The deeply worrying news is that at age 18, 32 per cent of females are not enrolled in any institution as compared to 28 per cent males.
Post-independent India’s original sin was to neglect basic education and healthcare for the vast majority of its people. It is fashionable nowadays to blame our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for this, as for every other malaise afflicting the country, but successive governments including the current one have not accorded human development the priority position it deserves in their political agenda.
The results are there for all to see. While the country’s best and brightest have effortlessly competed with their peers worldwide and done well, millions and millions of young Indians remain handicapped because of lack of basic, quality education. This affects their ability to absorb skills that can lead to the kind of job that they aspire for and the trajectory of their lives.
We all know this from anecdotal evidence, but the release of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) sledgehammers this point.
Since 2006, ASER has focused on the 5-16 age-group. The ASER 2017: Beyond Basics report, released earlier this week in a packed hall in New Delhi’s India International Centre, focuses on an older age group who are between 14 to 18 years and have moved just beyond the elementary school age. This is a critical group because one out of every 10 Indians is currently in the 14-18 age-bracket, as the Census 2011 indicated. This comes to nearly 125 million young people, a vital piece of India’s projected “demographic dividend”.
How is this age group faring?
There are masses of statistics in the nearly 150-page-long report, the result of a volunteer-led survey of more than 30,000 14 to 18-year-olds carried out in 28 districts across 24 states in the country. But a few numbers and insights leap out after reading the report and listening to a distinguished panel comprising Dr Arvind Subramanian, chief economic adviser to the government, Dr K.P. Krishnan, secretary in the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship, Dr Madhav Chavan, co-founder of the NGO Pratham, which facilitates the ASER survey, and speaking to Dr Wilima Wadhwa, director of the ASER Centre.
The good news, as Dr Wadhwa points out, is that the surveyed group is the first generation of post-RTE children and the data shows that Class 8 enrolment has doubled in the past decade, jumping from 11 million to 22 million. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, or the Right to Education Act (RTE), as it is widely known, is a law that Parliament enacted on in August 2009, which makes education free and compulsory for children between six and 14 in the country.
ASER 2017 shows that hearteningly, 86 per cent of youth in the surveyed 14-18 age-group are still within the formal education system, and there is hardly any difference between the enrolment figures of boys and girls at age 14.
The deeply worrying news is that at age 18, 32 per cent of females are not enrolled in any institution as compared to 28 per cent males. “Once the eight years of elementary schooling are completed, girls begin to abandon schooling in far greater than do boys; beyond age 14, for every year that our young people grow older, the enrolment gap grows steadily larger,” the report states.
Why is this so? One key reason for the higher dropout levels among girls, according to the report, is that at higher levels of education, the number of schools in the country decreases dramatically. For example, going by the latest official data (2015-16), for every 100 elementary schools (Class 1-8) in rural India, there are just 14 that have secondary grades (Class 9-10) and only six with higher secondary grades (Class 11-12). This means that millions of ordinary young people have to travel long distances at each successive level of school education in this country. Then, there is the issue of cost. On an average, about 40 per cent schools that offer secondary or higher secondary grades are private, unaided institutions, not government schools.
Both these factors affect girls disproportionately. “Among the girls who were not currently enrolled, the largest proportion — around one in three — mentioned their family’s reluctance to let them study further due to a variety of reasons, that included but was not limited to worries about distance and security,” states the report. One of the poignant vignettes in the report spotlights 18-year-old Rita in Gujarat, one of the young women who dropped out after Class 8. When ASER surveyors arrived at her home, she was busy sweeping the courtyard. Her mother said the school was far and Rita could not possibly go. “I will get married and look after the house, what else,” said Rita, in a tone of bewilderment at the question. The search for an “appropriate boy” was on, said the family.
The figures and insights should make those spearheading the government’s flagship Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao initiative think deeply about what is going wrong on the ground.
The ASER 2017 report, Beyond the Basics, foregrounds fundamental issues about India’s current skilling programme. ASER 2017 shows that a large proportion of the 14 to 18-year-olds can at least read simple text but their maths levels remain “quite poor”, and don’t show improvement with age. With children getting promoted automatically till Class 8, it is also tough to make out the actual learnings that have happened in each case. Are vocational courses the way out for those who drop out?
“Stress the foundation,” says Dr Wilima Wadhwa. The latest ASER report suggests that “in the 14-18 age-group, there is not much evidence that children are learning vocational skills.”
“The answer to India’s larger skilling problems does not lie in the short, modular courses, although it does help a good number of people in poverty. They acquire some skills, get jobs, learn further on the job and move upward. The real answer lies in creating progressively strong foundations at different stages in school and junior college level and then offer options. The youth should be able to work as they study or study as they work because earning is an immediate need and learning for upward mobility will be a growing aspiration.” As the world of work changes rapidly, a strong foundation and flexibility will be the key determinants in shaping the future of the young Indian.
Aspirations are rising. Many young people have access to a mobile phone but not good, basic education. Can India’s policymakers afford to let millions languish at a level where they can’t be trained for the new, emerging world of work while a few soar and shine brightly?