Child Education in India – Challenges and Solutions

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Madhav Bellamkonda

At the entrance of Arti’s house in Uttarakhand, accolades make up quite an impressive collection. The 16-ye  ar-old proudly holds a certificate in her hand. She has won the school level essay competition in her State. Such accolades and recognition did not come easy for Arti. Her father, Surendra Singh, who runs a small shop in the village, deterred his daughter’s dream to study. With his mind set on prioritising his sons’ education over hers, it became a huge roadblock for Arti to realise her dreams. World Vision India, which worked in her community, came forward to support Arti’s education.  Education was not always the most important for them before World Vision India’s awareness programme changed his mind. “Now I pay more attention to my children’s education,” he said. Her parents are now supportive of her studies and extra-curricular activities, even to the extent of enrolling her in a gym, 5 kilometres away from the village, at Pauri town. Her father devoutly does the job of dropping her off and picking her up on his two-wheeler. Arti’s dream is to work in a bank after completing college. Her parents are very supportive and are willing to help her achieve her dreams by sending her to college in which case she will become one of the few girls in her village to attend college. Arti is a trendsetter in her own right.

Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all is one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Quality education is the foundation of sustainable development and is a force multiplier that enables self-reliance, boosts economic growth by enhancing skills and improve people’s lives by opening up better livelihood opportunities. The Government of India has made significant progress in the last few decades in realising this goal as it achieved nearly 100 per cent of school enrolments at the primary school level. Key initiatives like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Mid-day Meal Scheme, and many more have resulted in a rapid increment of primary school enrolment.

Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 was a landmark legal provision as it ensured access to quality education for children in the age group of 6-14 years. As a result of such policies and programmes, school dropouts in the age group of 6-14 years reduced from 13.46 million in 2006 to 6.1 million in 2014, i.e. 2.97 per cent of the total 204 million children, a significant gain compared to 2009 (4.28 per cent) and 2006 (6.94 per cent).

As observed rightly by the National Achievement Survey (2017), improved enrolment is necessary but insufficient for progress. Though nearly 100 per cent enrolment has been achieved, the critical question is, are they learning? It is essential to bring learning outcomes in line with the expectations of all stakeholders. Enhanced learning outcomes in the form of improved competencies and skills are necessary to ensure sustainable quality education.

School Dropouts and Learning Outcomes

Despite the progress made in the last few decades in providing quality education to all in India, several challenges remain. According to the National Sample Survey (NSS) 75th Round Household Survey 2017-2018, around 30.2 million children between 6-17 years are out of school, 31 per cent of whom have never attended any educational institution (NSO, 2019). A recent submission in the Parliament by the Ministry of Human Resource Development states that in 2017-18, Assam (10.1) had the highest dropout rate at the primary level, followed by Arunachal Pradesh (8.1), Mizoram (8), Uttar Pradesh (8) and Tamil Nadu (5.9). At the secondary level, Assam’s dropout rate was 33.7, followed by Bihar (32), Odisha (28.3), Tripura (27.2), and Karnataka (24.3).

As observed rightly by the National Achievement Survey (2017), improved enrolment is necessary but insufficient for progress. Though nearly 100 per cent enrolment has been achieved, the critical question is, are they learning? It is essential to bring learning outcomes in line with the expectations of all stakeholders. Enhanced learning outcomes in the form of improved competencies and skills are necessary to ensure sustainable quality education. However, many schools are not producing the expected results across the country. New data shows that even after five years of schooling, only about half of India’s children have attained the appropriate reading or arithmetic skills expected after two or three years of learning. In addition, 50 per cent of adolescents are not completing secondary education

Factors Influencing Learning Outcomes Among Children

While the data on absenteeism is challenging to obtain, there is a reasonable correlation between regular attendance and learning outcomes. The question is – what motivates children to attend school regularly? The challenges that present themselves are multi-faceted, including extrinsic and intrinsic factors. While some extrinsic factors like the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) programme is a reasonable incentive to ensure an increase in enrolment and attendance, lack of other infrastructure factors like access to schools, lack of/absence of sanitation facilities, safe drinking water, playgrounds, insufficient and under-equipped classrooms and teaching aids, etc., contribute to high dropout rates and poor learning outcomes.

