We are a nation of 350 million children aged 4 to 17, many of whom although enrolled in school will never get past Class 8. A new book by Harvard economist Lant Pritchett reveals that an average Class 8 student in India would be learning what students learn in Class 1 or 2 in the United States. Is this the future we are preparing them for?
Research suggests that 80% of brain development takes place by the time a child turns five. And yet the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) applies only to children from six to 14 years. As a country we need to expand this right to include children below the age of six years. In developing countries, such as Mexico, the free and compulsory education is offered to children at the age of three. To give this critical pre-primary intervention due focus, the government must mandate two years of pre-primary education within the current schooling system with a well-designed curriculum to provide a strong foundation for all children. We should also establish an early childhood education (ECE) accreditation agency for setting standards and quality assurance of pre-schools. We must also address the fact that nearly three-fourth of teachers engaged in ECE today lack adequate professional qualification.
A critical dimension of our education crisis is that even those children who are in school often do not acquire foundation skills —including literacy and numeracy — that enable them to successfully continue in school. The Annual Status of Education Report is a testimony to the fact that we are failing to help millions of children make the crucial transition from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’.
We need a nation-wide literacy and numeracy drive to ensure that all children master basic reading and numeracy skills by Class 2, a goal defined clearly in our Twelfth Plan. Under Tony Blair’s regime, Britain introduced a ‘national literacy hour’ that required teachers to devote at least one hour a day to improving children’s reading standards, through carefully structured daily lessons. This policy had a lasting effect on reading levels — the percentage of 11 year olds reaching the required reading standards increased from 57% to 75% in the first four years.
For effective implementation, all primary teachers must be trained on building early literacy and numeracy skills among first generation learners and provided with teaching-learning aids such as Math manipulatives and levelled reading materials in regional languages. We should also consider specialised summer remedial camps. To provide personalised attention to children, tutor volunteers should be made available round the year.
Although enrollment in Class 1 is 97%, only 40% of our children reach Class 12 today. More shockingly, only 47% of college graduates are employable in any sector of the economy, according to the National Employability Report, by Aspiring Minds. If we do not gear our educational system towards every student’s preparedness for college, career and life, our demographic dividend will turn into a demographic disaster.
The Chinese government, for instance, subsidises workplace training programmes and requires students in vocational tracks to spend a year on workplace training during their upper secondary programme. A similar emphasis in India will also make vocational tracks more aspirational for students. Investing in our children’s future requires adequate preparation at every stage of their educational journey.
Ashish Dhawan is founder and CEO, Central Square Foundation
The views expressed by the author are personal