Finance minister P. Chidambaram has used sleight of hand to mask the stagnation of the education budget. He used the revised estimate of fiscal year 2012-13 instead of the budget estimate to show the Rs.65,877 crore allocated to education has grown 17% from that base.
Chidambaram must realize our nation is at risk. While he says he is focused on growth, he fails to realize we are headed straight into a middle-income trap of unsustainable growth. He claims the overarching priority of the budget is to provide education and create jobs for the youth, and yet, the education allocation (excluding technical education) is only 4% of the overall expenditure of Rs.16.6 trillion. Is this the appropriate reaction for a country that recently came second last in the world on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test. Come on, Mr. Minister, you can do better than that.
The Right to Education Act is based on sound principles of the rights-based approach for each child to access quality education. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), which aims at universal elementary education, has largely met the goals of increased access to education, with District Information System for Education data showing 139 million children enrolled in primary and 58 million in upper primary schools. The current SSA allocation is Rs.27,258 crore and future expenditure will continue to rise as long as the focus is on the input norms of the Right to Education. Taxpayer money will not see any changes unless there is a focus on outcomes. The ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) survey recently revealed that 53% of our class five children are still not able to read class two texts and 75% of these children are unable to do simple division.
Given the objective of achieving 90% secondary enrollment and 65% higher secondary enrollment in the 12th Plan, the government needs to sharply ramp up the expenditure on the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA). The budget’s allocation of Rs.3,983 crore (25.6% over last year’s revised estimate) reflects the growing importance of this programme for universal secondary education. Given the abysmal level of elementary education, massive remedial learning programmes will be required to ensure that children making it into secondary school are able to cope with the curriculum.
We know that educational outcomes are not just related to schools but also to factors like health, nutrition and early childhood education. The mid-day meal programme has been allocated Rs.13,215 crore. This scheme had earlier grown rapidly and is now close to achieving universal coverage of children in government schools. But the scheme is highly inefficient as student numbers are often fudged and the quality of the meals is highly suspect. The government should focus on proper implementation of the scheme to ensure it achieves the desired results.
The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme has grown rapidly from an actual expenditure of Rs.9,763 core in fiscal year 2010-11 to an allocation of Rs.17,700 crore for the year starting 1 April. Early childhood education is absolutely critical but the major focus of this programme is on health and nutrition and education has lagged behind. In spite of rolling out 1.3 million anganwadi (day care) centres, the ASER survey report for 2012 shows, 43% of children in class one can’t even recognize letters.
So, what can Chidambaram do? The states are already spending 15-20% of their budgets on education, and given that the vast majority goes into teacher salaries, they don’t have the fiscal space to be strategic. The Centre not only needs to increase its expenditure but, more importantly, it must focus on strategic initiatives, accountability and implementation.
First of all, we need a vision for our education system. We must aspire to be at the median on the PISA test by 2025. It is only then that we will be able to compete with our emerging market peers.
Secondly, the Centre has to allocate money to develop a national standardized assessment. We currently only have surveys like ASER that give us a snapshot of learning levels. But that is not enough. We need annual information for how well every child is being prepared for success in the future. Standardized assessments will help all of us-teachers, parents and school leaders-know which students are struggling, so we can work to intervene.
Thirdly, the Centre must use its money power to drive accountability. The fact that the Right to Education Act was silent on learning outcomes was a cardinal mistake. The current Central government schemes are formula-based and measure inputs. Could we see more contingency bases funding in the future?
Fourthly, we must focus on a few critical interventions – quality early childhood education, restructuring teacher education and emphasizing school leadership. The Centre can play the lead role in allocating resources and providing effective regulation.
Lastly, we must recognize that the fight for quality education is a social justice issue. India has not been the land of opportunity for most. Our failure to provide a quality education undermines the human dignity of our children. But we can change this in our lifetime. Education has to be our top priority. Education has to be at the centre of our fight against poverty.
Mr. Chidambaram, your budget does not do justice to the children of India.
Ashish Dhawan is founder and chief executive officer, Central Square Foundation