Extrinsic Factors

Pedagogical learning spaces that are inclusive, safe, healthy, and child-friendly are some extrinsic motivating factors prompting children to be regular in schools and create an environment conducive to learning. A study by the World Bank correlated how poor infrastructure could result in poor learning outcomes among children. For instance, separate toilets for boys and girls are essential. However, there is enough evidence, predominantly from rural areas, that girls would give their classes a miss if sanitary facilities were non-existent. The obstacles are even more evident in the hinterlands, with most schools having inadequate teaching staff and teaching aids. A single teacher handling a multi-level set of students is not an uncommon sight in many schools. Furthermore, some children walk or cycle several kilometres to attend school because of the lack of schools within their villages. The long-distance exhausts the young learners and discourages many from being regular, as safety becomes a matter of concern, especially for the girls.

According to the ASER 2020 report, girls (11 per cent) and boys (8.8 per cent) in the age group of 15-16 from the rural areas are out of school, indicating that issues such as child marriage and child labour may once again be on the rise. For a family under economic stress, it becomes a deterring factor if their ward does not achieve the appropriate learning outcomes. The focus shifts to engaging the child in economic activities since spending time on education would not reap any incentive. A study suggests that unless and until there is considerable improvement in the financial status of households and change in the social attitudes of parents, achieving the goal of universalisation of school education will remain a major challenge for India.

Intrinsic Factors

While the extrinsic factors ensure better attendance and grade-appropriate learning, several intrinsic motivational factors are instrumental in achieving these outcomes. The socio-economic context and literacy level of parents and the social and religious beliefs of the community are some of the proven roadblocks to the quality and continuity of education in India. These intrinsic factors play a crucial role in either encouraging or discouraging children and their families to give importance to education and are present at the community level. Sometimes, access to education is a challenge for a child from a lower rung of the socially constructed caste system. Children from various religious backgrounds face a similar situation, mainly where certain religious beliefs prevent girls from being educated beyond a particular age.

According to the ASER 2020 report, girls (11 per cent) and boys (8.8 per cent) in the age group of 15-16 from the rural areas are out of school, indicating that issues such as child marriage and child labour may once again be on the rise. For a family under economic stress, it becomes a deterring factor if their ward does not achieve the appropriate learning outcomes. The focus shifts to engaging the child in economic activities since spending time on education would not reap any incentive. A study suggests that unless and until there is considerable improvement in the financial status of households and change in the social attitudes of parents, achieving the goal of universalisation of school education will remain a major challenge for India. 

Multi-Faceted Approach Towards Solutions

Any possible solutions to address the crisis of age-appropriate learning in India and to bring the children who dropped out back to schools should be multi-faceted by engaging with the government (both at the State and local level), community leaders (including elected representatives and faith leaders), parents, school management committees, private/corporate entities, and CSOs/NGOs. We must recognise that it is in the environment of trust, partnership and collaboration that the solutions we provide would be most successful and sustainable. 

Our India’s Fragility Index 2019, which ranked the most fragile districts in the country on various contexts, showed that the 50 most fragile districts (based on literacy rates, dropout rates, school enrolment, etc.) were from States such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Several projects to enhance Child Education were implemented by us in the most fragile districts. Our approach is to address both the extrinsic factors (such as improving infrastructure) and intrinsic factors (such as building the capacity of teachers, parents and community leaders) to bring better learning outcomes from the children. Our multi-faceted approach that partnered with corporates, government institutions, and local level community leaders have been delivering consistent results towards inclusive, equitable and quality education contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 4 – “Ensure Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education and Promote Lifelong Learning Opportunities for All.”

Charumathi
A Young Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Cardiologist

Charumathi, a 19-year-old first-year medical college student (MBBS), is the epitome of perseverance. She lives with her parents and four sisters in a 225 square feet, single bedroom home in Perumbakkam. Her parents worked hard to see that all five daughters get a good education. Her road to education was not an easy one. Due to her family’s economic condition, she hesitated to ask her parents for any additional study materials. She says, “I would request my friends for the books or download the content from the internet and study from my phone.’’ 

