Our school infrastructure needs to be revamped to flatten its pyramid

There has been pupil-teache ratio reduction from 29 to 23 at the primary level, 26 to 18 at the upper-primary, 26 to 17 at the secondary and 38 to 26 at the higher-secondary levels.
There has been pupil-teache ratio reduction from 29 to 23 at the primary level, 26 to 18 at the upper-primary, 26 to 17 at the secondary and 38 to 26 at the higher-secondary levels.


  • The base of primary education has widened in India but we still lack capacity for higher-level schooling. This results in a squeeze, with enrollment showing pyramidal attrition as children turn into teenagers. This challenge must be met.

Investing in public education systems is crucial for countries seeking to leverage their demographic dividend. South Korea’s economic development, often called the ‘Miracle on the Han River,’ exemplifies the impact of strategic educational investments. During its rapid industrialization, the emphasis on education significantly improved literacy rates and provided the necessary skills for industrial and technological sectors.

Empirical research supports the notion that educational investment is positively correlated with economic growth. According to World Bank studies, each additional year of schooling is associated with up to a 10% increase in individual earnings, and countries prioritizing educational quality generally exhibit higher economic growth rates. Similarly, a study by Unicef found that each additional year of schooling is associated with an increase of 0.37 percentage points in GDP growth. This can rise up to 1 percentage point with improved learning outcomes.

As the demographic window narrows with time, the elderly population’s proportion is set to rise, gradually diminishing the dividend. This transient nature of a demographic advantage underscores the urgency for strategic interventions to harness its potential before the contours shift towards an older demographic profile. In this context, strategic investments in education are paramount in amplifying the benefits of the demographic dividend. This is precisely what India is doing.

Data for 2023 from the Unified Digital Information on School Education (UDISE+) tracker under the Union education ministry shows that between 2014 and 2023, there were significant advancements in structural and gender parity aspects. The pupil-teacher ratio (PTR), a crucial indicator, has seen a remarkable decrease across all levels of education, signifying smaller class sizes and more individualized attention to students. There has been PTR reduction from 29 to 23 at the primary level, 26 to 18 at the upper-primary, 26 to 17 at the secondary and 38 to 26 at the higher-secondary levels, reflecting a concerted effort to improve the quality of education through increased teacher recruitment. Further, the teaching staff has attained a gender balance, with female teachers now comprising 52.3% of the workforce in 2022-23, up from 46.9% in 2014-15, thanks to the hiring of over 4.1 million new teachers, 60% of whom are female.

In conjunction with infrastructural improvements, there has been a qualitative leap in student outcomes, particularly in secondary and higher- secondary board exams. Between 2013 and 2022, the number of students within the public education system passing with 60% and above has surged, with ‘pass’ students in Class 10 rising from 5.8 million to nearly 9.8 million and in Class 12 from 3.6 million to over 4.3 million. There are also major gains among female students, whose pass rates rose by 72% in Class 10 sand 87% in Class 12, surpassing the improvement rates of their male counterparts.

To further harness the demographic dividend, state-level educational reforms are crucial, given education’s place in the concurrent list of India’s Constitution. This column series will explore key challenges facing India’s public education, starting with its pyramidal structure. This structure, a by-product of well-meaning policies, mirrors the ‘Delhi Cobra Effect’: as the story goes, British incentives to decrease Delhi’s cobra population inadvertently encouraged cobra breeding, thereby worsening the problem after the programme ended and the snakes were freed.

Similarly, the Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009 aimed to ensure universal access to education in the age group of 6 to 14 years. This Act, with its stipulated distance norms for primary and upper-primary schools (1km and 3km respectively), has significantly increased the number of schools that are within accessible walking distance for children. This effort led to expanded educational infrastructure, particularly at the primary and upper-primary levels, to comply with the Act’s accessibility requirements, resulting in a more decentralized distribution of schools, especially in rural and remote areas. However, the Act’s focus on elementary education has inadvertently led to a relative scarcity of secondary and higher secondary schools in some states. Resources have thus been disproportionately allocated for elementary schooling, often at the expense of developing secondary and higher-secondary infrastructure.

UDISE+ data reveals a stark decline in enrolments within India’s public education system: from 122.5 million in primary schools, it plummets to 63.5 million in upper-primary, further dwindling to 38 million at the secondary level, with a mere 27.8 million at the higher-secondary level, illustrating a severe pyramidal attrition as educational levels advance. Further, there are 743,000 schools at the primary level, accounting for 50.7% of all schools. However, as students advance to higher educational levels, there is a sharp decline in the number of schools available, with only 150,000 schools (10.3%) at the higher-secondary level. This imbalance creates a bottleneck effect, where the capacity to accommodate students in the public education system drastically reduces as they climb higher.

The current educational bottleneck, highlighted by a mere 44% retention rate to higher-secondary levels against the National Education Policy’s 100% goal, underscores the urgency for systemic reforms. This stark drop-off, indicative of potential drop-out spikes at key transition stages, necessitates a comprehensive overhaul. It must include increasing secondary and higher-secondary seats, enhancing educational access, and ensuring a smooth progression with sufficient infrastructure and teachers at the state level. Addressing this pyramidal shrinkage is crucial for us to tackle educational disparities and unlock India’s human capital potential. The onus is on state governments, despite Union support via the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, to implement these critical steps.

Our next column in this series will explore how our multiplicity of school categories exacerbates transition-point drop-outs.

These are the authors’ personal views.

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