Mumbai: On May 1, 2024, at a protest held at the Congress party headquarters against a comment by a senior Congress leader, students from a private university struggled to read and comprehend what was written, in English and Hindi, on the placards they were carrying.

This was a stark example of a lack of basic ability that starts right from the beginning of school.

Data from surveys show that despite an increase in India’s education budget–the school education budget increased 78%, and the higher education budget by 125% between 2014 and 2023–students struggle with the basics of reading, writing and comprehension.

The education budget is still lower than 6% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a target since 1964-66, which was re-iterated by the Bharatiya-Janata Party-led government in its New Education Policy in July 2020. As the country votes for the 18th Lok Sabha, we look at the status of education in the country.

“India’s current education landscape presents a paradox where children are going to school, but not learning. As per the 2021-22 United District Information Service for Education (UDISE+) data, there is a 100% gross enrolment rate (GER) for children in the primary age group of 3-10 years,” says Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja, CEO & Managing Director at Central Square Foundation, a Delhi-based organisation that works on issues in school education.

She added, “The World Bank estimated the “learning poverty'' level in India at 56%, meaning that more than half of the children under the age of 10 in India cannot read a simple text. This is higher than neighbouring countries like China and Sri Lanka, which have learning poverty levels between 15-18%.”

Moreover, the adverse effects of Covid-19-induced school closures are evident, with basic reading and arithmetic abilities regressing to pre-2012 and pre-2018 levels, respectively, Sharma-Kukreja said.

In April 2014, the BJP-led government, in its manifesto, had said it would ensure universal access to education and in their manifesto in 2019 they said they would improve the quality of teaching. The government had also said in the NEP it would set targets for basic literacy and numeracy, and for that restructure curricula, target a pupil-teacher ratio of 30:1 and of 25:1 in socio-economically disadvantaged areas and ensure education accessibility with digital programmes.

While expenditure on school education is essential for improving infrastructure, resources, and teacher quality, these efforts may not directly translate into improved learning outcomes, without effective implementation of the Samgra Shiksha programme and its monitoring, experts tell IndiaSpend.

Learning deficit

The Annual Survey of Education Reports (ASER) show that many children cannot read basic texts and do basic arithmetic operations.

The learning deficit worsened because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to long-term school closures. The sudden shift to online education made it harder for socially and economically marginalised groups–Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC)--as well as for women and rural students to access classes. As many as 78% of students said the price of high-speed Internet was a barrier to online learning, while 23.5% said they frequently needed to share their devices due to insufficient infrastructure and poor internet connectivity, as per a 2021 study from the Central University of Tamil Nadu.

In addition, language barriers restrict students who study in regional languages, as 90% of online content is in English, said a 2022 study by Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai.

Overall budget increase, but lower as a proportion of the total budget

From 1964-66, the Education Commission initiated a comprehensive assessment of education in India, advocating for the allocation of 6% of India’s GDP for education by both central and state governments, a target upheld in subsequent National Policies on Education, including the 2020 NEP. However, this target has never been met, with centre and states together spending Rs 7.9 lakh crore–2.9% of the GDP in 2022-23. This is low in comparison to countries such as Brazil (6% in 2019), South Africa, (6.6% in 2021), Indonesia (3.5% in 2020), as per an analysis by research organisation PRS in 2023-24.

Further, though the overall education budget has increased, less is now spent as a proportion of total government expenditure, data show.

“This persistent underinvestment poses a major challenge to achieving quality and inclusive education, impacting learning outcomes and inclusive education initiatives,” says Mitra Ranjan, Media Coordinator of RTE Forum, a platform of national education networks, teachers’ unions and educationists.

Teacher troubles

The availability and quality of teachers influences the quality of education.

In India, over 9.5 million teachers are employed in school, as per data from 2021-22. Among these, government-managed schools employ 51.3%, recognised private schools employ 37.2% and private but government-aided schools employ 8.4%.

Of all the teachers employed, 4% of all government teachers and 16% of private school teachers have no professional qualification, as per a 2023 study by the Tata Institute of Social Services, Mumbai.

Further, the distribution of teachers is uneven. The Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) varies across Indian states, as reported by UDISE+ 2021-22. At the primary level, 18 states, including Ladakh (8:1) and Arunachal Pradesh (11:1), meet the suggested PTR of 20:1, while another 18, including Bihar (53:1) and Delhi (33:1), have too few teachers.