She continues to tell us about a particularly difficult period in 2015 when the city of Chennai experienced devastating floods. Charumathi and her family had to leave their home and stay at an evacuation centre. She says, “It was a very tough time as I was in the tenth grade and had to give the board examination. I remember doing most of my preparations in a crowded campsite for evacuees. In the end, my hard work paid off as I scored well and topped my school in the examinations,” says Charumathi proudly. 

Charumathi and her family moved to Perumbakkam when she was in the 12th grade, which was another crucial year for her. She says, “I had to change my school and would spend two hours travelling back and forth to the new government school. I worked very hard and made many sacrifices. My effort bore fruit when I scored 1082 out of 1200 in my final exams and had once again topped my senior high school.”  

Although Charumathi’s perseverance and studiousness took her through these tough times, she credits most of it to the lessons she imbibed through WV India. She says, “A lot of my determination and encouragement came from attending the Life School programme and children’s Club Meetings conducted by World Vision. We were constantly encouraged and motivated to pursue our dreams. So that gave me hope to strive for more.”

After scoring well in the 12th grade, Charumathi decided to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. She took the NEET examination. She worked hard but was unable to clear it in her first attempt. In her second attempt though, she passed with a high cut off mark. She finally secured a seat in a Government Medical College. She says, “When I failed my first attempt, I thought that this is just not for me. However, World Vision encouraged me and gave me the financial support to attempt the NEET again. After clearing it, they supported me by paying a part of my medical college fees. My parents were also able to earn more than normal because of the additional livelihood support from World Vision. This took care of our educational needs. It is because of all these things that today I am pursuing my first-year MBBS,” says Charumathi gratefully.

She wants to give back to society and be an example for other children in her community, who may feel dispirited by their circumstances. Many parents from these communities now use her as an example to motivate their children. She says, “I have come a long way and nothing is going to stop me from achieving my dream of becoming a cardiologist and to serve the poor and disadvantaged.”

Every time she gets the opportunity, Charumathi encourages girls to aspire and dream big. She graciously shares her experience and methods of studying with them. “Most of these were lessons taught to us in the Children or Youth Clubs and in the Life School trainings that World Vision had conducted,” says Charumathi. 

Improved Infrastructure 

Enhancing school infrastructure is essential to achieve higher school enrolment, low dropout rates, and higher learning outcomes. We installed digital classrooms in 16 schools in partnership with the Lions Club of India. The project benefitted 1296 children (608 are girls and 688 are boys) by introducing them to digital learning tools and helped teachers in improving their work experience while decreasing their workload. Significant improvements in children’s learning outcomes were observed wherein 75 per cent of the children showed age-appropriate local language reading skills and 71 per cent of children in arithmetic skills against the 44 per cent and 56 per cent, respectively, recorded at the beginning of the project. 

The Rise Up! Daughters of India (RUDI) project implemented by us in Faridkot, Punjab, is another example of improved infrastructure resulting in higher attendance in schools. Through upgrading the WASH facilities of government schools by setting up separate toilet blocks for boys and girls, handwashing stations, incinerators, disabled-friendly toilet units, and organising awareness campaigns on Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) and Menstrual Hygiene Practices (MHP), a higher percentage of adolescent girls were retained in the school. An evaluation of the project revealed that the secondary level enrolment and completion rates had indeed gone up. The primary completion rate increased by 34.4 percentage points (on average), indicating a high retention rate. Girls marked remarkable progress of 38.7 percentage points (from 58.7 per cent in 2016 to 97.4 per cent in 2019) in the primary completion rate. The secondary school completion improved by 26.1 percentage points, with remarkable progress for girls from 19.2 per cent in 2016 to 51.6 per cent in 2019 and from 23.6 per cent (2016) to 44 per cent (2019) among the boys. Similarly, we were also able to construct over 250 separate toilets for girls and boys benefitting over 15,000 students through the Support My School (SMS) campaign in partnership with the Coca Cola Foundation. 

Our Remedial Education Centre (REC) model is a community-led process that seeks to ensure learning support for all children between 6-11 years to inculcate basic reading, writing, arithmetic and life skills. Children are provided extra two hours of study in a day to help them achieve age-appropriate learning through community volunteers. The model engages with the child through active learning methods, strengthens School Management Committees (SMCs) through capacity-building sessions, and engages parental and community participation in improving learning outcomes among children.

