By next year, the average age of an Indian is expected to be 29 years, while it will be 37 in China and 48 in Japan. Additionally, around 12 million youth in India are now reaching the employable age each year. Perhaps, it is this demographic trend that prompted the government to announce its ambition of making India a $10 trillion economy by 2030. However, the country’s youth will be able to do very little to push the economy upward if we fail to invest in universal quality education. School education is the most important socio-economic issue that will generate the demographic dividend needed to power India’s growth story.
During the past 10 years, the Right to Education Act ensured a steady increase in school enrollment with more than 260 million children in the age group of six to 14 years enrolled in schools. However, this is only half the job done as just ensuring schooling does not result in learning. In India, according to ASER 2018, only a little over one-quarter of third grade students can read second grade text or subtract one two-digit number from another. Further, the Indian government’s own National Achievement Survey (NAS), too, indicates that a large proportion of children are not picking up critical skills in the early grades. To say that we have a crisis in school education would be an understatement, and to address it, its outlines and nature will have to be diagnosed well.
Benefits of good quality school education accrue only when students complete and leave school after having acquired the gateway skills. Like one learns to walk before running, similarly one picks up advanced skills only after picking the basic foundational skills. The advent of the knowledge economy poses new challenges, and one of the severe consequences of having an uneducated workforce will be our inability to keep pace with the global economy. Without a strong learning foundation at the primary level, there can be little or no improvement in higher education or skill development.
The draft National Education Policy (NEP) identifies foundational literacy and numeracy — the ability to read, write and perform basic calculations — as prerequisites for all learning. The draft NEP states that attainment of foundational skills has to be given the highest priority, which, if not achieved, would render all other efforts irrelevant for a large section of population.
As research indicates, Class 3 is the inflection point. Children are expected to “learn to read” by class 3 so that they can “read to learn” after that. Beyond this critical stage, it becomes extremely difficult for children to pick up these basics and if they are still unable to read simple text or do simple math, they start to fall behind. A longitudinal study of 40,000 students in Andhra Pradesh from class 1 to 5 clearly brought to light the widening gap in learning levels for a huge majority of students who were falling behind due to lack of foundational skills. Almost all of these students were never able to catch up as their learning trajectory flattened over a period of time and additional years of schooling beyond the inflection point yielded little or no improvement in learning.
The absence of foundational skills hits children from poor households or first generation learners the most. Their ill-equipped home environment combined with the lack of other external influences makes it even more difficult for them to make up for the lack of gateway skills. In primary schools, teachers are usually guided by the curriculum-based textbooks, and they choose to focus on the children who are easiest to teach or who are most likely to follow and finish the curriculum. Due to this challenge in our school education system, children who don’t know these critical skills tend to get left behind. Universal acquisition of foundational literacy and numeracy skills can be a great equaliser for such students and can go a long way in making learning for all possible.
The challenge is that, in our country, delivering quality education is complex, and we do not have the resources to simultaneously focus on multiple things. But, we also now have sufficient learnings from successful foundational learning programmes in India and around the world that tell us that there are four critical pillars for any state-driven reform to achieve scalable long-term impact.
Firstly, the government needs to, urgently and ruthlessly, focus on foundational learning. They need to address key issues — be it the gaps in expectation setting across the entire chain of stakeholders or the lack of sharp and actionable literacy and numeracy skills-based goals or limited involvement of parents. The gaps in classroom instruction practices is the second pillar that need a more holistic approach. Appropriate teaching-learning material, tools, training and teacher support need to be made available.
Thirdly, we need to ensure system enabling conditions, such as teacher training, for teaching foundational skills and dedicated teacher allocation for primary classes. Lastly, improved accountability through independent monitoring and measurement can play a critical role in setting the system reform agenda. To cite an example, in Peru, every stakeholder in school education knows that a student has to fluently read 40 words per minute in class 2 and 60 words per minute in class 3.
Improvement in the education system is crucial for India to cement its position as a global leader. Making foundational learning a priority is the need of the hour. For, foundational learning opens up opportunities for better income, health, sanitation, safety, and so on.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 13, 2019 under the title ‘It begins in school’. The writer is founder-chairman of Central Square Foundation, a founding member of Ashoka University.