At the upper primary level, 35 states meet the suggested 30:1 PTR, with one state having too few teachers. At the secondary level, 34 states, including Himachal Pradesh (6:1) and Ladakh (6:1), meet the suggested PTR of 30:1, while two states, such as Bihar (54:1), have too few teachers.

States such as Madhya Pradesh (16,630), Andhra Pradesh (12,386) and Rajasthan (10,878) also reported single-teacher schools, indicating potential resource challenges.

As many as 747,565 teacher positions were vacant in 2023-24, down 28% from 10,37,241 posts in 2022-21, as per a Lok Sabha reply in July 2023. More than filling vacancies, teacher attendance and training is important, experts say.

“It's crucial to ensure teachers are present and attending regularly, as teacher vacancy and absenteeism can significantly impact learning outcomes. Moreover, it's essential to assess whether teachers are effectively engaging with students, fostering curiosity, and providing support where needed,” says Seshagiri K.M. Rao, an education specialist with UNICEF India. “Monitoring and supporting teachers, along with fostering parental and community engagement, are vital components for improving education quality.”

Another issue that affects teaching ability is that most teachers are pulled into administrative tasks, such as data entry, election duties etc. As many as 65% of teachers said they were overburdened with work, as per the National Achievement Survey 2021. The 2018 National Achievement Survey said 19% of schools reported a shortage of support staff, and that 39% of teachers said they had too many administrative tasks.

“The workload on teachers is mounting, as they are increasingly burdened with administrative tasks and paperwork in addition to their teaching responsibilities. Unfortunately, the current scenario often leaves little room for non-teaching staff in schools, resulting in teachers shouldering the bulk of administrative duties,” explains Ranjan.

Monitoring education quality

One of the mechanisms to check school performance are School Management Committees (SMCs), set up under the Right to Education Act, 2009 as a bridge between the community and the school.

“School Management Committees (SMCs) were established for community welfare and entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring education and school development plans. However, in many states, SMCs are either non-functional or lack awareness,” said Ranjan.

A study by the National Coalition on Education in 2017, in five states cited financial constraints, role ambiguity and illiteracy or low academic qualification among SMC members, and a lack of information about SMC meetings as some of the reasons for their ineffectiveness.

“Effective communication between teachers and SMCs is crucial for training and updates, requiring concerted efforts from the government, as civil societies' reach is limited,” Ranjan said.

Inclusive Education

Lower spending, and lack of school quality affects the poor and the vulnerable most, especially those who study in government schools.

“This [spending] deficiency affects not only learning outcomes but also the principle of inclusive education, which emphasises quality and equity. Inclusive education, quality education, and equity are intertwined; they ensure that everyone receives equal opportunities,” says Ranjan.

The Samagra Shiksha programme, which began in 2018-19, is an integrated scheme for school education to ensure that all children have access to quality education in an equitable and inclusive classroom. It was formulated in 2018-19 by subsuming the three Schemes of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) and Teacher Education (TE). But disparities persist, especially in sustaining educational progression for scheduled caste children beyond the elementary level.

Another factor impacting vulnerable students is the closing down of some government scholarships. The pre-matric scholarships for Grades 1-8 for STs, SCs, Other Backward Classes (OBC) and religious minorities were discontinued from the academic year 2022-23.

“Scholarships for minority groups have been discontinued, with the justification that the RTE Act now covers children aged 6-14, but enforcement of the act remains lax,” says Ranjan. The Right To Education Act provides for free and compulsory elementary education (classes I to VIII) to each and every child.

“Additionally,” said Ranjan, "there was a national scheme [called the National Scheme of Incentive to Girls for Secondary Education] aimed at providing economically disadvantaged girls the opportunity to complete their education, but it has gradually been phased out and is no longer mentioned in the budget”.

A lack of teachers impacts the vulnerable more, as many students who cannot afford private school go to government schools. For instance, due to the economic shock from Covid-19, enrolment in government schools in 2022 increased by 9.4% as compared to 2019, while enrolment in private schools dropped by 10.12%. At the same time, the number of government schools dropped, from 10.32 million in 2019-20 to 10.22 million in 2021-22. One of the reasons, says Ranjan, is the merging of government schools suggested by the government think tank, the NITI Aayog, and mentioned in the NEP.

IndiaSpend reached out to Anandrao V. Patil, additional secretary in the Digital Education Bureau, Sanjay Kumar, the secretary of the Department of School Education and Literacy, and Laxminarayan Mishra, principal secretary to the education minister, for comment on the budget, teachers and lack of inclusive education. We will update the story when we receive a response.

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