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Need for Overcoming the ‘Learning Deficit’

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The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is well known for waking us to the grim realities of our learning system. What has changed from the early years of ASER, when its findings were viewed with scepticism, is that now there is general acceptance of the learning crisis. However, little has changed in the country’s primary and secondary education system. The current edition of the report reveals the prevalence of learning deficit albeit marginal improvements in comparison to 2016.

There have been premature narratives terming this marginal improvement as a trend of change led by government-run schools. This change, if any, is welcome, however, it still falls significantly short. It raises several questions on our treasured demographic dividend which is glaring to be a predicament in the future.

Highlighting the ‘learning deficit’ – A crisis at the foundation

The ASER test focuses on three primary areas: enrollment and attendance, the ability of children to read basic texts and perform basic arithmetic operations, and the availability of basic facilities in schools. India has been successful in providing access to education with more than 95% children of the age group 6 to 14 enrolled in schools. Around 70% of the children enrolled to study in government-run schools, emphasizing the role of government in the distribution of learning outcomes. It is a general belief that children studying in private schools are from better economic and educational backgrounds than those from government-run schools. Many of them have access to learning beyond the schooling system.

The crux of the problem lies in the learning outcomes. A little more than 50% of all students in Class V can read texts meant for Class II students. While only 44% of children enrolled in Class VIII could solve a three-digit by one-digit division problem correctly.

Around 28% children of age 3 were not enrolled in any form of pre-schooling or schooling. Around 27% of children who were enrolled in grade 1 were of the age 5 or below. As per the RTE Act, enrolment in schools should begin at age six, with early childhood education exposure recommended for children between age three and six.

Another statistic to be noted is the significant percentage of schools with multi-grade classes (children sitting with one or more other classes). Further, around 78% of schools had no computer available for children to use.

To put forward the grimness of the situation, these are foundational abilities that are being tested. India needs to leapfrog its efforts by shifting focus from enrollment to learning.

Education as an investment for economic growth and social development

Over the past few decades, researchers and economists have expounded on the direct and indisputable link between access to quality education, economic growth and social development. The quality and years of schooling completed have a direct impact on the quality of the labour force. Generalising this impact, economists have conceptualised the importance of human capital in an economy. Human capital has been positioned as one of the prime factors for explaining much of the difference across nations and their economic growth.

A qualified labour force is more mobile and adaptable to new tasks and skills. The rural distress and ongoing demand for reservations signify the immobility of labour in rural India to find jobs outside the farm sector.

Education is not a panacea for all problems, however, it does provide the ability to tackle them and its impact is manifold. It is a fundamental driver for inclusive economic growth and social development. This growth largely depends on laying the right foundation at the very inception of learning.

Nurturing the seed

A child’s schooling years lays the foundation of his or her learning abilities. It determines their ability to pursue tertiary level education which goes a long way in developing skills and providing access to opportunities.

The imperative is clear – access, equip and empower. While India is close to universalising accessibility to education, it is now imperative to focus on equipping by imparting learning abilities. Efforts to empower could be realised to its true potential only when the imperative to equipping is achieved.

Most of these benefits are longer-term and have no immediate political incentives while the costs of mounting the programs are more immediate. It is also worthwhile to note that government spending on education over the past four years has decreased from 1.06% of gross national income in FY15 to 0.6% in FY18.

Any meaningful demographic ‘dividend’ will depend on its ‘investments’. It is also important to define the nature of these investments. As the Harvard University Professor Lant Pritchett noted in one of his articles on World Bank’s Human Development Index, if “schooling ain’t learning,” then “spending ain’t investment”.

Shunmuga SundaramShunmuga Sundaram Yadav has previously worked for an Italian consulting firm promoting Italian businesses in developing countries and assisting them to participate in projects funded by Multilateral Development Banks. He has also worked on consulting projects for strategizing market entry of Italian brands in India. He has completed a course in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering and a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Mumbai University.

Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.

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Regards,
The CSR Journal Team

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