The latest Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) highlights India’s poor results in school education, despite the universal access law (the right to education, or RTE, Act) and a tax to fund it. While the ‘access’ (school enrolment) showing has stabilised at near-universal—96.7% of children in the age group of 6-14 years were enrolled in schools in 2014, the same as in 2013—the quality of education in the schools has failed to improve.
The proportion of Class 5 students who could read Class 2-level text did improve by 1% over 2013, but still remains at a miserable 48.1%—which means over half the students perhaps have remained deficient in learning for over three academic years. Further, that only 44.1% of Class 8 students could do division and only 25% of those in Class 5 could read a simple English sentence exposes the poor learning levels in government schools. In fact, the proportion of Class 8 students who could comprehend English has fallen from 60.2 % in 2009 to 46.8% in 2014. Such sorry learning outcomes undermine the potential of India’s much-vaunted demographic dividend. There are no easy fixes, but the Aser report does have many key lessons for the government. Given the rising proportion of students in private schools and those seeking private tuitions, the government needs to foster a climate in which private education providers are encouraged. This can start with a part of the RTE funds being directly transferred to beneficiaries who can then use it to seek private school admissions or engage private tutors. The focus of government policy on school education, given the near universal access achieved, has to shift to improving learning outcomes.