We must invest today in India’s tomorrow

  • Khimi Thapa, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 24, 2014 23:30 IST

It is an uncomfortable paradox: More children are going to school but they are learning less. While the Right to Education Act has increased primary school enrollment, several studies have reiterated that it has failed to improve learning outcomes.

According to the 2013 Annual Status of Education Report report, 60% of Class 3 students can’t read a Class 1 text — this is up from 53% in 2009.

And the situation doesn’t improve in the higher classes either: 53% of Class 5 students can’t read a Class 2 text, up from 47% in 2009. Thus the findings of Young Lives, an international study of childhood poverty conducted by the University of Oxford in association with the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Sri Padmavathi Mahila University, and Save the Children, that the mathematics scores show that the learning levels declined by 14 percentage points for 12-year-olds in 2013 compared with children of the same age in 2006 in (united) Andhra Pradesh are not surprising.

However, that more girls and Scheduled Caste children (97% of 12-year-old girls enrolled in 2013 compared with just 87% in 2006 and 97% of Scheduled Caste children compared with 85% in 2006) are attending schools is good news.

The dip in learning outcomes in both government and private schools indicate that teachers are ill-trained and mere access to education will not guarantee learning.

The report, which was initiated in 2002 across India, Ethiopia, Peru and Vietnam, tracks 3,000 children (divided in two age groups: 2,000 children born in 2001-02 and 1,000 children born in 1994-95 — covering all ages from early infancy into young adulthood) across (united) Andhra with a special focus on poorer communities, was released recently.

Not just education, these children also suffer from lack of sanitation, nutrition and skill development.

At a time when Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates praised Narendra Modi for his focus on providing toilets as a critical driver of child health, the study pointed out that while almost all children (part of the sample) have access to clean water, only half of them had access to sanitation.

Having toilets in schools not just means preventing children from falling sick, but it also means having them, especially girls, come to school. But building toilets alone won’t help, we need to create awareness about the importance of sanitation.

The study also finds, despite improvements, around a third of the children continue to suffer from malnutrition and the disparities among socio-economic groups persist with little improvement. And notably, children whose mothers had little to no education are the worst affected. The government has demonstrated its commitment to implement the National Food Security Act. The efforts must ensure that women are provided with basic nutritional knowledge.

While the country is banking on the demographic dividend, the study underlines that young people from marginalised groups have started full-time work, mostly self-employed or wage-employed in agriculture, with no chances of getting further education or vocational skills.

This goes against the aims of the national youth policy. The average age at marriage is 16.6 years and girls most likely to get married and have a child at a young age are from the poorest groups.

These findings underline that we have to invest in today’s children. Otherwise we can forget about the demographic dividend. Besides making concerted efforts to improve learning outcomes, our policy-makers should make children the focus of their development.

So Mr Prime Minister we are all ears for your Children’s Day address. Hopefully, you will put the child at the centre of development.

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