That education in India is a mess is not news. However, what is alarming is the extent of this mess. The latest World Bank report on the status of secondary education in India shows that between classes 9 and 11, India has 11 per cent dropouts and 37 per cent failures.
This means at the most crucial point in education, 48 per cent of Indian children fall off the treadmill — and this is only counting those children who are in the school system. There are still those who have been left out from the beginning.
Somehow, in our 62 years as an Independent nation, education has always picked the short straw and has been severely neglected when it comes to attention, focus, money or infrastructure.
The right to education — covering children between the ages of six and 14 — remained a directive principle hidden in the Constitution until this year when it became a law. The focus of the chattering classes is usually on higher education and therefore the doings and undoings of our more prestigious institutions figure largely in our consciousness and thus in our policy making. We keep hearing about how India must become a “knowledge” society, but given our current state of education, that is a far-fetched fantasy.
Secondary education is a vital link between our coveted institutes of higher learning and the putative knowledge society. By allowing politicians to play ducks and drakes with education in India, wherein they tend to focus on language of instruction and similar “vote bank” ideas, we have allowed them to get away with doing nothing substantial.
The situation on the ground is appalling, especially in government schools and rural schools. In a metropolis like Mumbai, civic-run schools are in a state of disrepair, barely hanging on with poorly paid teachers and crumbling infrastructure. Many of them have shut down. On the other hand, expensive schools are proliferating. The idea is not to do away with the latter, but upgrade the former.
The education minister has put forward ambitious ideas to improve the education sector. The right to education law is wide in its scope, though it will require huge investments and commitment.
The World Bank report is one more reminder that no country can progress if it leaves a majority of its people behind. We need to keep students in the system at an earlier stage and that can only happen if education at the lower levels is given top priority by governments in the centre and the states.