Mumbai: Learning levels for primary school children in predominantly tribal districts were poor compared to neighbouring districts with lower tribal populations, an IndiaSpend analysis of data from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022 across five states has found.

A study by researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B) uses results of the National Achievement Survey, 2021, finding that learning levels for scheduled tribe (ST) children in grade V were 53% and 41% in mathematics and language tests, respectively. The corresponding national averages are 55% and 44%.

“Increased provision of infrastructure facilities in schools is necessary, yet not sufficient to improve the learning outcomes of children in these tribal regions,” the study says. “[O]ne of the most important aspects requiring attention is pedagogy. For instance, teachers need to capture the attention of students by making classroom teaching interesting as well as interactive, which can be done through the use of visual aids, games and real-world applications. Teachers also need to cater to the diverse learning styles and needs of students.”

As per the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) report for 2017-18 published by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), the literacy rate for STs is 67.7%, and the corresponding figure overall is 76.9%.

Nationally, children’s basic reading ability has dropped to pre-2012 levels, reversing the slow improvement achieved in the earlier years, shows the ASER 2022 report. ASER provides information on the status of school education (enrollment, infrastructure, learning etc.) only for rural India. It does not provide information by social groups. IndiaSpend used census data to categorise districts with a tribal population of more than 50% as ‘tribal districts’ and those with less than 50% as ‘non-tribal districts’, and analysed the average learning outcomes for the districts.

Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland were selected due to their relatively poor infrastructure compared to other states with high tribal populations, according to data from the Unified District Information System for Education plus 2021-22 (UDISE+). Odisha and Chhattisgarh had better infrastructure such as electricity, water, sanitation and hygiene, and yet had poor learning levels.

Poor facilities responsible for poor outcomes

Lack of basic infrastructure usually translates to poor learning outcomes. For example, 37% of government schools in Arunachal Pradesh and 46% in Nagaland do not have drinking water facilities within the school premises, according to UDISE+. Similarly, 37% government schools in Arunachal Pradesh, 30% in Nagaland, and 29% in Manipur do not have functional girls' toilets within the school premises.

“Learning outcomes are directly linked to the environment in which a student is studying,” said Protiva Kundu, Research Lead and Thematic Lead - Social Sectors, from the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA). “The presence of basic infrastructure in schools, like adequate classrooms, toilets, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities, and playgrounds creates an enabling environment for the student’s learning.”

According to ASER data, the three states exhibit low learning levels. At the primary level, reading outcomes stand at 23.1% for Arunachal Pradesh, 49.8% for Manipur, and 34.3% for Nagaland. Similarly, mathematics outcomes are 49.2% for Arunachal Pradesh, 69.9% for Manipur, and 47.0% for Nagaland. These figures vary from the national averages of 55% in reading and 44% in mathematics (Data from some districts are missing).

“Once basic components are in place, such as drinking water, separate and functional toilets, classrooms that do not leak, you do not require smart classrooms,” said Priya Nadkarni, founder of Mrida Education and Welfare Society, a non-profit based in Madhya Pradesh that provides vocational, career, and skills training to middle grade and high school tribal student. “To a certain extent, there is a relationship as, if these facilities are absent, children won't attend school."

Overall, learning levels in districts of these three northeastern states are lower than the national average. It appears that there is little difference between the learning outcomes in the tribal and non-tribal districts, but the districts for which data are missing have tribal populations of 70% or more.

Chhattisgarh and Odisha see low learning outcomes despite WASH facilities

Although electricity and WASH facilities are available in many tribal districts of Chhattisgarh and Odisha, this access to infrastructure has yet to translate into better learning outcomes.

According to UDISE+ data, drinking water facilities are available in 98.4% government schools in Chhattisgarh, and functional toilets in 97.6% schools. In Odisha, the coverage is 97% for drinking water facilities and 96.4% for functional toilets.

Yet, learning outcomes in Chattisgarh stand at 40.1% in reading and 34.5% in mathematics at the primary level, while in Odisha, they are 41.6% and 40.3% respectively. The average learning outcomes for reading and mathematics in tribal districts are 30.7% and 27.07%, respectively, in Chhattisgarh, and 17.12% and 18.73% respectively in Odisha, far below the state averages.

