Saturday, 30 November 2013

Education in India needs intensive care, not a quick fix (Part I)

Devendra Kothari PhD
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

Unless education is rescued from quagmire of mediocrity, all talk about realizing India’s demographic dividend will be without substance; and the country would be inching closer to demographic disaster.

“Education is future”.[1] For India, that carries a special vibrancy, since we are frequently reminded of our “demographic dividend”. The team led by Harvard economist David Bloom, who coined the term, argued that “population age structure, more than size or growth per se, affects economic development……………if the right kinds of educational, health, and labor-market policies are in place”. [2]  In other words, the concept is based on the premise that what matters for a nation's economic growth is not the size of the population but its age structure. It is projected that by 2025, over one third of Indian population (around 500 million) will be less than twenty years old, as per the UN Population Division.  That is great news, because these Indians are either already born or about to be born. This demographic fact has important implications for the labor market.  They represent the national strength, vitality and vigor.  If properly educated or trained, they can become the custodian of our national hope, since it is not enough to have lots of young people — these need to be properly educated to fully contribute to the growing economy. [3] After all, as the Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), rightly said: “The wine of youth does not always clear with advancing years; sometimes it grows turbid”.  

The promise of “demographic dividend” will not last long. Can India take advantage of this demographic window in the next couple of decades? Are our education systems geared to meet this challenge today?  One cannot be too optimistic about considering its poor education system from bottom to top. The Harvard economist Raj Chetty argues that “improving school education especially elementary education, rather than just college education in India, is likely to be a key answer to the problem”. The post aims at analyzing present state of school education in India by using secondary data, and argues unless education is rescued from quagmire of mediocrity, all talk about developing a skilled human resource pool and realizing the country`s demographic dividend will be without substance; and the country would be inching closer to demographic disaster.[4] The paper suggests areas which need immediate scientific analysis or attention to improve the state of education.

State of education:
The school education in India can be classified into five levels of education. First is the pre-primary level, for toddlers aged 3-5. Then is the Primary School for children 6-11. Middle school is for 12-14 years of age. Secondary school is for children of 15 and 16. And finally, Higher Secondary School is for children the age of 17 and 18. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is the apex body for curriculum related matters for school education in India. Today more and more students are getting their enrolment in schools mainly due to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan which is one of the largest education initiatives in the world. Government also runs various initiatives including free lunch (mid-day meal), raising general public awareness, etc to increase enrollment.  As per the World Bank in India there are more than 7, 40,000 formal schools; more than 3.6 million teachers are working on full time basis. Majority of elementary schools (Primary plus Middle) are run by the government and provide free education. About one-fifth of elementary schools are run by the private sector. They attract children from higher income group. Private sector plays a more significant role in secondary education. Over 60% of secondary schools are private.

Across the world, India is seen as an education powerhouse — based largely on the reputation of a few islands of academic excellence such as the IITs and IIMs. But scratch the glazed surface of education system and the picture turns seriously bleak. The quality of education whether at school or higher education[5] is significantly poor as compared with major developing nations. In fact, quality is going from bad to worse. Three recent reports on state of education paint a grim picture of school education in India.

First, the Wipro and Educational Initiatives published the Quality Education Survey on high-end schools in metropolitan cities, which found them lacking on quality parameters and indicted them for excessive reliance on rote learning.[6] Another salient feature of the QES is that student performance seems to have fallen since 2006, when the study on learning in the metros was initiated. The report also reveals that learning levels in India’s elite schools are not on par with international standards. Second, the secondary students from the States of Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, showpieces for education development in India, who were put on a global stage stood very low on their reading, math and science abilities. India ranked second last among the 73 countries that participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the OECD  Secretariat to evaluate education systems worldwide.[7] China, which participated in PISA for the first time along with India, scored the highest in reading. It also topped the charts in mathematics and science. And third, Pratham`s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2012, assessing schools in rural India, found declining attendance, over-reliance on private tuitions and declining reading and mathematical abilities of children in the 6 to 14 years age category. In just two years between 2010 and 2012, percentage of fifth graders in rural public schools who can read second grade-level text has declined from 51% to 42%. Further, achievement levels in arithmetic have fallen drastically. Percentage of fifth graders who could do a simple two-digit subtraction has fallen from 71% to 53% in two years. This is alarming and pathetic.

Why pathetic situation?
Taken together, these three reports make it amply clear that despite a welcome high enrolment rate - around 97% - at the primary level, the quality of school learning is simply not up to the mark. Unfortunately, here we are moving backwards. What a mess we seem to have made of our education system, condemning at least one more generation to servitude in place of empowerment. Now question arises why the quality of education is low and it is deteriorating fast.

