The focus in education needs to shift from enrolment ratios to quality parameters.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme and a 2 per cent primary education cess levied on Central taxes since 2004-05 have undoubtedly delivered results from a quantitative perspective. The proportion of rural children in the 6-14 age group enrolled in schools has risen to around 96 per cent. Also, the fact that over 82 per cent of girls aged 15-16 years today study in schools — compared with the times when a majority of them would have been married off — definitely represents progress. Equally significant is the provision of basic infrastructure/facilities: almost three-fourths of all schools now have drinking water, two-thirds have playgrounds and usable toilets, and more than 87 per cent serve mid-day meals for students. These ratios, while far from ideal, were much worse a decade ago.
But what the above improvements mask is a simultaneous deterioration on the qualitative front, captured starkly in an Annual Status of Education Report prepared by the NGO, Pratham. According to it, only 25.6 per cent of Std V schoolchildren in rural India in 2013 could solve three-digit by one-digit division problems, while only 47 per cent were capable of reading Std II-level textbooks. Given that the corresponding numbers in 2009 were somewhat better at 38.1 and 52.9 per cent respectively, it points to a phenomenon of more children going to school and yet learning less. This crisis of quality has also been highlighted by other surveys, including a worldwide assessment test of reading, and mathematical and scientific skills among 15-year-old students conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. India did not participate in the last test in 2012, but in an evaluation round held three years earlier, it ranked second from the bottom after Kyrgyzstan. At the top of the 74-country list was China.
There are many lessons here. That the average Indian is just 25.5 years gives the country the chance to reap a demographic dividend similar to the phenomenal growth rates that China recorded over the last three decades, courtesy a predominantly young workforce. But young people are an asset only when they have the skills necessary to meet the demands of a globalised economy. And that can come only with quality education down to the level of our mofussil and village schools. The Pratham report has a revealing statistic: the proportion of 6-14 -year-olds enrolled in rural private schools went up from 17 to 29 per cent between 2005 and 2013. The reason for this is only quality; all indicators clearly show private schools delivering better learning outcomes than government schools. The time has come to focus more on quality in government-run schools and also look at models to incentivise inclusionary education by private schools. Government grants to private schools linked to their intake of students from less privileged backgrounds can certainly be one of them.