I have often been asked how I rate the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). Being part of the team that designed SSA, it is always difficult to be fully objective.

The most convincing indictment of our failure in primary education in the first four decades as an independent nation is the 42nd Round National Sample Survey (NSS) findings of 1986-87. It had estimated that 69.23 per cent six plus females in rural India had never been enrolled in a primary school. Kothari Commission’s ‘The destiny of India being shaped in its classrooms’ remained merely an intent without resources.

Rumblings followed the 42nd Round NSS indictment, leading ultimately to the 1993 Unnikrishnan judgment declaring education up to the age of 14 to be a fundamental right of India’s children. Myron Weiner indicted Indian policymakers for not being serious about elementary education for all. Satyapal Anand’s follow-up case brought the judicial pronouncement to centre-stage with Chief Secretaries having to swear affidavits on the eight areas of energisation of Universal Elementary Education (UEE).

Committees galore

When the judicial heat grew stronger, the Muhiram Saikia National Committee of Education Ministers (1997) was set up to assess the financial resources needed to secure UEE. The assessment of out-of-school children was 80 million and ₹40,000 crore was the additional resource need, assessed as a ballpark figure over five years.

The Tapas Majumdar Committee (1999) thereafter made the normative assessment for UEE as an additional ₹1,36,823 crore over 10 years! With Finance Ministry’s reservations on resources, another committee of nine Education Ministers under Murli Manohar Joshi was set up to re-work the additional financial need to bring it in the ‘pragmatic realm of the possible’.

An additional ₹60,000 crore over a 10-year period was the result, which is what became the basis for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. The Constitution was amended in 2002 to make elementary education a fundamental right of children aged 6-14. Subsequently, the Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 was passed, albeit without a very specific financial memorandum.

The influential Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) report 1999, carried out its field work in 1996 in States like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, said there were not enough schools, teachers and classrooms for children. The state of schools was abysmal, the infrastructure inadequate and the learning outcomes deplorable. The PROBE report celebrated Himachal Pradesh for actually doing a ‘schooling revolution’ where all children were in schools.

It was in these tumultuous times that SSA brought hope for UEE at the turn of the century. There was a confidence that a scheme for UEE comprehensively providing for bridging all gaps, will settle the supply-side constraints.

In 2006, the same researchers carried out a PROBE Revisit Survey after a decade of efforts for UEE. The Revisit Study recorded major improvement in school participation, decline in social disparities, and improvement in schooling infrastructure, school incentives, but learning outcomes remained a challenge.

In 2014-15, the 71st Round NSS survey found the net attendance rates of boys and girls to be identical, both in rural and urban areas. Surely, the girls had voted with their feet for quality public education. It was the State that had failed to provide learning outcomes for all.

The Annual State of Education Report (ASER) 2023 on adolescents brings out how the gender gap in enrolment has nearly disappeared even at secondary school level across the country. However, the learning outcome challenges persist even in their adolescence. The National Achievement Studies of NCERT and the World Bank studies have also found unsatisfactory learning outcomes as the biggest challenge, in spite of improvement in schooling provision. Covid made the learning challenges worse.

What has not worked? Where has the failure been? Clearly, teacher recruitment and development, dysfunctional school organisation, governance and financing deficits, unsatisfactory parent-community-school partnerships for school effectiveness, need top-most attention.

Quality of learning

It is not enough to bridge the supply side; we need to address the quality of learning outcomes. Should schools be seen merely as polling booths and teachers as a field cadre with large non-academic responsibilities? It is time quality of learning and its measurement became central to schools.

Technology offers an opportunity to work with a diligent and dedicated teacher (not necessarily outstanding) who opens the world of knowledge and skills to children through an equitable access to e-learning supplementation of books and peer group learning.

Decentralised management of schools with funds, functions and functionaries under the charge of local governments and women’s collectives is likely to improve learning outcomes. This will also address inter-sectoral challenges, provision of gadgets for learning, and wider social determinants of school effectiveness. Reserve Bank of India’s recent study on panchayats (2023) brings out the positive consequences of decentralisation in socio-economic achievements of States.

SSA provided for a 6 per cent management cost to bring in the finest professional skills of programme managers, pedagogy experts, finance managers, planners, etc., to strengthen the educational administration at the field level. We need to subject teachers to competency tests. We cannot let certificate holders masquerade as teachers. We have to be ruthless in developing a performance-based system for schools and teachers.

Teacher development needs vibrant institutions at all levels. Uninspiring State, district, block and cluster level institutions completely beats the objective of learning outcomes. Unfortunately, we focused more on all children in school and much less on all learning. Measurement does matter. Incentives alone can secure participation; learning outcomes require more than simply the supply side.

The challenge of UEE is to transform the classroom process. Measuring outcomes in a non-threatening way is the way forward. It is community owned, accountable public systems that will deliver universal quality elementary education.

The writer is a retired civil servant. Views expressed are personal