It does not mean that Indians are not interested in the quality of education. The demand for quality education is intense and students and parents are going to great lengths to access it. The problems are thus on the supply side. Quality of education has much more to do with teachers, than what is believed. Of course it has to do with the infrastructure, course content and such other parameters. But here we are talking of some basic skills expected from pupils who have at least on paper gone through a good many year. Either there is something terribly wrong with the teacher recruitment and training or there is a total lack of dedication to their profession. As such, it is little wonder that around half of class V students surveyed under ASER were able to read class II-level texts, among other depressing statistics. In short, there is something terribly wrong with the management of education in the country.

Further, ad-hoc policy decisions have done more harm than good. Educationists blame Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for lowering the standard of education and teacher qualifications in order to increase enrolment. Also, the Right To Education (RTE) Act, with its objective of providing free and fare education to all children in the age group of 6 to 14 to propel India to greater heights of prosperity and productivity, misses the quality issue. The Act came to  effect on 1 April, 2010. The Act requires all private and government schools to reserve 25% of the seats for children belonging to weaker sections of the society. The Act also states that no child shall be expelled, held back or required to pass a board examination until the completion of elementary education (8th grade). There is also a special training of school drop-outs to bring them up at par with students of the same age among other provisions. [8] 

The RTE Act has met with a lot of criticism such as being called a draft that was hastily prepared, there was not much consultation made on the quality of education. The three-year compliance period for the Act is already over. What has the Act accomplished? “Sadly, not very much that is positive”, as argued by   Prof.  Arvind Panagariya in his thought provoking article: “What Right To Education?” [9]  After three-year period for implementation of different policies as suggested by RTE ACT, the government schools have continued to wallow in pathetic conditions and progress was slow, as reported by ASER 2012 (Table 1). Based on RTE norms, the pupil teacher ratio shows improvement but at a slow rate. In 2010, the proportion of schools meeting these norms was 39%. This number has risen to 43% in 2012.  The proportion of schools with useable toilets has increased from 47% in 2010 to 56% in 2012. Of schools which had this separate provision, close to half had useable girls’ toilets, as compared to two-fifth in 2010. The mid-day meal was observed being served in 87% schools that were visited.

   Table 1:  School meeting selected RTE norms, 2010-2012
% of school meeting the RTE Norms
Pupil-teacher ratio
Classroom-teacher ratio
Drinking water available
Toilet usable
Library but no books being used by children on day of survey.
Mid-day meal served in school

Annual status of education Report 2012, Pratham

Another important provision in the Act promises to do to elementary education what our labour laws have done to manufacturing. The law requires all schools to satisfy a set of highly demanding input norms, most of which have little to do with educational outcomes. These norms include all-weather building with playground, well-equipped library, proper sports equipment, maximum student-teacher ratio, availability of art, health and sports teachers and minimum hours of instruction. By imposing strict parameters on private schools, the RTE has squeezed the few entrepreneurs engaged in this field, discouraging further investment.

Further, the RTE undermines the quality issues. A key provision in the Act abolishes board examinations and grants automatic promotion to each child to the next grade at the end of the academic year since examinations produce stress in children. It also requires the award of a diploma to all at the end of eight years regardless of the knowledge and skills acquired. Also, children now know that till Class VIII they cannot be denied promotion however low they score.  It is anybody's guess what value such a diploma will command in the marketplace. Commenting on this, Prof. Panagariya notes: “With rare exceptions, teachers in India, especially in government schools, have been known for their absenteeism and lackadaisical attitude towards teaching. Student performance in examinations offered one last instrument to evaluate not just students but teachers as well”. Therefore, it was widely predicted that the abolition of examinations would lead to increased complacency among teachers and reduce student achievements and their chances of employability.

The lack of employable graduates points to the crisis in education. The National Employability Report 2013 [10] reveals that India graduates more than five million graduates every year. A significant proportion of graduates, nearly 47%, were found not employable in any sector, given their English language and cognitive skills. “Since a graduation degree is considered a pathway to a job in the knowledge economy, substantive intervention at school level is needed to improve basic skills of students”, the report concludes. It appears school education system in India promoting rote learning in place of actual application of concepts.

To be concluded…

[1] While presiding over the P.D. Agarwal Memorial Lecture 2013 on Frontiers of Higher Education, Dr. R.A. Mashelkar expressed his views on importance of education. For details, contact: Indian Institute of Health Management Research, Jaipur.
[2] David E. Bloom, David Canning, Jaypee Sevilla. 2003.  The demographic dividend: a new perspective on the economic consequences of population change. RAND.
[3]Refer article: “Can India garner the demographic dividend?” at
[4]See post by author: “How India is managing its ‘Demographic Dividend”, Blog Entries at
[5] The "QS World University Rankings" for 2012 showed that our universities and even "institutes of excellence" including  IITs and IIMs did not fare any better when compared to their international counterparts. Not a single Indian university or institute has made it to the top 200 of the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) rankings — the most reputed global rankings of institutes for higher education. In 2010, IIT-Bombay was ranked 187, but dropped to 227 on 2012. China has seven institutes in the top 200 list. Refer:
[7]For details,  link at: