Schooling and skills in China, India

SHAILAJA FENNELL | Updated on November 15, 2017

The use of local curriculum should be the norm in each State’s education policy.


India's poor educational outcomes should not come as a shock — it has not yet been able to ensure that 6 per cent of the national budget is spent on education. Achieving high enrolment levels is clearly not enough.

India's poor performance in the ACER PISA tests released earlier this month, where Shanghai came out at the top and India was placed second from the bottom (just above Kyrgyzstan), has provoked a barrage of questions: Why is the education system failing India, at a time when the potential of positive returns from its demographic bulge and the growing proportion of its people in their twenties and thirties should be contributing an additional injection to growth?

The poor educational outcomes should not come as a shock, given that India has not yet been able to ensure that 6 per cent of the national budget is spent on education. This, despite it being recommended decades ago, by the Kothari Commission Report in 1964. While the new Right to Education Act has provided the legal basis to ensure that all children can access school, there is still a long way to go before enrolment in schools itself becomes an automatic assurance of quality education. Programmes such as Mid-day Meal are important in increasing enrolment and retention, but will not be able to overcome the very low level of financial resources and difficult teaching environments encountered in most schools.

Uneven terrain

Any meaningful answer needs to be based on an understanding of the increasingly uneven terrain in the provision of education across India. There are obvious implications of the current pattern of educational provision. These relate to the very unequal access to educational resources with per child investment being significantly different between elite and government schools, the evidence of considerably better quality of schooling in urban than in rural areas, and policies of encouraging new private providers into the education sector not supported by adequate regulation.

The poor performance seems particularly difficult to understand, in the light of successful initiatives to improve the quality of schooling by State education departments such as those in Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, and even private players such as the Azim Premji Foundation. While it is important to reflect on continued weaknesses in the delivery of education, there needs to also be programmes to address the financial and social difficulties faced by children from poor families in paying and staying on in the schooling system.

Research conducted on the educational outcomes of the poor in four countries (Ghana, India, Kenya and Pakistan), between 2005 and 2010, shows that only children from better-off socio-economic households are able to successfully navigate through to complete secondary schooling.

Those households most likely to experience educational risk — dropping out of the educational cycle without completing secondary school — are the poorest in the community.

The introduction of private providers to create competition in the local educational sphere does not seem to have reduced this divergence. While the new private schools have seen increased enrolment, as children from better-off households choose them over the government schools, the poorest households are unable to avail of this opportunity and continue to fall off the educational ladder. They do not regard education as a potential contributor to improving employment opportunities; instead, they are resigned to poor educational and employment outcomes.

Chinese initiative

The only solace to be gained from undertaking a detailed analysis of current educational provisions is that all developing countries have had to face these challenges in recent decades. Take China, where rural households in the poorer provinces have been particularly prone to educational risk. A longitudinal study conducted in Gansu (one of the country's poorest provinces), over 2000-2009, indicates that rural households regarded the poor educational outcome of their children to be due to their severe financial constraints, which also prevented them from buying educational aids. Also, their own low educational attainment could not support learning at home.

The disparities in the Chinese educational system were becoming evident in the late 1990s, with large intra-provincial differences between urban and rural educational outcomes. The response by the federal authorities in China was to implement a system of sponsorship for children from poor households from 2004, to cover costs of textbooks, board and lodging. The scheme is still under way and its objective is to ensure coverage of all poor rural children by 2012.

The financial outlay provided by the federal government is to be applauded, but the initiative has yet to reduce the wide gap in the quality of teaching and attitudes of teachers in urban and rural areas. Furthermore, youth from poor households in interior provinces, who have successfully completed secondary education and entered tertiary education by taking personal loans, are now faced with very poor prospects of employment. They find it difficult to compete with youth from better-off provinces, and stand no chance against the well-off and far better-taught youth coming out of Shanghai schools.

Linkage with job market

If the intention is to improve the provision and quality of Indian education to ensure that the youth bulge can really provide a boost to economic growth, it is important to address the weaknesses in the educational sector. The state then clearly needs to ‘put money where its mouth is', whether this is through public or private funds. That would be the beginning of a more equal and higher quality provision of education, which should be followed by measures to improve educational quality. The provision of education at primary and secondary level using locally relevant curriculum and delivered using innovative teaching methods should become the norm in every State's education policy.

Last, and certainly not least, it must be understood that having national enrolment levels close to 96 per cent in India today is not enough. It is worth remembering that in the early 1990s, the Kyrgyz Republic had enrolment rates of 100 per cent. But in the difficult economic period that followed, it fell below 90 per cent. The collapse of employment opportunities was a major reason for the disillusionment of Kyrgyz youth with the possible gains from completing the educational cycle. If the youth currently in schools in India today — particularly those in the poorer states and in difficult rural environments — are to contribute to making a better tomorrow, one must have better linkages between educational and labour market outcomes in the near future.

(The author is Lecturer in Development Studies and Fellow of Jesus College at the University of Cambridge.)

Published on January 25, 2012

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