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In any other country that aspires to achieve accelerated and inclusive development, and proudly—and rightly—sees a unique 'demographic dividend' in the preponderance of children and youth in its population, the following facts would surely cause deep concern. Sadly, the response of the political establishment and government in India to them is going to be, to use a term recently popularised by our Prime Minister, "business as usual".
Here are a few of the alarming findings from Pratham's Annual Status of Education Report 2012, released on Thursday. In 2010, 29.1 per cent children in class V couldn't solve a two-digit subtraction problem. The figure shot up to 39 per cent in 2011 and to 46.5 per cent in 2012. Only 30 per cent of class III students could read a class I text book in 2012, down from 50 per cent in 2008. The number of children in government schools who can correctly recognise numbers up to 100 has dropped to 50 per cent from 70 per cent, the downward slide having accelerated after the Right to Education (RTE) law came into force in 2010. Enrolment in private schools, which are assumed to be better run than government schools, has risen from 18.7 per cent in 2006 to 28.3 per cent in 2012. If this trend continues, India could have 50 per cent children in private schools, where parents certainly have to spend more. Look how a supposedly pro-poor initiative is turning out to be horribly anti-poor.
If HR is India's greatest resource, and if good education is the key that unlocks the door opening the path to its enrichment, then our government-driven educational policies and programmes are failing. The findings by Pratham are notable because they once again show that merely infusing funds into the system is no automatic guarantor for achieving qualitative progress, much less excellence. In education, quality is what matters even to poor parents who prefer costly private schools to government-run schools. And quality education is what must matter to policy-makers if they really want India to reap the demographic dividend in terms of high levels of economic, social and cultural development. But can India's development outcomes be good if the learning outcomes are bad in its schools?