As we digest news of the slowest rate of economic growth in India in many quarters (5.8% in Q4 of FY 2019) and the highest rate of unemployment in 45 years at 6.1%, all the talk of our demographic dividend of the past 15 years is fast evaporating into thin air. More relevant now, would be to ask how strong India’s education dividend is. And if we can’t find jobs for 12 million youngsters leaving India’s universities and looking for work each year, then is our education system itself delivering the goods?

India’s school education must ensure a safe landing for these children; Image: Johan Bichel Lindegaard, Copenhagen, Denmark, CC by 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

This has also to be considered in the IMD World Competitiveness Rankings for 2019, which are just out and where India ranks a lowly 43, having moved up a notch last year. While Singapore and Hong Kong have pipped the US to take the top spots this year, we have been languishing in the 40s for the past few years at least. There are several factors that go to make an economy competitive – the IMD considers 235 parameters – and education would only be one of them. But there is no denying that when it comes to an individual’s or a country’s future, nothing prepares them for it the way education does.

India boasts of legions of brainy engineers who have led India’s information technology sector and today also lead some of the world’s big tech companies (Think Sundar Pichai at Google, Satya Nadella at Microsoft and Shantanu Narayen at Adobe); indeed, according to the National Science Board Science and Engineering Indicators, as many as 46% of the world’s science and engineering graduates are from India and China.

The sad truth is that this probably represents under 5% of India’s population. What is tragic is that for the remaining 95% of India, good quality school education remains an elusive dream and it has actually failed them. For the past two decades, in India’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) it has been found that learning outcomes of our school children is appallingly low. Pratham, a non-profit working in school education has been at the forefront of a massive effort to understand and help improve learning outcomes among primary school education students across government schools in India’s villages. While the learning outcomes have been improving, it has found that many Grade III schoolchildren in government schools in rural India cannot read a Grade II text and have trouble doing simple arithmetic like subtraction and division of three-digit numbers.

Children at a village school in Kovalam, Kerala; Image: Fabrice Florin CC by SA 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

What explains this dichotomy? As always, skewed policy-making and neglect of India’s primary and secondary education, especially in the hinterland. In an effort to make India’s economic and industrial base strong at the time of independence, policymakers focused on higher education as the route to greater self-reliance. It was Nehru’s vision to create an environment of scientific enquiry, promote research and development, and equip millions of Indians with higher education of a standard that would soon become the pride of the nation. All laudable objectives that no one can argue with. Indian Institutes of Technology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences along with several other medical and engineering colleges and universities, as well as the Indian Institutes of Management, The Indian Statistical Institute set up with the help of Mahalanobis, are all prestigious and reputed institutions that India’s best and brightest have been associated with.

We inherited our education system, especially our primary and secondary schools from British colonial times and many of them continue to serve India well. However, they were designed for a bygone era, inspired by Macaulay and his now famous Minute on English education, designed to produce an entire bureaucratic class to govern British India. Not only were millions of the poor kept out of this education system, it was ill-suited to the demands of a changing, independent India. Subsequent Indian governments are to blame for the sorry state of our school education system, for the neglect and the poor quality of teaching and consequently, poor learning outcomes.

With the help of organisations like Pratham, several economists such as Abhijit Banerjee of MIT and his colleagues at J-PAL (Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab) have been studying the issue and trying to identify problem areas as well as testing solutions that can be considered. Finally, they have some good news to report, a glimmer of hope in what has been a dark era for schooling in India. Their experiments in four Indian states (education is a state subject in India) based on Pratham’s new teaching method called TaRL (Teach at the right level) have led to encouraging results showing improved learning outcomes and you can read about it in this article by Shobhini Mukerji of J-PAL writing for Ideas for India at the International Growth Centre.

India’s school kids need education not just for a rainy day; Image: Vinoth Chandar CC by 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

There is also a structural problem with India’s moribund school education system, and as Kartik Muralidharan of UC San Diego says in his paper – that also offers some solutions – it was designed for “sorting” students and rewarding winners for cramming, while leaving the rest of the class behind. Teaching in India’s schools that are often driven by a need to “produce outstanding results” is often done at the top of the class, and the majority who cannot keep pace are ignored. In fact, the poor outcomes are also due to fundamental flaws in the system, such as no exams or tests in government schools until Grade VIII; with the result that poor or mediocre students wait until Grade VIII to find out that they are weak. They have just a couple of years in which to catch up to the level required for the all-important Grade X Board Examination.

There is now a New Education Policy that the new government is considering which contains many new ideas, including a modular system (which Muralidharan also refers to in his paper). Of course, the language study part of the policy came in for immediate attack from some quarters and the committee behind the policy has already backtracked on making Hindi compulsory, but the three-language recommendation might still stay in place. While we have made improvements in primary school enrollment, we now have to focus on achieving greater equity across school types, learning levels and geographical regions, as Wilima Wadhwa of ASER points out in her piece for Ideas for India.

