livelihoods of a large number of households and strained the financial sustainability of low-cost private schools. As a result of this, more and more children are being moved by parents from private to public schools, a trend confirmed by the ASER report of 2020, thereby increasing pressure on the country’s existing educational infrastructure.

Ensuring the availability of proximately located schools at all levels of education would require innovation and investment in this vital sector. It’s imperative to expand schooling systems to serve educational needs at higher levels everywhere. Human capital and other resources need to be mobilized on a vast scale to see this done.

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