A numbers game in India

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A numbers game in India

Going to school does not always mean children learn, writes Nilanjana Bhowmick.


Deepika Singh learnt to sign her name during one of India’s big mass literacy campaigns in the early 2000s. She is 45 and she remembers practising for months to write her name on a form to show she was literate. Almost 17 years later, she signs her name slowly and her English alphabet is not very clear. Some letters are upside down and some are inside out. Signing her name slowly is all she can do to show she is literate. But because she can write her name, she is part of India’s 64.6 per cent ‘functionally literate’ women.

About 10 year ago India passed the Right to Education Act. It made education a right for children between the ages of 6 and 14. With the act there were more resources and many enrolled. Now only 2.8 per cent of children are out of school in India. This is the first time the figure is below 3 per cent. But the real problems in India’s educational system are now worse after 10 years. This means that more children are going to school now bit they are learning less, because there are not enough qualified teachers. Elementary schools in India need more than 500,000 teachers.

The 2018 Annual Status of Education Report says that numeracy and literacy standards in Indian children were not good enough and sometimes lower than 10 years earlier in 2008. After five years of schooling, at age 10-11 years, only 51 per cent of students can read a text for seven- to eight-year-olds. Only 28 per cent of fifth-grade children could do divisions in arithmetic in 2018, compared to 37 per cent in 2008. . ‘We must understand that we have problems with basic literacy and numeracy,’ the report said. India is a long way from becoming an educated nation.

India has one of the biggest numbers of illiterate people in the world at 266 million, this is 35 per cent of the world total. This is a big problem for a developing country. People expect India will be the world’s second-largest economy by the year 2050 and will have the youngest population in the world by 2020. We think that this illiteracy in India costs about $53.6 billion per year.

NITI Aayog, India’s biggest government working groups, says the problem is getting bigger and it has asked for the government to spend double on education.

‘In the next three years, we must introduce changes to help learning in the near future and in the long-term future,’ the group said in a report. It also said that the right to education must ‘be a right to learn not only a right to go to school’.

In the last 10 years India has done well to bring most children to schools. The challenge now is to educate them.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)