Narendra Modi’s final test – educating 265m pupils
cLOSING THE A factory in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was not a decision he made lightly, says the head of a manufacturer based in Mumbai, India’s industrial capital. But the lack of skills and discipline of the local workers meant that it made sense to produce in the south and west. “We offer training at all our production sites, but it’s not worth our time to get people to the required level.”
The story illustrates one of India’s biggest problems. His education system is failing him. At around 1.4bn, it has more people than China, and its economy is growing rapidly. It needs to employ hundreds of millions of its young people, especially in the poorer and more populous northern states. Otherwise it could lose much of its growth potential and court instability as uneducated, unemployed youth lose hope.
Graduates from their top universities are very successful at the best companies in the world. But many of the 265m pupils enrolled in their schools will leave barely able to read or do basic maths. asher an annual survey of children in rural India (three quarters of the total), found that in 2022 only a quarter in Year 5 (when they are ten) could do basic division and only 43% could to read Year 2 level. text. Of those in Year 8, when compulsory education ends, barely 45% could do basic division and less than 70% could read a level 2 text.
The lack of progress is even more surprising. Although school infrastructure and enrollment has improved in recent years, with more children attending schools that have toilets, running water and sometimes even computers, learning has not kept up. By 2022, maths skills had barely increased in ten years; reading skills had declined, partly due to learning lost during the covid-19 pandemic. These numbers hide regional variations; education levels tend to be higher in the richer southern states and lower in the poorer north.
One reason is a long-standing focus on elite education by Britain’s rulers, who want to train administrators to run the empire. Post-independence governments relied on a small, brainless elite to build the new nation. “It’s a classification tool, a system for the first two layers of the class,” said Yamini Aiyar, who heads the Center for Policy Research (CPR) in Delhi.
The narrow emphasis of the system has resulted in a rigid curriculum accepting the skills that very few children have when they start school – and never have the opportunity to learn. It does little for most pupils at non-elite government or low-cost private schools. But they are the ones India’s economy needs to expand from its focus on services and increase in manufacturing, which they hope will account for 25% of GDP in 2025, up from 17%. Even factory work requires skills that many school leavers need.
Some signs of change can be seen. On a recent afternoon in the village of Bajraha in Bodhgaya in the eastern state of Bihar, a dozen pre-teens sat in a circle in the village hall as Baijanti Kumari, a local volunteer, drew letters. on a blackboard. During their summer holidays the children were learning how to read a simple story and do basic maths, things they had not learned four years ago at school. The programme, hosted by Pratham, is Indian nGO, along with the state government, aims to stop them and about 1.5m other children across Bihar from falling further behind in the new academic year. Similar efforts are underway in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, reaching around 3.3m children.
Such catch-up actions are welcome, but they cannot fix many of the system’s problems. Child attendance remains poor, with the national average around 70% and closer to 50% in states like Bihar. Teachers in government schools are well paid, but they are punished very little if children do not learn anything. Data published in 2017 showed that a quarter of spot checks found teachers absent from schools.
Complex cultural changes are needed to fix these problems, says Ms Aiyar cpr. One state-level government that has done more than most is in Delhi, India’s capital, under the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Starting in 2015, he dramatically increased spending on education. The goal was to improve the infrastructure and quality and accountability of teachers and administrators in their high schools through a combination of curriculum reform, training and community involvement. The method worked: for the past eight years, government schools that were previously grotty in the city have done much better than private ones.
The Narendra Modi government has been less convincing. When he took office in 2014, he promised to increase national spending on education to 6% of gdp, close to what is spent in Brazil (6%) or South Africa (6.6%). But according to their own figures it has never cleared the 3% mark, although the World Bank, the source of other countries’ figures, puts it at 4.5%. His government has also made alarming moves to “rationalize” textbooks, stripping them of references to undesirable topics, from India’s Muslim heritage to evolutionary theory.
But he has begun to reform the education system. National policy, published in 2020, calls for all pupils in year-3 to achieve basic reading and maths skills by 2027, a welcome if very ambitious target. As in Delhi, teachers are asked to adhere strictly to the curriculum in order to teach at the true level of their pupils. Greater emphasis is placed on pre-primary education, one of the most cost-effective ways to improve learning. The policy also provides for better teacher training, reduced non-teaching responsibilities and performance-based rewards.
Such efforts are better than just spending more, says Karthik Muraliidharan, an economist at the University of California, San Diego. Inexpensive interventions such as bootcamps can help a lot. He said that “volunteers can be very effective as remedial teachers”, as they are local and therefore “more connected to the pupils”. Deepak Kumar, a 24-year-old university graduate who runs a summer camp from his family home in Bihar’s Gaya district, proves the point. He plans to support his pupils for next year as he goes for government exams; no child has ever missed a class of his.
The covid-19 pandemic, when schools remained closed for the better part of two years, highlighted the importance of parental involvement in education, says Rukmini Banerji, who heads Pratham . Almost a third of the children now receive additional private tuition, up from a quarter five years ago. Policymakers want to use parents’ interest in a more organized way, setting up school preparation camps for mothers of children starting school and keeping them engaged through a simple technique that has been tested during the disease. distributed, such as videos, audio stories or texts with suggestions for activities. At one camp The Economist they visited in Pune, the second city in Maharashtra, mothers were full of praise for their approach. “It was always difficult for me to understand what my children were doing at school. Now I feel more interested in it,” says Sushma Deshmukh, mother of a ten-year-old child.
But technology is not the magic fix for government failure that many in India’s burgeoning ed-tech sector once thought: Byju’s, a Bangalore-based education startup that as recently as April said that he offers online classes to as many as 150m students, scrambling this week. to reassure investors after losing three board members and its auditor.
It will take years to work out which reforms will make the biggest difference. More importantly, says Mr Muralidharan, the government must stick to the issue. “They need to apply independent methods to measure what works, accept the results, and change policy accordingly.” As the government faces data that contradicts claims about its success yes, that may be too much to hope for. ■