There is a strange gap in India — a gap for young people between the ages of 14 and 18. The Right to Education (RTE) Act guarantees free and compulsory education up to the age of 14. The Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 for the care and protection of children (Section 26) prohibits the employment of children below the age of 18. Rough calculations suggest that today, the 14-18 population is close to 100 million. So, how are we as a country dealing with those who are over 14 but still below 18? What do we expect of them?
The traditional path forward is schooling. For those in the mainstream education system, data from sources like the district information system for education indicate that the size of the cohort enrolled in Class VIII is increasing each year (from 11.3 million in 2004-05 to 21.4 million in 2013-14). Consequently, more students are reaching the Class X board exam stage. For example, in Bihar in 2004, half a million students took the Class X state board exams (66 per cent passed). By 2014, the number of those appearing for this exam had gone up to 1.34 million (with a pass percentage of 73 per cent). In Bihar and many other states, the change over the last decade is massive — a natural outcome of the big push to universalise elementary education. The population moving through the school system today is higher than ever before in India’s history.
What “value” is “added” as children move through the education system? What are they learning? The Annual Status of Education Reports 2005-14 (Aser) help to answer this question, at least for basic skills. The data point to two major findings. First, the all-India rural numbers from Aser 2014 suggest that about one-fourth of all children enrolled in Class VIII have difficulty reading a simple text (even as basic as that in Class II textbooks), and close to half still cannot do a division problem.
Second, if we track different cohorts of children moving through the school system across different years, we see that the learning trajectories are flat. This means that if you did not learn the basics by Class V, chances are that you will not pick up these skills in later years.
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In addition, we see that the reading and basic math levels of Class VIII children in 2014 seem lower than those of children in Class VIII earlier. (Compare current cohorts with those in 2008 or 2009.) So, despite an increase in the number of years spent in school, for many children, basic capabilities like reading and arithmetic remain stagnant, and our education system’s ability to impart basic skills seems to be weakening over time.
Several other recent studies on student achievement in India show that while many students are able to do direct tasks that are based on rote learning and textbook content, the ability to apply knowledge or skills to different contexts is much weaker.
What happens if you leave school around Class VIII? Can you get back into the mainstream education system and resume studying? The simple answer is no, or not easily. There are open-schooling opportunities available, but if one of the reasons behind your leaving school was that you were struggling with the academic content, then having to cope with it alone in an open-school setting hardly solves your problem.
In this context, it is worth noting another piece of data from Aser: it shows that of those who are 15 or 16 but are currently not in school, only 36 per cent can read a Class II-level text. Almost 90 per cent of those who are not in school at this age are unable to do simple division problems.
What if children in this age group wish to start working? Most vocational skilling programmes have specific educational and age requirements. Job placements are not possible before 18. In any case, few formal skilling programmes ensure work placements, and hardly any can promise permanent jobs in the organised sector. The reality of India is that the vast majority of the population works in the unorganised sector. That is where most young people will end up, too.
However, little research has been done to track what kind of knowledge or skills would help improve productive capacity in the unorganised sector. Further, the entire architecture of the education system assumes that with sufficient years of schooling and appropriate certifications via examinations along the way, young people will enter the organised employment sector. That the reality is different does not seem to have made any dent either on how school education is organised, skilling models are designed or educational and occupational aspirations of students and parents are formed.
So this is where we are. We have close to 100 million young people who do not “fit” easily into the education system and are not being adequately prepared for the world beyond. Simply universalising the provision of secondary schooling is not addressing the challenge at hand. But what is it that we want for these young people? What knowledge and skills do we think our young people must have to face the world as they leave school? What is it that the country needs to do to ensure that every young person has an opportunity to fully explore her capability to learn and realise her full productive capacity?
It is heartening that the Economic Survey refers directly to these “gap years” in the section on education and skilling challenges. Having acknowledged the gap, we urgently need to develop a concrete and doable strategy to build the capabilities of our young people, starting
as young as 14, so that by 18, they can utilise the pathways of opportunity in India. If this population is at the core of the “Make in India” vision, a lot of work has to be done to translate it into a meaningful reality.
The writer is with Pratham, an NGO that works in children’s education and youth skilling.