A numbers game

Enrolment does not equal education, argues Nilanjana Bhowmick.

Deepika Singh learnt to sign her name during one of India’s frenetic mass literacy campaigns in the early 2000s. The 45-year-old remembers practising for months in order to write her name on a form that would then declare her literate. Almost 17 years on, she signs hesitantly, her English alphabet all over the place, some letters upside down, some inside out. Laboriously signing her name is the extent of her literacy. But she counts among India’s 64.6 per cent ‘functionally literate’ women, exemplifying a rotting, tick-the-box system.

It has been a decade since India enacted the Right to Education Act, which made education a right for children between the ages of 6 and 14. The act boosted available resources and helped notch up impressive enrolment figures – currently, only 2.8 per cent of children are out of school in India, the first time the figure has fallen below 3 per cent. But the structural flaws in our educational system have only deepened in the past 10 years, which means that while more children are going to school now, they are learning less, owing largely to a glaring shortage of qualified teachers. Elementary schools in India are lacking more than 500,000 teachers.

According to the 2018 Annual Status of Education Report, numeracy and literacy standards among Indian children were below par and in some cases even lower than recorded 10 years earlier in 2008. After five years of schooling, at age 10-11 years, just 51 per cent of students can read a second-grade level text (appropriate for seven- to eight-year-olds). A measly 28 per cent of fifth-grade children were able to do divisions in arithmetic in 2018, compared to 37 per cent in 2008.

India has one of the largest populations of illiterate people in the world at 266 million, amounting to 35 per cent of the global total

‘It has to be understood that we are struggling even with basic literacy and numeracy,’ the report said, adding that India was ‘far from becoming an educated nation’.

India has one of the largest populations of illiterate people in the world at 266 million, amounting to 35 per cent of the global total. This is a huge concern for a developing country, which is expected to become the world’s second-largest economy by the year 2050 and which will have the youngest population in the world by next year. There is also a price to pay for such illiteracy in terms of unrealized potential – for India, that has been estimated at $53.6 billion per year.

NITI Aayog, India’s largest government thinktank, has recognized this as a growing crisis and has asked for government spending on education to be doubled.

‘In the next three years, we must focus on introducing changes that help produce improved learning outcomes in the short term as well as lay down the foundation of long-term strategic change,’ the thinktank said in a report, adding that the right to education must ‘become a right to learning, instead of being, as it currently is, a right to go to school’.

Public consultation on the draft of a new National Education Policy which aims to revamp India’s education system closed at the end of June. But the success of any such policy in India depends more on action than intent. In the last decade, India has crossed a huge hurdle and succeeded in bringing the vast majority of children to schools. The challenge now is to educate them.