- The recently released ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) is an annual survey released by NGO Pratham.
- It aims to provide reliable annual estimates of children’s schooling status and basic learning levels for each state and rural district in India.
- It is the largest citizen-led survey in India and is also the only annual source of information on children’s learning outcomes available in India today.
Key highlights of the report
- Only 16% of children in Class 1 in 26 surveyed rural districts can read text at the prescribed level, while almost 40% cannot even recognise letters, according to
- Only 41% of these children could recognise two-digit numbers.
Private schools on progress
- Of six-year-olds in Class 1, 41.5% of those in private schools could read words in comparison to only 19% from government schools.
- Similarly, 28% of those in government schools could do simple addition as against 47% in private schools.
- This gap is further exacerbated by a gender divide: only 39% of girls aged 6-8 are enrolled in private schools in comparison to almost 48% of boys.
- The report also found that a classroom could include students from a range of age-groups, skewing towards younger children in government schools.
Role of Mothers
- Among the key findings of ASER 2019 is that the mother’s education often determines the kind of pre-schooling or schooling that the child gets.
- The report says that among children in the early years (ages 0-8), those with mothers who had completed eight or fewer years of schooling are more likely to be attending anganwadis or government pre-primary classes.
- With 75% of women in the productive age group not in the workforce, they can be better engaged in their children’s development, learning and school readiness.
Determinants of poor outcomes
- The ASER report shows that a large number of factors determine the quality of education received at this stage, including the child’s home background, especially the mother’s education level; the type of school, whether anganwadis, government schools or private pre-schools; and the child’s age in Class 1.
- More than a quarter of Class 1 students in government schools are only 4 or 5 years old, younger than the recommended age.
- The ASER data shows that these younger children struggle more than others in all skills.
- Permitting underage children into primary grades puts them at a learning disadvantage which is difficult to overcome,” said the report.
Why are children entering school before 6?
- This is partly due to the lack of affordable and accessible options for pre-schooling. Therefore, too many children go to Std I with limited exposure to early childhood education.
- Children from poor families have a double disadvantage — lack of healthcare and nutrition on one side and the absence of a supportive learning environment on the other.
- Although the Anganwadi network across India is huge, by and large, school readiness or early childhood development and education activities have not had a high priority in the ICDS system.
Key suggestions made by the report
- ASER found that the solution is not to spend long hours teaching children the 3Rs.
- Counter-intuitively, the report argues that a focus on cognitive skills rather than subject learning in the early years can make a big difference to basic literacy and numeracy abilities.
- The survey shows that among Class 1 children who could correctly do none or only one of the tasks requiring cognitive skills, about 14% could read words, while 19% could do single-digit addition.
- However, of those children who could correctly do all three cognitive tasks, 52% could read words, and 63% could solve the addition problem.
Why is learning level in schools important?
- The quality of the learning level bears directly on India’s future workforce, its competitiveness and the economy.
- India’s demographic dividend depends on the learning level of students. Thus quality of education has a direct bearing on any economy.
- With some 240 million students or nearly 20% of the Indian population in school, their quality of learning or lack of it assumes significance for the competitiveness of the country.
- It has an impact on the quality of life, efficiency at the workplace, and labour productivity issues.
Policies under suspicion
- Access to elementary (classes I-VIII) schooling is almost universal and the number of children out of schools is below 4%, but a quality deficit, that too for more than a decade, raises questions about the priorities of governments at the central and state levels.
- This poor learning outcome in India is despite the Right to Education (RTE) Act has been in force since April 2010 making eight years of education compulsory for children and the Centre floating schemes such as “Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat”, apart from states’ efforts.
What needs to be done?
- Setting up a Review mechanism: Now that the ASER measure is available for 10 years, the Centre should institute a review mechanism involving all States for both government and private institutions, covering elementary education and middle school.
- Shifting focus on outcome-based learning: A public consultation on activity-based learning outcomes, deficits in early childhood education, and innovations in better performing States can help.
- Improve the quality of education: At present, children start learning in a variety of environments: from poorly equipped Anganwadi centres to private nurseries. Therefore, any policy framework should also consider this aspect.
Focus on productive learning
- ASER data shows that children’s performance on tasks requiring cognitive skills is strongly related to their ability to do early language and numeracy tasks,” says the report.
- This suggests that focussing on play-based activities that build memory; reasoning and problem-solving abilities are more productive than an early focus on content knowledge.
- Global research shows that 90% of brain growth occurs by age 5, meaning that the quality of early childhood education has a crucial impact on the development and long-term schooling of a child.
Need for expanding Anganwadi outreach
- There is considerable scope for expanding Anganwadi outreach for three and four-year-old children.
- All-India data from 2018 shows that slightly less than 30 per cent children at age three and 15.6 per cent of children at age four are not enrolled anywhere.
- Expanding access to anganwadis is an important incremental step.
- Strengthening the early childhood components in the ICDS system would help greatly in raising school readiness among young children.
Need to extend RTE age limit
- The Right to Education Act refers to free and compulsory education for the age group six to 14.
- It is commonly assumed that children enter Standard I at age six and that they proceed year by year from Std I to Std VIII, reaching the end of elementary school by age 14.
- However, the practice on the ground is quite different. ASER 2018 data show that 27.6 per cent of all children in Std I are under age six.
Considering age implications for children’s learning
- The gap between policy and practice is also very visible in what happens inside preschools and pre-primary grades.
- Data from ASER 2019 indicate that in Std I, the ability to do cognitive activities among seven-eight-year olds can be 20 percentage points higher than their friends who are five years old but in the same class.
- In terms of reading levels in Std I, 37.1 per cent children who are under six can recognise letters whereas 76 per cent of those who are seven or eight can do the same.
- Many believe that more years of schooling is better than less and that the sooner the child enters “school” the faster she or he will learn and be ready for future learning.
- The latest ASER assessment of how children are faring in schools in rural areas indicates there has been no dramatic improvement in learning outcomes.
- There is concern that curricular expectations on literacy and numeracy have become too ambitious, requiring reform.
- The enactment of the Right to Education Act was followed by a welcome rise in enrolment, which now touches 96% as per ASER data.
- Empowering as it is, the law needs a supportive framework to cater to learners from different backgrounds that often cannot rely on parental support or coaching.
- It is a long time to have only awareness, and a quantum jump in the education sector is the need of the hour.
- Simultaneously we need to focus on three aspects—bigger spending on education (upto 6% of GDP instead of the present 2.7%), political willingness to improve education, and a drastic change in the quality of teacher education.
- There is a need to leverage the existing network of Anganwadi centres to implement school readiness.
- The year 2020 marks the 10th anniversary of the RTE Act.
- This is the best moment to focus on the youngest cohorts before and during their entry to formal schooling and ensure that 10 years later they complete secondary school as well-equipped and well-rounded citizens of India.