Elementary education in India: quality or quantity?

Author: Ranjit Goswami, RK University

The ninth E9 Ministerial Review Meeting, which took place in New Delhi in November, was held among nine of the world’s most populous developing nations: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan.

The result of the meeting was the New Delhi Commitment, which aims for ‘inclusive, relevant [and] quality education for all’. The E9 countries make up 54 per cent of the global population, but account for 42.3 per cent of the world’s out-of-school children, 58 per cent of the world’s illiterate youth, and 67 per cent of the world’s illiterate adults. As such, education policy is of great importance to the group of nations.

India has made huge progress in one of the areas above, having reduced the number of out-of-school children from 20 million in 2002 to four million in 2008–09. The improvements are largely due to the ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ (Universalization of Elementary Education) program launched in 2001, and the Midday Meal Scheme, mandated by the Supreme Court of India in the same year, in which meals are provided at school. In a nation where 68.7 per cent of the population lives on less than US$2 per day, and 32.7 per cent lives on less than US$1.25 per day, such programs have led to tremendous improvements, both in increasing enrolments and reducing drop-out rates, as well as in reducing hunger and malnourishment among children.

But this does not mean India has adequately addressed education quality.

Progress on the number of students enrolled in education, in particular given India’s very young population, is laudable. But as researchers have time and again pointed out, it has led to a situation where ‘there are even more who are enrolled, but learning little’. Increased access to education has led to reduced efficiency, which detracts from the noble objective of ‘quality education for all’ adopted by the E9 nations.

The definition of literacy and education has of course progressed from a standard of barely being able to read and write; a more inclusive definition now calls for any literate person to have the ‘ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word’, which essentially means the ability to process and use information. Students from lower economic and social backgrounds have been found to have far lower test scores than their wealthier counterparts. Aside from economic classification, in India, literacy among scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, which make up 24.4 per cent of India’s population, is lower by a margin of 15–20 per cent than the national average.

Increased enrolment in elementary education means that more families in lower socio-economic groups are sending their kids to school. But there is an inherent contradiction between quantity and quality, and education is not an exception to this rule. When children from uneducated or semi-literate families enrol in schools, the sole responsibility of educating these students rests on the school itself; whereas among higher-percentile families, it is usually shared by both the school and the family. Without specific attention and additional resources focused on maintaining the quality of education among children from lower socio-economic sections of society, quality is bound to fall on an aggregate level, and more so among the underprivileged.

In spite of the tremendous improvements made by India toward education for all, various studies have shown that the overall quality of education has deteriorated. Further, experience and research findings from developed nations like the United States show that educationally disadvantaged students make the least progress even where compensatory programs specifically intended to reduce inequality in early learning are in place. In a nation like India, where no systems are yet in place to reduce inequality at the starting gates, such effects will likely be even starker.

India faces a huge resource shortfall, as can be seen by its persistently high budget deficit and current account deficit. Public expenditure on education in India is around 4 per cent of India’s GDP, and has been hovering around the same range since the late 1980s, ranking India 81 in education spending in a global country-level ranking. It has not increased spending as necessary to extend the existing quality of education to the large number of new enrolments.

The result has been a 20 per cent reduction of expenditure per student on a per capita GDP basis over the 2003–06 period. This has coincided with a huge increase in enrolments of students in elementary education originating from disadvantaged families. This anomaly must be addressed by New Delhi if the E9 goal of ‘quality education for all’ is to become a reality.

Ranjit Goswami is Professor at, and Director of, the School of Management, RK University.