Close to a decade since the Right to Education Act came into force and after years of flagging dismal learning levels, the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2018) holds a glimmer of hope. While most children in primary classes (1 to 5) are still way below what is expected of them, they are displaying improved reading and math skills — a change scripted largely by government schools.
For the first time since 2010, slightly more than half (50.5%) of all children in Class 5 can read a Class 2 text book, up from 46.9% in 2012. Also, the proportion of children in Class 5 who can do simple division has gone up from 24.9% in 2012 to 27.9% in 2018. For Class 3, reading levels — ability to read Class 2 text books — have been inching up since the low of 2010 (19.5%), and are now at 27.2%.
The survey shows that government schools in eight states — Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Kerala, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh — have recorded a growth in basic reading levels of more than 5 percentage points over 2016. Further, government schools in 10 states — Punjab, UP, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh — recorded a growth of more than 5 percentage points in basic arithmetic levels over the same period.
In Kerala, which tops in Class 5 reading levels with 77.5%, up from 69.4% in 2016, the growth is largely led by state-run schools — 10% rise in reading levels in government schools compared to 7.3% in private schools. The state has, over the last few years, witnessed a sustained campaign in favour of government schooling.
In Chhattisgarh, which recorded a 3.6% rise in Class 5 reading levels (from 56% in 2016 to 59.6% in 2018), government schools fuelled this turnaround with a 6.1% growth while private schools slipped by 5.7 percentage points.
Wilima Wadhwa, director, ASER Centre, says while the figures are “very welcome”, it would be premature to call it a “trend”. “In some states like Punjab and Maharashtra, we already knew that the state governments were undertaking learning programmes but the growth registered by government schools in states such as UP was unexpected,” she said.
In UP, government schools registered a 11.9% jump in reading skills for Class 5 students, reaching 36.2%, while private schools saw only a 7.6% rise.
But lot remains to be done
The turnaround in primary classes points to sustained efforts by the Centre and state governments to ensure better learning outcomes. But the low levels of basic reading skills and numerical literacy in higher classes show there’s a lot left to be done.
The survey, however, highlights wide-disparities among learning levels in states. For instance, while both UP and Himachal have seen a 5-plus percentage point improvement in reading levels of Class 3 government school children between 2014 and 2018, in the former, 60% of Class 3 children cannot recognise letters or read words. Which means, these children need urgent help or are in danger of carrying their learning deficit to the next class. In Himachal, on the other hand, over 70% children are either at grade-level or only close behind.
As the government works on a national education policy, there are some other sobering realities — 1 out of 4 children in rural India leaves Class 8 without basic reading skills and over half of them (55.9%) without basic numerical literacy or without the ability to do a simple division sum. Plus, 13.1% children in the 15-16 age group are not in school, according to the 13th ASER report, carried out by NGO Pratham and released Tuesday.
Despite these gains in the primary classes, only a quarter of all children in Class 3 are at their grade-level — only 27.2% of these children can read a Class 2 textbook and only 28.1% can do Class 2-level subtraction.
Wadhwa attributes the gains made in learning levels in primary classes to the fact that governments have over the years “owned learning”. “When we did our first ASER in 2005, nobody spoke about learning. Then the Right to Education came and the focus shifted to enrollment and infrastructure — playground, boundary wall, etc. But now, there is concerted effort in several states. Punjab, for instance, has the Padho Punjab programme that follows Pratham’s model of teaching at the right level. Delhi has been doing a lot of very good work. The pendulum has swung in the direction of learning,” says Wadhwa.
In 2018, ASER, an annual household survey, covered 5.46 lakh children in 596 rural districts across the country.