Chhattisgarh fares poorly overall in learning outcomes for both reading and mathematics. However, districts such as Narayanpur and Bijapur, which have a tribal population of almost 80%, fare the worst. Most tribal districts of Chhattisgarh have relatively poor learning outcomes compared to the non-tribal districts. Among non-tribal districts, Koriya and Korba which fare the worst have a tribal population of 46.1% and 40.6%, respectively. Except for Uttar Bastar Kanker, all of the tribal districts have learning outcomes below the state-wide average.

In Odisha, all of the tribal districts have learning outcomes below the state average in both reading and maths. Among non-tribal districts, Puri--which has the smallest tribal population--fares the highest. Kalahandi and Naupade, which fare the worst among non-tribal districts, have tribal populations of 30% and 33% respectively.

IndiaSpend has reached out to the education departments in the five states for comment on the learning outcomes, infrastructural facilities and teaching approaches. We will update this story when we receive a response.

Lack of qualified teachers and poor pupil-teacher ratios

“Infrastructure is a critical input for learning outcomes as it helps create a conducive learning environment,” said Kundu of CBGA. “However there are many other determinants which influence learning outcomes, such as teacher-student ratio, professionally qualified teachers, availability of textbooks, the language of textbooks, mode of teaching, socio-economic condition of the students, parents’ livelihoods, parents' income, distance to schools etc. These are particularly important when it comes to tribal children.”

IndiaSpend analysed the district-wise qualification of primary teachers and pupil-teacher ratios in Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

The Ministry of Education has recommended a pupil-teacher ratio for regular school at 10:1 for the primary level and 15:1 for the upper primary, secondary and higher secondary level.

In the primary classes of Odisha's tribal districts, an almost equal proportion of teachers have a graduate qualification, and a higher secondary or below qualification. Districts such as Malkangiri, Nabarangpur, and Sundargarh have the least percentage of teachers with a graduate qualification. They also have a significant tribal population. In the non-tribal districts in Odisha, almost all districts have more than 50% of teachers with a graduate qualification. Naupada and Kalahandi districts have a proportion of less than 50% of teachers with a graduate degree, but they exhibit significantly higher tribal populations of 29% and 33%, they also have significantly lower learning outcomes in both English and mathematics compared to the other ‘non-tribal’ districts. The districts with a significantly high proportion of graduate-qualified teachers have the least tribal population, at less than 10%.

In Chhattisgarh, most tribal districts have less than 50% of primary teachers with a graduate qualification. Among non-tribal districts, all districts have 60% or more teachers with graduate qualifications except Koriya (56.7%) which has a tribal population of 46%. Koriya also sees poor learning outcomes among the non-tribal districts. The variations in pupil-teacher ratios are greater for tribal districts. Narayanpur and Bijapur which had the lowest learning outcomes in the state also have less than 50% of graduate-qualified teachers.

Teaching approaches and partnership programmes

Learning levels depend on the organisation of the teaching-learning process, as the IIT-B study says.

Pratham has evolved a solution called Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) which enables children to acquire foundational skills like reading and arithmetic quickly. Regardless of age or grade, teaching starts at the child's level and is targeted to children who have already reached grade III, IV or V but have still not acquired basic skills. The focus is on helping children with basic reading, understanding, as well as arithmetic skills.

The TaRL approach is implemented in two ways--directly by Pratham instructors through “Learning Camps” or as part of a Pratham-government partnership programme where government teachers implement TaRL as part of the school day. In the direct model, Pratham instructors run three to five camps of 10 days each, for about three hours a day. In the partnership model, government teachers use this approach over a longer period in the school year (four to six months) with a dedicated time of one to two hours a day.

When Pratham partnered with the Government of Karnataka in 2017, letters could only be read by 16% of students, words by 23%, paragraphs by 23%, and an entire story by only 29%. Additionally, division could only be performed by 31%, multiplication by 49%, subtraction by 66%, and addition by 79%.

By the end of the project in 2018, an entire story could be read by 65% of the students. The ability to perform mathematical operations increased to 69% in division, 82% in multiplication, 93% in subtraction, and 97% in addition. This project involved over 450,000 children in grades IV and V across 17,000 schools in 13 districts.

“You need resourceful and motivated teachers who will use every situation to create learning opportunities,” reflects Nadkarni. “There is no straightforward solution to improve learning outcomes.” She believes that learning outcomes are a function of many factors beyond the classroom. These could be nutrition, access to school, culture within the community, and the presence of role models.

“India is heterogeneous and the characteristics of students vary across class, caste, religion, gender, geographical presence, and economic status, and hence every student has varied needs,” reflects Kundu from CBGA. “Any uniform education policy won't be able to address the diversity.”

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.