Mint Explainer: Why Indian schools continue to fail rural teens

Although about 87% of the adolescents surveyed were enrolled in school, their basic literacy and numeracy skills were inadequate. Many struggled with reading fluently in their native language or solving elementary arithmetic problems.

The survey, conducted in 2023, involved 34,745 students from 1,664 villages across 28 districts in 26 states. It assessed their abilities in reading in their native language and English, basic mathematics, and understanding written instructions. Disappointingly, as per the survey results, there has been minimal progress in these learning outcomes compared to a similar assessment of the same group in 2017.

This could be attributed to focus on completing the curriculum rather than ensuring good learning outcomes for every student in a class. Moreover, schools do not have a mechanism to address the needs of children who fall behind. As students are automatically promoted up to standard 8 under the Right to Education, learning deficits of students accumulate with each grade.

As per the survey, at 14 years old, only about 4% of children were not enrolled in school. However, by the age of 18, this number rose significantly, with nearly 33% not attending schools or undergraduate courses.

Breaking it down by gender and type of institution, at age 14, 71% of boys and 72% of girls were studying in government institutions, while 25.9% of boys and 23.5% of girls were enrolled in private institutions. By the age of 18, the attendance in government schools or colleges dropped to just over 44% for both boys and girls. In private institutions, the figures stood at 23.9% for boys and 21.7% for girls.

Mint decodes the study and what it means for the Indian economy.

Testing their abilities

The teens contacted for the study were given five tasks. For instance, they were asked to read basic text in their own language to test their ability to read it as sentences with ease and without making too many mistakes rather than as a string of words. Those who were unable to read sentences were asked to read words from a list. Those unable to read the words correctly were tested for the ability to recognise letters.

Similarly, for the English test, the child was assessed for the ability to recognize capital and small letters, and then read words and sentences. On being able to read correctly, the child was asked to translate the text in local language.

For the arithmetic test, the adolescent was first given a couple of two-digit subtraction problems. On able to identify the subtraction sign and solve the problems, the child was tested for the ability to solve a division problem. Those who could not solve subtraction problems were tested for their ability to recognise numbers.

The adolescents were also asked to do some simple everyday calculations involving time (hours and minutes), weight and length, some financial calculations involving managing budgets and applying discount and tested on their ability to read and carry out instructions on oral rehydration salts (ORS) packet. Information on awareness of digital products and services, access to devices and the internet and usage of smartphones and computers.

Performance in the test

The results mirrored those from 2017, revealing that many adolescents lack fundamental reading and numeracy skills. While 74% could fluently read text in their regional language, only 43% could solve division problems, and 57% could read English sentences. There was considerable variation in these skills across different districts.

Just about half were able to do simple calculations using the unitary method. A majority of those who could do divisions were able to use the unitary method. When assessed on their ability to read and understand instructions on an ORS packet, about 65% were able to answer three of the four questions put to them.

Aspirations and career choices

Despite poor educational outcomes, most adolescents aspired to further their education beyond standard 12, especially girls, influenced by changing social norms regarding marriage age. Career aspirations varied significantly by gender, with boys favouring roles in the army, police, or engineering, and girls preferring careers in teaching, medicine, or nursing.

Work aspirations of girls were also influenced by the socioeconomic context of the location in which they were living and growing up.

Implications for the economy

The subpar educational outcomes could limit India’s ability to fully capitalize on its demographic advantages. Many young people will likely end up in low-skilled, low-paying jobs, mostly as casual laborers, or in agriculture. About 40% of the surveyed boys were already working on family farms. 

Vocational training remains scarce, with an abysmally low 5.6% engaged in such programmes. That proportion rose to 16.2% for those at the college level.  

With farm incomes growing slowly and skill training yet to become commonplace, rural incomes could remain depressed for years to come without appropriate interventions.

Pratham notes in the report, “As a country, we need to equip our young people adequately with the essential knowledge, skills and opportunities they need to drive their own progress and that of their families and communities.”

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