Mumbai: India stepped up its spending on school education by 9.35% from 2014-15 (Rs 45,722.41 crore) to 2018-19 (Rs 50,000 crore). But education’s share in the total union budget fell from 2.55% to 2.05% in this period, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of budgetary data.

On February 1, 2019, when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) presents its last budget before general elections, it will have to address a critical issue in India’s school education: Its quality compares poorly with many south Asian and BRICS nations even though India spends a higher percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education.

In rural India, almost half of grade V students cannot read a grade II text and more than 70% them cannot do division, said the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018. These numbers indicate a fall in standards over the last 10 years.

Why schooling needs special attention this budget

The school education system in India is facing a shortage of trained teachers and a lack of proper infrastructure. Here are some factors that need to be addressed in the budget:

  • 92,275 government schools at both elementary and secondary level have only one teacher to teach all the subjects, Satya Pal Singh, minister of state for human resource development told the Lok Sabha on January 7, 2019.
  • 1 in every 4 schools in rural India does not have an electricity connection, as per ASER and almost the same number lacks a library. A computer is available only in 21.3% of rural schools.
  • 250.53 million children in India are in the age group of 6-15 in 2017, as per government data, and in need of a good education.

Children in India’s poorer districts tend to learn less in schools, as per a January 2019 Mint-HT analysis of ASER figures and the data put out by the National Achievement Survey. “Large parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh have the poorest learning outcomes in the country,” the report said. “These parts of the country are also among the poorest.”

Household characteristics also affect learning outcomes in students, pointed out another January 2019 Mint-HT analysis of ASER data. Children born to poorer or lesser educated parents tend to learn less than others, it reported.

Providing children quality education is important for India’s development. If every 15-year-old in a lower middle income country like India can demonstrate elementary reading skills and master basic mathematics, the GDP, on an average, can increase by 28% in 80 years, according to a 2015 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Twin problems of school funding: low allocation and underutilisation

Till April 2018, school education in India was mostly covered by three centrally-sponsored schemes:

  • Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA or education for all) that aims to provide universal education to all children between the ages of 6 to 14 years.
  • Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA or national middle education mission) which facilitates secondary education
  • Teacher Education which aims to create sound institutional infrastructure for pre-service and in-service training of elementary and secondary school teachers.

In April 2018, the government subsumed the three schemes into a new scheme called Samagra Shiksha (Holistic Education).

The allocation under SSA increased by 11.18% from Rs 23,500 crore to Rs 26,128.81 crore between 2017-18 and 2018-19. Allocation under RMSA increased by 7.6% from Rs 3914.90 crore to Rs 4213.00 crore.

However, the allocations under SSA are far below the resource estimates made by the ministry of human resource development (MHRD), according to an February 2018 analysis by Accountability Initiative (AI), a think tank.

For two consecutive years, SSA was allocated less than half of the funds demanded by the MHRD. In 2016-17, the ministry estimated a demand of Rs 55,000 crore for SSA but handed it only Rs 22,500 crore. In 2017-18, while the funds requested by MHRD remained the same at Rs 55,000 crore, the SSA’s budget was Rs 23,500 crore.

Also, funds for SSA have been consistently underutilised, a 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report stated. “Unspent SSA money rose 24%, from Rs 10,680 crore in 2010-11 to Rs 14,112 crore in 2015-16, the highest being Rs 17,281 crore in 2014-15, although the proportion of funds not utilised fell,” IndiaSpend reported on November 14, 2018.

In the financial year 2018-19, as of December 2018, the central government had released 74.27% of the funds allocated to SSA (Rs 19,668.26 crore), minister Satya Pal Singh told the Lok Sabha on January 7, 2019. Of the released amount, 31.76% (Rs 6246.97 crore) remains unutilised.

“Retention of huge balances by the State Government, year after year at the close of each financial year was indicative of poor internal control,” said the CAG report.

How India compares with the world

As we said earlier, India’s expenditure on education surpasses many South Asian and BRICS nations. India spent 4.38% of its GDP on education in 2016, more than China (4.22%), Russia (3.82%), Afghanistan (4.21%), Sri Lanka (3.48%), Bangladesh (1.54%) and Pakistan (2.49%).

But India compared poorly in terms of quality. It had the second lowest score for quality of education in south Asia in 2016 (66 out of a possible 100, just ahead of Afghanistan’s 64) and far behind group leader Sri Lanka (75), Indiaspend reported on September 25, 2018.

Among BRICS countries too, India has the second-lowest score -- ahead of South Africa (58) by just 8 points. Russia has the highest score for education quality amongst BRICS nations. Chinese students spend the longest time in school at 13 years and experience a high level of education quality, scoring 89 out of a possible 100.

School funding: UPA vs NDA

Funding for school education has seen a steady rise under the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in absolute terms but, as we mentioned earlier, its proportion with respect to the total budget has seen a downward trend.

Till 2006-07, funds were allocated separately for elementary education and secondary and higher education. Thereafter, elementary education and secondary education were merged into one department. If we consider the figures available for the years after these changes, the 2010-11 budget of the second United Progressive Alliance under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh allocated the biggest percentage of the GDP to education -- 3.29%.

From 2009-10 to 2012-13, the percentage of allocation made by the UPA government increased from 2.40% to 3.24%. In 2013-14, it dropped by 0.43 percentage points to 2.81%.

Source: Union Budget
Note: Figures for 2009-10 to 2016-17 are actuals, figures for 2007-08, 2008-09 & 2017-18 are revised estimates and figures for 2018-19 are budget estimates.

What should school education priorities be?

The government needs to increase its investment in school education to catch up with global standards, said experts.

“With scarcity of basic resources of education like teachers and infrastructure, the governments at the centre and in states should come together to considerably increase and sustain school education funds,” said Priti Mahara, director, policy research and advocacy at Child Rights and You (CRY), an NGO.

Allocation for teachers and infrastructure needs to be stepped up, said a December 2018 report by CRY and the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), a non-profit working towards transparency and accountability. The report analysed the education budgets of six states -- Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

As of March 2017, 17.64% of sanctioned teaching posts (900,316/5,103,539) in elementary schools and 15.7% (107,689/685,895) posts in secondary schools are vacant. The dearth of qualified teachers has compelled many states to recruit under-qualified and contractual teachers. Bihar has the highest proportion of untrained teachers both at the elementary and secondary level, followed by West Bengal, as per the report.

Schools in India do not have adequate infrastructure facilities. In 58% of the schools that ASER surveyed, grade IV students were sharing their classroom with one or more other grades. And 25% of the schools did not have an electricity connection.

What are school education priorities likely to be?

The 2019-20 budget will see the first allocation for the new Samagra Shiksha scheme. Under the scheme, grants will be allocated on the basis of learning outcomes and steps taken for quality improvement. There will be increased focus on capacity building of teachers and digital education, and efforts to improved infrastructure, said the scheme’s official website.

An allocation of Rs 75,000 crore for April 1, 2018-March 31, 2020 has been approved, a 20% increase over current amounts. Also, Rs 33,000 crore has been already allocated for 2018-19. “Allocations are likely to increase to Rs 41,000 crore in keeping with the approvals,” said Avani Kapur, a fellow at CPR and the director of AI.

What is interesting about the scheme is that it is meant to give flexibility to states in choosing which components to prioritise based on their needs,” said Kapur. “We are seeing significant differences in how states are prioritising elementary, secondary or teacher education. Thus, our latest analysis has found that while most of the budget in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha is going to the elementary education components within Samagra Shiksha, states like Haryana and Himachal are also prioritising secondary education.”

(Shreya Raman is a data analyst with IndiaSpend)

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