Building Capacity of Stakeholders

Building the capacity of various stakeholders (e.g., community leaders, faith leaders, parents, etc.) in child education is an important and often forgotten element in many interventions related to enhancements in children’s education. While addressing the extrinsic factors is pivotal, overlooking the intrinsic factors would certainly make efforts futile.  

Our Remedial Education Centre (REC) model is a community-led process that seeks to ensure learning support for all children between 6-11 years to inculcate basic reading, writing, arithmetic and life skills. Children are provided extra two hours of study in a day to help them achieve age-appropriate learning through community volunteers. The model engages with the child through active learning methods, strengthens School Management Committees (SMCs) through capacity-building sessions, and engages parental and community participation in improving learning outcomes among children. Between 2016-20, more than 40,000 children received remedial coaching through 898 RECs, while 538 SMCs and 5423 parents were trained on providing learning support. 

An example of a successful implementation is Dhemaji in Assam (in partnership with HDFC), where 322 primary level children from 10 schools were given remedial education to address poor learning outcomes. The project helped in inculcating a culture of reading in the community and the children. Trained facilitators kept the students engaged and interested in reading books and used games, songs, stories and other activities for learning. Similarly, in collaboration with PRATHAM, we provided online capacity-building programmes for 1046 government school teachers and 635 REC facilitators in the last two years. 

Our Literary Boost (LB) programme is another approach that supports the development of reading skills among young children. We involve the communities as our partners in programme implementation. We gave them the tools required to encourage their children to get excited about reading. We introduced the programme in 80 government primary schools in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Evidence showed the effectiveness of the programme in reducing student absenteeism and enhancing the quality of reading and storytelling among students. 

The Men Care programme model is another noteworthy venture of the organisation that has successfully gained recognition among the local governments in many States. Contributing to SDG 5 – Gender Equality, the model promotes the involvement of men and boys as equitable, responsible family members to achieve gender equality and positive family well-being. The model’s effectiveness lies where men are intentionally included in development activities to achieve transformation at the household level. An evaluation of the project in 2018 revealed that one of the most significant transformations was that the school enrolment and retention rate improved by 50 per cent. The girls could boldly express their desire to pursue higher studies and employment, and the families supported their dreams. 

The Government should increase the funding for education to 6 per cent of GDP as in NEP 2020. As part of their CSR activities, the private sector can play a key role in developing school infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. Using their knowledge and pre-established connection with the communities, civil society organisations (CSO) can provide the much-needed last-mile connectivity by engaging with the teachers, SMCs, faith leaders, community leaders, parents, and children through capacity-building, awareness programmes, bridge schooling, supporting enrolment and retention-related interventions, etc. This multi-pronged approach will help address the existing gaps and enable more children to access quality education in India – together for children, for change, for life.

The Way Forward

COVID-19 has only exacerbated the current challenges. The number of children who will be out of school would increase manifold in the next few years. Apart from school closure to control the spread of the virus, distance-learning facilities (online platforms, TV broadcasting, radio, etc.) that were adopted to facilitate education could not reach all students due to the massive disparity across wealth, location and gender. While there is enough uncertainty around the re-opening of schools and protecting children from any possible third wave, the issues remain relevant. As the closure of schools remains in force, there is an opportunity for collaboration among various stakeholders to enhance school infrastructure and mobilise communities, parents, and faith leaders to provide better social and emotional support to children.  

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ or an omni solution that adequately addresses unique challenges to overcome the barriers of Equity of Education in COVID-19 and Post-COVID 19 situation. A collective effort by various stakeholders is the key to increasing the quality of education in India, enabling every child to have an equal chance for success in the continuity of education.

The Government should increase the funding for education to 6 per cent of GDP as in NEP 2020. As part of their CSR activities, the private sector can play a key role in developing school infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. Using their knowledge and pre-established connection with the communities, civil society organisations (CSO) can provide the much-needed last-mile connectivity by engaging with the teachers, SMCs, faith leaders, community leaders, parents, and children through capacity-building, awareness programmes, bridge schooling, supporting enrolment and retention-related interventions, etc. This multi-pronged approach will help address the existing gaps and enable more children to access quality education in India – together for children, for change, for life. 

Madhav Bellamkonda is the National Director and CEO of World Vision India.