Bill Gates, in a restrained observation that ought to make us cringe, stated that his “biggest disappointment when it comes to India, is the education system. It should be far better.” Without reforming its educational system significantly, India will be a left-behind country. China and even smaller nations like Vietnam (now a star for quality school education) have already pulled well ahead of India education-wise.

Nearly a decade after coming almost at the bottom of the heap in the OECD’s 2009+ PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, India withdrew from future participation though this decision has been reversed. But we need not look to our performance in the PISA tests to tell us how badly off we are educationally. There is enough evidence from the non-government and government sources to show Bill Gates was spot on in his observation.

Pratham, a highly respected NGO, has, for sometime now, been bringing out an ‘Annual Status of Education Report,’ or ASER, on educational attainments of children in rural India where much of India’s neglected young live. Shockingly, the ASER 2018 report brought out that only 73 per cent of class 8 children can read a 2nd standard textbook and only 44 per cent can solve a three digit by one digit numerical division problem correctly.

Most of India’s students are in classrooms which do not have the minimum required to ensure quality education — good school buildings, well-trained, well-paid and motivated teachers with a record of being consistently present in class and being good at their job. Most of our schools also lack chairs and tables and adequate sanitary facilities to ease a day in school, especially for girls.

Is it any surprise then that only half of the millions who enrol in class one — even with the added incentive of mid-day meals — are still there at the upper primary level and even fewer go further up the educational ladder? The obfuscating data in the 2018 annual report of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) buries all this in a maze of statistical legerdemain that few can make any sense of. However, persistent trawling yields some alarming statistics.

Our educational planners and administrators have primed us to fail as a country in school education. The higher the classes the fewer the schools India has. Out of a total of 15 million schools at all levels, 55 per cent are at the primary level. Of the rest, 28 per cent are at the upper primary level dropping dramatically to 9.1 per cent at secondary and 7.3 per cent at higher secondary levels.

Enrolment, drop-out rates

Of the 260 million students enrolled in schools in 2016-17 at all levels, 49 per cent are in primary schools with only 25 per cent at the upper primary level. A mere 15 per cent or 39 million are at the secondary level and just 9.5 per cent or a little less than 25 million complete higher secondary. These dismal figures have only marginally improved since 2016 but they are still damning for a country of over 1.3 billion people.

With less and less schools to go to at higher school levels, it is not surprising that children drop out of education in such alarming numbers, giving India the dubious distinction of having the largest number of un-educated and undereducated young population in the world and it shows.

The only way to break out of this cycle of lack of schools and high drop out rates is to accept that we need to significantly hike investment in school education, set up institutional mechanisms to rapidly increase the number of schools while ensuring their quality, and make education accessible to all from primary to higher secondary levels.

India does not have the luxury of developing altogether new school systems, but in the Kendriya Vidyalas we have a fairly good — but by no means outstanding — model to adopt and adapt. It is also the most extensive school system in the country, covering over 1.3 million children through over 1,200 schools and it is very scalable.

Presently these schools cater mostly to children of government officials, providing a uniform quality of education from the 1st to the 12th standard across the country. Given the will, this system can be scaled up to cover all the children in the country — an educational equivalent of the GST, accommodating State-to-State variations. Of course, there will be costs.

According to figures put out by the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, the cost of educating one student in the Kendriya Vidyalaya system is approximately ₹35,000 per year. Thus an additional educational budget of around ₹4-lakh crore should cover 100 million most-in-need children annually, including those who now drop out of education at various stages of schooling. The amount required is in addition to the ₹94,000 crore allocated at the Central and around ₹2.5-lakh crore spent at the State level.

Educational emergency

We would do well also to declare an educational emergency since deficiencies in education is affecting our country in every area from job creation to defence. For a start it would be a good idea to dismantle the moribund MHRD at the Centre and the education departments in States and replace them by a result oriented authority that will do for school education what ISRO has achieved for us in space or the Atomic Energy Commission has in the nuclear field.

No offer of a universal basic income package, or sops of any kind, including the un-implementable RTE, will make up for the educational deficit that the country has been accumulating over several decades making it uncompetitive while condemning it to languish in a lower middle income backyard.

The New Education Policy (NEP) draft recognises much of what has been stated here. These include the urgency for a deep reform of school education, including the need to go in for a massive overhaul of teacher training and force a radical shift in pedagogical methodologies and learning outcomes. It even envisages an authority headed by the Prime Minister to oversee the implementation of the New Education Policy.

The present NDA Government is in a strong position to dramatically change India’s dismal school education scene for the better over the next five years. It can do so by making it possible for all those entering school every year to be able to complete their 12th standard. This is a strategic necessity no less than the aircraft carriers and fighter planes we are procuring. The money, if we look hard enough, is available. What we need is the political will.

The writer teaches at IISc. Bengaluru