For a young tribal girl from Andhra Pradesh aspiring to do an engineering course was like putting a ladder to reach the sky in 2007. Twenty years old now, Keerthi has completed her BTech and is preparing for the competitive exams. Her father worked as a home guard and her mother was a helper in a school. In 2007, when she had to move into a hostel, she was scared to leave home but made the tough choice for a “good future”. With financial support from the tribal development agency she moved to a private junior college and graduated to a private engineering college on merit. Keerthi’s mother is justifiably proud of her achievement.

Young Lives India’s recently released survey, Round Five Educational Fact Sheet and Secondary Schooling shows that 91 per cent of 15-year-olds were enrolled in secondary schools in 2016 as against 78 per cent in 2009. The increase in enrolment was particularly significant for backward class girls like Keerthi — 90 per cent (from 74 per cent). The number of children attending private schools too increased marginally to 37 per cent (from 35 per cent in 2008). Private school enrolment remained biased towards boys (41 per cent), upper castes (62 per cent), the wealthy (62 per cent) and urban children (64 per cent).

The study of childhood poverty follows the lives of 12,000 children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam over 15 years parallel to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Aiming to inform policy and practice that would make a difference to the poorest child, their families and households, the study follows two groups of children in each country — 2,000 younger cohort (YC) children born in 2001-02, and 1,000 older cohort (OC) born in 1994-95.

In India, the study focused on 205 secondary schools in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, including 85 government, 55 private unaided, 29 aided and 36 tribal/social welfare schools. It looked at three cognitive tests in maths, functional English and transferable skills of 9,000 Class IX children.

Married too soon

Dr Renu Singh, Country Director, Young Lives, said the 15-year study had highlighted Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’s work in ensuring that children from the poorest households access schools. Now, the focus had to be on ensuring learning outcomes for the marginalised, particularly girls, rural residents, disadvantaged social groups and those from the poorest households. Adequate investments had to be made in quality pre-school education and capacity building of teachers. At the same time, social security networks were needed for the poorest families and better implementation of the Child Marriage Prohibition Act as well as the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act 2016, to ensure that children completed 12 years of schooling.

While the biggest reason for opting out of school at the secondary stage, particularly for girls, was marriage, the other reasons include long absence from school, domestic work, paid work, high fees and family issues.

Take the case of Prasad, a backward caste boy from the older cohort, who aspired to become a doctor. He worked in the fields to pay his junior college fees. His mother was keen to support his education, but she first had to pay off a loan of ₹20,000. The study showed that a large gap existed in the learning outcomes of disadvantaged children even at the start of Std IX, with wealthier students making more progress. Only the most disadvantaged attended government schools. The overall learning levels were ‘too low’, and 14 per cent of students in Std IX had to repeat one or two classes. Corporal punishment was also reported by both older and younger group of children. It was more in the primary school.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi