Education pangs: Despite RTE, Indian teens have dismal foundational skills

Since 2005, Pratham, a non-governmental organisation engaged in education, has been coming out with its Annual Status of Education Report (Aser). Each Aser focused on children aged between 6 years and 14 years and mapped the schooling status of and the “impact” of primary education on the children’s ability to complete basic reading and arithmetic tasks. Each of these reports painted a depressing picture of the poor educational attainment in India’s schools. The Right to Education (RTE) Act, which came into effect in 2010 and provided free and compulsory education to all children aged between 6 years and 14 years, was expected to bridge this gap. To a very limited extent it did; for one, the enrolment rates improved, but enrolment, per se, was not the main gap afflicting primary education. It was the worryingly low level of educational attainment. The obvious question was: If kids finishing standard VIII were having a hard time solving math problems or reading texts of junior classes, what would become of them when they go out of the RTE framework?

The latest Aser has tried to answer that question by surveying for the first time children in the age bracket of 14-18 years. Fourteen is the age up to which the government guarantees free and compulsory education, and the report has looked at what skills and abilities these children will need to be ready for productive lives as adults. This age group is also important because of its size; according to Census 2011, one of every 10 Indians is in this age bracket. But the picture that Aser 2017 presents is an alarming one. While only 5.3 per cent are not enrolled in formal education at the age of 14 years, this number jumps sharply as the years roll by; by age 17 this percentage quadruples to 20.7 per cent and further increases to 30.2 per cent at age 18. It is not surprising because poor educational attainment and compulsory promotions under the RTE framework lead to a scenario where students drop out primarily due to “lack of interest” and “failure” in the years after completing school.

This means that even though students who stay in schools are better off than those who drop out of the RTE framework, the overall educational attainment and ability to contribute meaningfully in the economy or hold a job is quite low. For instance, the bulk of those in the age band of 14-18 years can only, at best, read grade-two level texts. This does not improve in any meaningful way from age 14-18. And while 57 per cent cannot solve a division problem; 40 per cent struggle to tell time in hours and minutes. The proportion of youth who have not acquired basic math skills by age 14 is the same as that of 18-year-olds. For example, one of the tasks given was ‘adding weights’. The youths surveyed were shown a picture of weights and asked how much this added to in kilogram. Almost half of those surveyed got it wrong. These findings are worrying because these are everyday skills that formal education has failed to equip them with. The key takeaway from Aser 2017 is to find innovative solutions, especially one that leverages digital technology, to better educate India’s children. The so-called demographic dividend will otherwise implode.

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