The UNICEF Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target for 2015 asks that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling.

Considering that is now a year away, the target seems like a cruel dream, particularly for the millions of young boys and girls who could have been in schools but are not.

India has had a poor record in getting children into schools in the past. That’s changed with Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) at the primary & upper primary level rising sharply over the years. Outcome is, of course, an issue but we will come to that shortly.

But more interestingly, it is now evident that larger numbers of children are staying back in school at the 'upper primary level’. Put simply, more children in primary grades are sticking to their classrooms and not abandoning them as they were wont to in the past.

The numbers are actually quite high. Between 2006 and 2012, while the absolute enrollment at the primary level grew by 2.2%, the upper primary level grew a sharp 36.7%.

Before we come to the how and why, let’s break down the numbers some more.

Notably, both GER and Net Enrollment Ratio (NER) throw up a similar picture. Although the GER at the primary level is higher than the upper primary level, GER grew at a much faster rate in the upper primary grades than primary level.

Quick definition: Gross enrollment ratio (GER) is the total enrollment in primary/upper primary level divided by the total population of children in the corresponding age group while NER considers only enrollment of children who are eligible for a particular level.

In 2012-13, GER at the primary level was 105.9% and NER was 90.8% while the GER for upper primary was 82.5% and NER was 64.2%.

Let’s now pose two questions to try and establish how this is happening:

  • How many children are continuing their education after grade IV/V (Transition rate from primary to upper primary) and;
  • On an average, how many children are stopping education in primary grades (Average drop-outrates at the primary level).

An increase in the first and reduction in the second can explain growing enrollments. Now, let us look at some basic enrollment numbers.

In the 1.4 million schools covered in 2012-13 by District Information System of Education (DISE), a research division of the Ministry of Education, some 137.4 million children were enrolled in grades I-V and 64.9 million children were enrolled in grades VI-VIII.

Primary level (classes I-V)

GER at the primary level increased from 110% in 2006-07 to 119% in 2010-11 but declined to 105% in 2012-13. (DISE has not published data for 2011-12, so the comparison with the last available year). The decline in GER was mainly due to the change in population data used for the calculations.

The north-eastern states had the highest GER at the primary level for 2012-13 with Manipur recording a GER of 150%. Mizoram, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya are the other states with high GERs.

Experts say the unusually high GER numbers in some states could be due to flaws in the data capture methods employed or the population data used for calculations or enrollment numbers being inflated by some states.

Dr. Manjistha Banerji of ASER Centre, an autonomous unit of Pratham, the largest NGO working in the field of education in India, says a higher GER for a state means there are over-age children (children are more likely to be overage than underage in India on account of grade repetition or being enrolled at Grade 1 at slightly older ages) at the primary level in that state than lower GER states.

The bottom 5 states in terms of GER for the primary level are Kerala D&N Haveli, Bihar, Daman & Diu and Jammu & Kashmir. Kerala is a peculiar case here: the state has the highest literacy rate in the country but low GER. As per DISE, data coverage in Kerala is not complete and hence the recording of low GER.

*2006 – 2010 GER Computed based upon population projections provided by the RGI office

#2012-13 GER computed based on population projections from Census 2011.

*2006 – 2010 GER Computed based upon population projections provided by the RGI office

#2012-13 GER computed based on population projections from Census 2011.

If we were to go state-wise and with absolute enrollment numbers, Uttar Pradesh had the highest number of primary level enrollments in 2012-13 with 26.6 million children followed by Bihar with 14 million. Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal are the other states with high primary level enrollment numbers in 2012-13.

Upper Primary Level (Classes VI-VII/VIII)

Like we said earlier, upper primary level enrollments have grown at a much quicker rate compared to primary level between 2006 and 2012, growing 27.5%.

Sikkim had the highest upper primary GER in 2012-13 at 114.8%followed by Lakshadweep, Goa, Chandigarh and Delhi.The bottom five states in terms of GER in 2012-13 are Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. However, almost all the states have shown improved enrollments since 2006 at this level.

*2006 – 2010 GER Computed based upon population projections provided by the RGI office

#2012-13 GER computed based on population projections from Census 2011.

*2006 – 2010 GER Computed based upon population projections provided by the RGI office

#2012-13 GER computed based on population projections from Census 2011.

Uttar Pradesh again has the highest enrollment at the upper primary level with 10.4 million enrollments in 2012-13 followed by Maharashtra with 5.9 million enrollments. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal are some of the other states with high enrollment numbers at this level.

Some states have doubled their absolute enrollments between 2006 and 2013. For example, Bihar had 2.5 million upper primary enrollments in 2006-07, which increased to 5.2 upper primary million enrollments in 2012-13.

A DISE report titled Student flow at primary levelby Arun C Mehtasays: "One important indicator on which the expansion of upper primary education depends is the transition rate from the primary level to the upper primary level of education."

Mathematically, transition rate is the ratio between the number of children who are new entrants in Grade VI/Vdivided by enrollment in Grade V/IV in the previous year taken as a percentage.

Transition rates, in general, have been growing. The all-India transition rate has increased to 86.7% in 2011-12 from 83.7% in 2006-07. Bihar, which has the lowest transition rate in country in 2011-12 at 71.7%, has also shown an increase from 67.1% in 2006-07.

* States that recorded above 100% transition rate have not been reported.

Like we mentioned earlier, average drop-out rates at the primary level have come down considerably from around 9% in 2008 to a low of 5.8% in 2011-12.

The drop-out rate is the number of student dropping out from a particular grade calculated as a percentage of the total number of students in that grade.

The state with the lowest average drop-out rate at the primary level was Tripura with 0.8%. Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry also have low drop-out rates.

States with high drop-out rates are Arunachal Pradesh with 18.7% and Bihar. It would be worth examining the reasons for the high drop-outs in these states.

Traditionally, there has been a huge gap between enrollments at the primary and upper primary levels in India. But the numbers of elementary schools are increasing steadily, and this is reflecting on the enrollments at the elementary level.

Reasons for the higher retention at the upper primary level (and attraction to primary school too) could be Government schemes like the SarvaShikshaAbhiyan, the Government of India's flagship programme for Universalisation of Elementary Education (UEE)andthe Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme, the world’s largest school meal programme reaching out to about 120 million children across the country every day. Though we’ve not studied the reasons for the purpose of this article.

Parth J Shah, Founder&President, Centre for Civil Society, a non-profit organisation in the field of education, says the Government has done well in terms of increasing the number of schools and the capacity of schools in the last 15-20 years. “Moreover, enrollment has been incentivised by providing schemes like the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) and providing uniforms and textbooks,”he says.

The larger issue now is outcome. Says Dr. Banerji: “Enrollment in India has been above 90% for some time now. As per ASER 2012, overall enrollment was over 96% for children in the ages 6- 14 years. But enrollment, per se, does not ensure quality learning outcomes or regular attendance in schools.”

According to her, for instance, ASER 2012 shows that more than 50% children in Class V cannot read a simple Class II level text. Similarly, in states such as UP, attendance is only around 50%. “Given that enrollment is close to universal, it is time we shift focus to learning. For this, we need to ensure that children attend school regularly and have realistic learning goals in terms of what we expect children to be able to do at the end of each class,” she says.

Adds Mr. Shah: “Improving quality of education is the next frontier in education in India.”