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More than a million have no school and no hope for the future

A recent UN report shows that more than a million children between the ages of six and eleven years are out of school. This represents a real loss of potential for the country. Poulomi Banerjee writes.

india Updated: Jul 13, 2014 12:10 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
UNESCO,child labour,education

Every morning, Shiva (7) takes an autorickshaw to work. Accompanying him from his home in east Delhi are his two younger siblings and a neighbour. Shiva spends his day in central Delhi’s Janpath area selling pens, four for Rs 20, to the office crowd, shoppers and tourists, sometimes asking for an ice cream from any one who looks kind enough to indulge him. He is unsure of his daily earnings. “He doesn’t have a mother and his father is ill and stays at home,” his neighbour explains. Shiva has never been to school and has no hope of ever going to one. “I can’t read,” he says, a trifle wistfully.

There are many like Shiva, who sell flowers or toys on the streets of India’s cities, work on farms, do odd jobs at restaurants, beg for a living or just while away their time when they should rightfully be in school. According to UNESCO’s recently published annual Education For All Global Monitoring Report, there are 57.8 million children in the age group of six to 11 years who are out of school. 1.38 million of these are in India. India has the fourth highest number of out-of-school children in this age group. Pakistan is at number two with 5.37 million out of school children at the primary level.

"In terms of the proportion of OOSC (out of school children) at the primary level it was 1.1% in 2011. It is based on the population of children between 6 and 10," says Shailendra Sigdel, statistical advisor for South Asia, UNESCO. This means the Adjusted Net Enrolment (ANER) is 98.9% at the primary level. However, according to the figures, the NER of recent years has gone down. The recent publication DISE: 2013-14 Flash Statistics shows 88.08% Net Enrolment. "As UNESCO collects data on administrative data we are not in a position to say that ‘they were never enrolled or whether they attended school or not’. The OOSC number presented here is the number of children not enrolled on a particular day of survey," Sigdel explains.

Children earn a living polishing shoes when they should be in school (Virendra Singh Gosain and Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)

The UNESCO figures are appalling. However, some education experts believe the numbers need to be viewed in perspective. “If we have approximately 200 million children in the age group of 6 to 11 years, 1.4 million is not as bleak a number as it seems when seen in isolation,” says professor R Govinda, vice-chancellor, National University of Education Planning and Administration. Shailendra Sharma, executive director, Pratham (New Delhi), a nongovernment organisation agrees: “According to recent studies, 96% of children in rural India are enrolled in schools. However, attendance is often not as good. On a given day, only 70% are found in class”. Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002 inserted Article 21-A to provide free and compulsory education as a fundamental right to all children in India in the age group of six to 14 years. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, means every child has a right to full time elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality in a formal school which satisfies certain essential norms and standards. Article 21-A and the RTE Act came into effect on 1 April 2010. To achieve the goal of providing elementary education to every child, the country also introduced the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in 2000-2001. The aim was to boost universal access to education, to retain students in school, to bridge gender and social category gaps in elementary education and to improve the quality of learning. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan interventions include the opening of new schools and alternate schooling facilities, the construction of schools and additional classrooms, providing toilets and drinking water facility in schools, provisioning for teachers, periodic teacher training and academic resource support, textbooks and support for learning achievement. To boost enrolment, retention and attendance, while also improving nutritional levels in children, India introduced the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education as a centrally sponsored scheme on August 15, 1995, which became the cooked Midday Meal Scheme in 2001.All this is very well but what explains the drop in expenditure on education that shows up in the UNESCO study? "Our data shows a reduction on education in terms of GDP proportion to education sector. The UNESCO Institute of Statistics (IS) database shows the GDP percentage in the education sector was 4.34% in 1999 and it has gone down to 3.35% in 2010," says Sigdel. Education commands only 10.1% and 11% of total public spending in Pakistan and India, respectively compared with the international recommendation of 20% of total public expenditure. The rate also remains low in Sri Lanka at 12.9% and Bangladesh at 14.1%. Domestic experts, though, feel the problem is not a lack of funds but a need to reorganise the expenditure of resources for maximum benefit. In the Eleventh Five Year Plan, total public expenditure on education increased by 4.6 folds. "However, often these resources are not properly utilised," says Shailendra Sharma. For example, according to media reports Rs 60 lakh had been sanctioned by the government for the expansion of a school in Solan in Himachal Pradesh. The funds remained unutilised for three years because of unavailability of suitable land for expansion. Finally, the funds were transferred to Shimla. Often, in spite of funds being available, bureaucratic reasons delay the appointment of teachers. "Lack of ideas and not lack of funds is the mainn problem," insists Sharma.

Similarly, while UNESCO lists “child ld labor, poverty (as low economic quintile have less access to school than rich quintile), insufficient school infrastructure and lack of teachers,” as barriers to schooling in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Sharma blames the poor quality of education as the key factor for low turnouts at school. According to UNICEF’s South Asia Regional Study report, “the incidence of child labour varies from 3% in Sri Lanka to 16% in Pakistan. In India and Bangladesh, an estimated 122% and 9% of children are engaged in child labour. In all four countries, school attendance rates for child labourers are lower than for other children of the same age.” Sharma says poverty is no longer the key reason that keeps children away from school. “We now need to review our classroom process, check what we are offering these students. What kind of skills are they picking up? A big percentage of these government school students are first generation school goers. We can’t expect learning support for them at home,” he says, adding that teachers need to adapt their style to suit these students. “Or else these children drop out of school and engage themselves in work. The Annual Status of Education Report 2013 revealed that about 53% of students studying in grade five in government schools cannot read texts meant for students of grade two. However, 28% of students in rural India today are enrolled in private schools and the number is rising. “This shows a demand for good education. We have to increase the time devoted to these students in school. Some of our schools are so small that they are unable to provide the kind of facilities required for the students,” says Govinda.

And then there’s the question of the impact of poor nutrition on learning ability. A recent World Bank report (Student Learning in South Asia: challenges, opportunities and policy priorities) on the quality of education in south Asia, stresses on early childhood nutrition as a priority to improve learning outcomes. The report talks of the need for effectiveness and accountability of teaching staff, of financing as a tool to improve the quality of education, and about leveraging the contribution of the private sector. It also talks of the need to expand access to schooling for disadvantaged populations and to improve learning outcomes. UNESCO’s Education for All drive aims to see every child in school by 2015. Among children who are out of school, there is a group that is likely to never enter primary school. This is affecting a strikingly high proportion of excluded children in Pakistan (51%) and India (39%), according to the UNICEF report.

Education is essential for individual and collective progress. Education affects economic growth by increasing the productivity of the labour force. It encourages innovation which may lead to the creation of new technologies, products and processes. According to the World Bank report, education also helps in the “assimilation and diffusion of the knowledge needed to effectively use technology devised by others.” Clearly, a large chunk of uneducated adults represents a huge loss of potential for the nation. “About 30% to 35% of children in India do not complete the minimum requirement of eight years of schooling. In additon to impacting the country’s human resource, this violates the Right to Education guaranteed to every child in the India Constitution,” Govinda says. Sadly, all this means little to children like Shiva, who spend their days on the streets attempting to earn enough to buy their next meal.

First Published: Jul 13, 2014 11:05 IST