How do we compare with some of the best school education systems around the world? In the OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, some countries dominate the rankings for several years. India is taking part in PISA only this year, so we will have to wait for the results. To the extent that PISA is a test for the brightest 15-year old students from several countries, it is unlikely to be an accurate measure of a country’s overall education levels. But it could be a useful way to rank the best and brightest students from across countries and it provides useful clues as to where a country might try and improve. You can take a look at the 2015 PISA rankings from OECD by clicking on the link below.

OECD Chart: Pinboard

Some countries are known to excel in school education, most notably Finland. What can we learn from their system and how it operates? For starters, their school education is entirely public-funded and is free. What’s more, there are no standard test for students since they don’t believe education should be about competition; rather, each student is allowed to learn and focus on what he or she is interested in or has an aptitude for. The teachers are highly qualified and trained, for teaching is a highly-regarded profession in Finland. There are several other unique and admirable features of the Finnish school system that you can read about here. But what struck me as most remarkable is the goal or mission that they believe in: Education for all children without an end. They believe in not leaving any child behind and they adhere to the principle by following some form of teaching at an individual’s level of learning capacity.

Teaching each child at their individual learning capacity; Image: Pan Xiaozhen on Unsplash

Singapore is another country that has made huge strides in school education and is even now reforming its school system, as I write this. Not only is the country high up in the PISA rankings, their school system is quite well-aligned to the country’s overall strategy for growth. As a centre for high-tech services and manufacturing, Singapore is focused on achieving high learning outcomes in science and math as well as soft skills which will probably lead to more careers in STEM.

China, with its massive population and vast hinterland of underserved poor, should perhaps be the country India should compare itself with. We are always comparing our GDP growth with China’s, so how about looking at its school education system for a change? China has always focused on primary and secondary education from ancient times. Shouldn’t be such a surprise when you consider the Chinese invented paper and also the abacus.  Theirs was not a system inherited from any colonial power but home-grown, and developed to provide basic literacy and numeracy at the primary level. Since the Chinese economy liberalized, their school education system has also been overhauled in keeping with the times. However, just like in India, Chinese school education varies widely from region to region and most importantly between big cities like Beijing and Shanghai and the smaller cities or the hinterland. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies has examined Chinese school education in detail and you can read about it here. China has a long way to go, but they have also made huge progress in the past two decades and there could be plenty that we can learn from them.

Students of Fairfield Methodist Primary School, Singapore; Image: Ds1110 Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

In the ultimate analysis, it is the government that should take responsibility for providing good quality school education to all and it cannot be left to private institutions to shoulder it, as is increasingly becoming the case in India. With the result that private schools are preferred over government schools, even in small villages in India. Equally, it is not just about how much we spend on education as a percentage of GDP, but how we spend it. India spent 3.8% of its GDP on education in 2013 according to the World Bank, but if you look at what we spent on primary education as a percentage of our total government spend on education, it was 28%. Most of our neighbours spent more. More importantly, Finland, which spent less on primary education at 20% has better education outcomes. Clearly, something is wrong with the way we spend our resources on primary education. What’s more, we seem to be spending an equal amount on primary, secondary and tertiary education, but clearly deriving most out of the tertiary system and leaving millions of primary school kids in our villages and small towns behind.

India’s education index, as a lower-middle income country, is well below standard

Nowhere does this reflect more than in the UNDP’s Human Development Index and Education Index for 189 countries, where India again ranks abysmally low – 130 and 135 respectively. We know that countries like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan grew and became known as Asia’s miracle economies in the previous century because they invested in developing their human capital. In this century, the world is faced with a new challenge: the dominance of technology and AI. Many jobs are at risk of being replaced, but more importantly, many skills are going to become redundant and new skills will be in demand. What will we be teaching today’s young and the next generation to prepare them for the AI-enabled world where analytical skills will be prized over accountancy, where problem-solving will be preferred over picking fruit and vegetables in farms, where critical thinking will be preferred to working at construction sites?

Skills required in the tech age will be quite different; Image: NESA by Makers on Unsplash

This has to be an integral part of the reform agenda for this government and those to follow. Merely talking of a new India, but not preparing people for it or giving them a future will not do anymore. We have an education crisis on our hands and if we don’t address it adequately and soon enough, we will not be the world’s fastest growing economy for long. Because unless we take the entire country with us, the poor and uneducated will continue to suffer and be a drag on the economy. Redistributive strategies must also take school education into account; mere doles and cash transfers will not do the job. We need to provide quality education and lift the standards of learning and skill development at the most fundamental levels.

Here’s hoping the new glimmer seen in the villages of Uttar Pradesh will spread to other parts of India and brighten the future of millions of school children across the country.

In the July reading selection for The Whistle Library, I will be sharing a speech made by Charles Dickens in 1854, at the Commercial Traveller’s School that was set up for the children of deceased and underprivileged commercial travellers (travelling salesmen in newly-industrialised Britain).

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