In September 2015, at the United Nations General Assembly Meeting, governments around the world committed themselves to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to balance the social, economic and ecological dimensions of sustainable development. The SDGs are an extension of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which expired at the end of 2015. UN member states are expected to form frameworks and take responsibility for the fulfilment of these SDGs by 2030 in their respective nations. But is our government going in the right direction toward education?
Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all like the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) perfectly encapsulates the motto- “Leave no one behind”. However, India’s progress in attaining this goal is a mixed success story. With innumerable schemes like Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, Mid-day Meal, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY), Beti Bachao, Beti Padao and the Right to Education (RTE) Act, we all expected modification in the sector with everyone getting free access to quality education and thus able to improve their living standards. But that is not the story here. Although India has made progress in getting children enrolled in educational institutions, it is still not enough. In fact, according to the Progress Report 2020, the Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) for primary education has decreased from 87.1% in 2015-16 to 82.5% in 2017-18. Similarly, for the upper primary, it has decreased from 74% to 72.6%. But still, India has come a long way since 1947 in terms of quantity of education and it’s doing better in that regard. What it really lacks in is the quality of education.
Despite implementing the Right to Education Act 2009, India’s performance is worse than the developing South-East Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam with the mean years of schooling at 6.5 years according to the Human Development Report 2019. The learning outcomes are even worse. According to ASER Report 2018, only 44.2% of Standard V students and 69% of Standard VIII students in rural government schools can read a Standard II level text and this proportion has only decreased in the last 10 years. Between 2008 and 2018, the proportion of ‘division solvers’ in Standard V in rural government schools went down from 34% to 22.7% and that for the students in Standard VIII went down from 65.2% to 40%. These figures are just outrageous. There is a huge variation in the literacy and numeracy levels among these students which is the most critical constraint in the structure of the Indian Education system. The learning outcomes for rural private schools are no better than rural public schools. PISA is an international assessment that provides cross-national learning benchmarks and helps nations improving their learning levels. The last time India participated in PISA in 2009-10, it stood at the second last place. Imagine the learning deficits that have accumulated from years of low-quality education. When the time comes to look for employment, what are these young people trained in this mangy manner going to find?
With the reduction in profitability from agricultural activities, parents in rural areas have let their children study well beyond the age when they have themselves joined the workforce in hope that it will be a way out of their insecure farm life. However, when these children graduate, they will find that there are hardly any good jobs. It’s a disaster that is waiting to happen. Even if we look at the whole population instead of just these poorly educated rural children, the story remains the same. The Annual Employability Survey 2019 report by Aspiring Minds revealed that only 20% of the Indian engineers were found employable in the knowledge economy and a meagre 2.5% of them possess new-age skills in Artificial Intelligence (AI) that the industry actually requires. These figures can be justified if we look at the proportion of those above 5 years of age who are able to use the internet which is just 20.1%. Estimates suggest that only 2.3% of India’s workforce has undergone formal skill training compared to Germany’s 75% and South Korea’s 96%. The enrolment rate for tertiary education is merely 28.3% which points towards failed policies. This all has led to a large fraction of the workforce having insufficient work skills. If the employability remains so low, we cannot ensure a sustainable pool of students enrolled in schools as their trust in the system erodes.
According to a report tabled in the parliament by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), we have over 100,000 schools with solitary teachers. At the national level, over 75 per cent of schools have a multi-grade situation with one teacher being coerced into teaching students of several grades in the same classroom. The high rate of teacher absenteeism, limited time spent on teaching when the teacher is in the class and generally poor quality of education are among important reasons for an abysmally low number of enrolments as reported by the NITI Aayog. In February 2015, Maharashtra held an evaluation test for teachers of government-run schools. Only a little over 1% primary teachers and 4.9% upper primary teachers who took the test passed. This is a furious figure and perfectly explains where the problem lies in our education system.
Talking about inclusion for everybody, India’s position is abominable in that too. Literacy rate of male population above 15 years of age is 82% while that of the female population is just 65% which is a stark difference. The reasons for females for not attending school being the classic ones – engaged in domestic activities, financial constraints, marriage or not interested in getting education. The enrolment rate of children with disabilities is mortifying with merely 1.18% in primary education, 0.56% in secondary education and 0.25% in higher secondary education. There is an urgent need to develop infrastructure to accommodate these children as hardly 22% of the schools have disabled-friendly toilets and only 33% have disabled-friendly ramps. Not only this but only 55 in 100 schools have basic handwashing facilities.
The Draft National Education Policy 2019 (DNEP) bought really good suggestions regarding the separation of regulators from operators and policymakers thus avoiding the conflict of interest, significant autonomy to the university system and Early Child Care and Education (ECCE) but it fails to address the real crisis which is teacher quality or rather teacher’s unaccountability. The underlying notion for all the reforms suggested is that there is a lack of resources which can be in connection with infrastructure, quantity of teachers or even quantity of trained teachers and this is a fundamentally mistaken idea. The real culprit is not the lack of inputs but the absence of accountability of schools, teachers and the system as a whole.
The new education policy also asked to double the public expenditure on education from 10.6% (2018-19) to 20%. It is not a sensible thing to do in the current circumstances of wastage of government resources. Public Schools with fewer than 50 students and an average of 29 students per school stood at 3.7 lakh schools in 2014-15. They represented 36% of all public schools. This is a catastrophic situation. This is too small a size for it to be pedagogically or even economically viable as the per-pupil salary expenditure becomes really high. At the point where the learning outcomes of these government schools are pitiably low, almost 80% of the public expenditure on education in 2018-19 is spent on teacher’s salaries. In a state like Uttar Pradesh, there is an increase of 15% in salaries each year where inflation is just 3-3.5%. All the capacity of the state to increase expenditure on education is being tapped by salaries alone. There is such an inefficient use of the government resources that any effort towards increasing education spending is like putting your money in a blackhole. What we need to do is put in place some new governance mechanisms to increase efficiency instead of increasing the budget itself.
The policy talks about the issue of small schools being economically suboptimal and suggests for consolidation of these schools by creating large school complexes. But this again won’t be beneficial for students if it is not done keeping in mind that these small schools cater to the needs of those living in isolated and remote areas. An independent study by Accountability Initiate (AI) maintained that Rajasthan saw a 6% decline in enrolment of backward social groups including Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) when small schools were merged. The study highlighted that the stakeholders in the process namely teachers, principals and parents were never consulted. If providing the required number of teachers for every school has become physically and economically unviable, we must seriously review the earlier approach of providing a school in every habitation within one or three kilometres or providing a school where 20 or more school-going children live. If they want to consolidate schools, they should provide the children with facilities to go to school.
India has a long way to go to provide quality education to all. It especially needs to focus on rural and backward regions’ education which is in poor health and needs an overhaul. India’s history is strewed with ambitious education policies that have not been fully implemented. The latest National Education Policy has a possibility of being similar to the previous policies in terms of poor implementation unless the government addresses the reasons behind the past policy implementation failures and makes conscious efforts to amend the mistakes. These points are important because in India what we tend to do is write policies and plans that say the right things but are unable to drive the intended changes.