India has made considerable improvements in access to quality education, increasing elementary school enrolment and reducing the number of out-of-school children.
Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) programme and the implementation of the landmark Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act has ensured access to education. There is near-universal enrolment in primary education and almost all children in rural areas now have access to a primary school within a one-kilometre radius. The number of out-of-school children has decreased from approximately eight million in 2009 to just over six million in 2014.
The adult literacy rate increased from 61 percent in 2001 to 74 percent in 2018. In 2011, rates were 60 percent for Scheduled Castes and 52 percent for Scheduled Tribes. In 2015, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in the primary level stood at 99 percent (98 percent for boys and 100 percent for girls) and in Upper Primary level 93 percent (89 percent for boys and 97 percent for girls) and the annual dropout rate at primary level was around 21 percent with a slight advantage for girls. The Gender Parity Index has begun to favour girls at all levels of school education, except for Scheduled Caste students in higher education and Scheduled Tribe students at all levels of education.
India has established a large network of educational institutions. In 2016-17, close to 190 million children were enrolled in 1,467,680 elementary schools (Grades I-VIII) where they were being taught by 8.3 million teachers. In Grades I-XII, close to 251 million children were studying in 1.53 million schools that had 8.9 million teachers. In addition, there were 903 universities, 39,050 colleges, and 10,011 stand-alone institutions.
Despite Government emphasis on access, quality, and equity in education, challenges persist for children belonging to marginalised and disadvantaged groups. The levels of children in class V who can read class II text declined from 2014 to 2016. In addition to quality, there is a need to ensure universal schooling. A study revealed that of the six million out-of-school children, 44 percent have never been to school, 49 percent are Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe children, and 25 percent are Muslim. Of the 2.1 million identified disabled children, 600,000 are out of school. The 2011 Census highlighted that more than four in five females aged 5-19 years who are not attending an educational institution stay at home.
Prior to the pandemic, India was in the middle of a learning crisis - in primary education less than half of children enrolled (45-47%) are achieving minimum proficiency levels in language and mathematics, meaning that they cannot sufficiently express themselves using simple language and cannot solve problems using simple logic. Learning levels decrease as children progress to higher grades. Furthermore, children find it difficult to apply the knowledge and skills they gain to real-life situations.
While learning levels of boys and girls are at par, there are significant disparities among regions and social groups, pointing to inequities in learning achievement. While the School Health Programme shall also be impacted from school closure, it is hoped that in the next 5 to 7 years, the school health programme will be scaled up to cover all government upper primary, secondary, and higher secondary schools.
The digital divide in terms of access to quality digital learning resources especially for vulnerable children and children with disability is an issue. Other emerging challenges that children face include forced migration and increase in child trafficking, increase in cases of gender-based violence and concerns relating to education and care of children orphaned due to COVID-19.
School closures and lockdowns have devastated educational gains made by an entire generation. Learning capabilities and social interactions have been severely hampered. 247 million children were affected in elementary and secondary education and 28 million children in pre-school education. Considerable efforts have been made by the education and early childhood development systems, parents, and stakeholders to support continuity of learning, but not all children, have been able to access distance or home-based education. Only 60 per cent of students have used any remote learning resources, and even among those, nearly 80 per cent report that they are learning less or significantly less than in school. Other than digital media, mass media including radio and television have played a constructive role in engaging children. But the learning loss is a grave concern.
With many children unable to access education during COVID-19, an increase in drop-out especially for school going girls is expected. The longer children are out of school, the less likely that they will return – becoming victims of early marriage and/or child marriage. Lower learning levels will have longer-term impacts on children’s development and learning.
In partnership with the state governments, UNICEF developed e-learning materials to help ensure that children could continue learning from home and that parents were given guidance for home schooling - reaching an estimated 57 million children (49% girls) across 17 states. Online education is not an option for all however - only one in four children in India had access to digital devices and internet connectivity before the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is still a large rural-urban and gender divide.
UNICEF also supported more than 400,000 Anganwadi workers in reaching nearly 7.5 million children below the age of 6 years, through both online learning and home visits. Coordinated by UNICEF in collaboration with UNESCO, UNHCR, WFP and the World Bank, the global Framework for Reopening Schools guidelines were adapted to India for the Ministry of Education (MoE) and National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). UN agencies also provided inputs and feedback to the reopening of school guidelines developed by MoE jointly with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
One of the significant developments in the field of education is the National Education Policy (NEP) which “proposes the revision and revamping of all aspects of the education structure, including its regulation and governance, to create a new system that is aligned with the aspirational goals of 21st-century. To Improve the quality and achievement of learning outcomes, online and digital education will be a focus area re-emphasising the importance of teacher’s role. Greater focus will be on effective models of blended learning.
A new and comprehensive National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education will be formulated by the NCTE in consultation with NCERT to get professional and well-equipped teachers in the education system. An autonomous body, the National Educational Technology Forum (NETF), will be created to provide a platform for the free exchange of ideas on the use of technology to enhance learning, assessment, planning, and administration. The Centre and the States will work together to increase the public/private investment in Education sector to reach 6% of GDP.
The focus will be supporting the implementation of the NEP at the national and state levels, including the Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) Mission and the National Education Digital Architecture (NDEAR).
Another development has been the launch of the PM eVIDYA under the One Nation One Digital Platform to reduce the loss of education of children due to COVID and closure of schools. Emphasis has also been laid on strengthening learning assessment systems and use of data. Further to this, the National Achievement Survey (NAS) was conducted in November 2021 to assess the learning levels of students in grades three, five and eight.
In 2019, the School Health Programme was launched by the Government of India for promoting health and wellbeing of adolescent boys and girls. The programme uses a life skills approach to improve access to health information and services to over 250 million adolescents across the country.
The United Nations agencies in India have contributed to improve access to education, the quality of education, and to train the trainers through the following expected results.
The outcome will support the Government to achieve the national priority to provide a quality education for all children aged six to 14 years. Programme cooperation with UN System agencies will focus on:
- Reaching vulnerable and deprived children, especially out-of-school children, and those in those under-served areas
- Adapting international best practices for non-conventional learning and education
- Supporting care providers and advocates at the community level to demand inclusive, quality education.
Government programmes will be strengthened to expand early childhood care and education, improve teaching and learning practices, including life skills education, expand TVET, align formal and non-formal education with employer and market demands, and strengthen sector monitoring and targeting for effective public education spending.
- UNICEF: United Nations Children’s Fund
- UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
- FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- IOM: International Organization for Migration
- UNAIDS: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
- UNDP: United Nations Development Programme
- UNEP: United Nations Environment Programme
- UNFPA: United Nations Population Fund
- UN Women: United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
- UNODC: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
- WFP: World Food Programme
- UN-Habitat: United Nations Human Settlements Programme