In 2000, India signed the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that set out broad development targets to be achieved by 2015. The MDGs for education were universal primary education and the elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary schooling. On a country level, these goals were effective for India, as they pushed us to achieve universal elementary enrollment which stands at 97% today. Yet, we know from various quality assessments that our education system fails to deliver quality education and does not prepare our children to be productive and responsible citizens. Now that the global dialogue is moving to the creation of a post-2015 vision, we must ensure that in education we emphasise the quality of learning from early childhood through secondary education. Three specific areas that should be addressed in the post-2015 vision include:
Early childhood education: A growing body of evidence establishes that early childhood education is critical to an individual’s educational outcomes as 80% of brain development takes place by the time a child is 5.
The state governments need to invest in creating a pre-primary curriculum, providing access to schools at the pre-primary level (age 4 to 6) and introducing this age group of learners to early literacy and numeracy. We have an opportunity to track the efficacy of such a system as the Delhi government has introduced a pre-primary grade in its schools.
Secondary education: Given the huge surge in student enrollment in the last few years, it is critical to ensure access to high quality secondary schooling. A central challenge, particularly in rural areas, is finding the right balance between building infrastructure in close proximity to villages and ensuring sufficient enrollment within these schools.
In China, 35% of rural children are enrolled in State residential schools. India’s enrollment figures will likely go up through a similar network of large residential schools in rural areas. We already have working models of such schools with the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNV), a network of rural residential schools catering to gifted children.
The Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan should build on the example of JNVs to extend quality education to rural children. We should also develop a curriculum focussed on vocational and skill development at the secondary level. In Finland and Switzerland, students choose to continue their secondary education in either an academic track or a vocational track.
Standardised assessment: In most countries, including India, we lack sufficient data and capacity to systematically measure and track learning outcomes that lead to ineffective policy-making based on inputs rather than outcomes. While sample surveys like Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) and National Achievement Survey (NAS) collect information on learning outcomes, they do not tell us whether every child in our schools is actually learning.
We need to aim for every child in Classes 3, 5 and 8 to take a statewide assessment test in mathematics and language. The ministry of human resource development has allocated funds for state-learning surveys. States need to focus on building technical capability to implement these surveys. As these assessments get institutionalised and regular data about education outcomes emerge, we can build the political and community will to address our shortcomings.
India should work closely with Unesco’s Learning Metrics Task Force to adapt relevant recommendations around internationally comparable learning standards, metrics and implementation practices.
While India has made great strides in achieving Education for All, we need to move the goalposts now from just getting children into school to ensuring that they are learning in school.