Two recent reports – the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) on the cognitive skills of adolescents, prepared by the NGO Pratham, and a report on the quality of teachers by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences – on India’s school education landscape paint a very disturbing picture. The first, ironically called ‘Beyond Basics’, tells us that up to 25 per cent children in the 14-18 age category cannot read Class II level text fluently even in their mother tongue. More than half the children studying in rural India struggle with basic maths, says the report. These findings, derived on the basis of a large and varied sample used for comparisons over time, do cast a shadow of doubt over India’s literacy rate of 77.7 per cent, according to NFHS-5 (2019-21). Literacy that precludes the ‘three Rs’ (reading, writing, arithmetic) is a mere joke.

The TISS report, on the ‘State of Teachers, Teaching and Teacher Education’. is quite as alarming and perhaps explains the results of the ASER report. The TISS report says that around 35-41 per cent of mathematics teachers, both in government and private schools, lack the necessary expertise to teach the subject. They did not take mathematics as a subject at their undergraduate level. Generally speaking, the qualifications deficit is worst at the primary level and reduces a bit at the middle and secondary levels, except in maths. But the initial damage is hard to reverse.

The ASER says only 43 cent of 14-18 year-olds are able to do simple division (three digit-by-one digit) correctly, a skill that is usually expected in Standard III/IV. A similar proportion cannot read English sentences, though this figure is an improvement from 47 per cent in the 2017 ASER survey. Over half the students are enrolled in the humanities, where dealing with abstract concepts and complex texts is crucial. Overall, India’s school education, especially public schools in rural areas, is simply catastrophic, for a country that is relying on its ‘demographic dividend’.

It is intriguing that such a situation should persist for years (as ASER reports show) despite generous allocations for education. According to a Ministry of Education report released in 2022, States spend almost 80 per cent of their education budget on primary and secondary education. But the RBI’s data on State finances show that the States’ spending on education has fallen from 16 per cent of their total expenditure in 2014-15 to 13.3 per cent today, with the southern States too cutting back sharply, besides Punjab (9.2 per cent) and Arunachal Pradesh (9.7 per cent). Education spend in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh are below the national average. Yet, States that have spent more such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan over 15 years have little to show. The quality of education would depend both on the quantum of outlays and the manner in which it is put to use. Above all, the disaster in education points to distorted policy priorities. The politics of instant gratification via caste, religion and freebies has become the order of the day.