Getting the Foundation Right: Instilling a Real Sense of ‘Crisis’ about the ‘Learning Crisis’

by Umika Chanana | on 9th February 2024

In 1944, Sir John Philip Sargent, Principal Education Advisor to the British Government, shared a draft memorandum calling attention to the shortcomings in the quality of primary education. In his forty-year plan, he noted that both quantitative and qualitative interventions are required to provide universal, compulsory, free, and quality education for ages 6 to 14 years.  

Many educationists in India rejected the Sargent Plan due to its projected time frame. Ironically, sixty-five years later, Parliament ratified the Right to Education Act, 2009, for free, compulsory, and quality education for students in the age group of 6 to 14 years. India’s dismal performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment  World Rankings (73 out of 74 countries) highlights that students are struggling with basic comprehension in reading (language), mathematics, and science.

The National Education Policy 2020, today’s Magna Carta, states, ‘The highest priority must be to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school and beyond by 2025. The rest of the policy will be largely irrelevant for such a large portion of students if this most basic learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic at the foundational level) is not first achieved.’ 

The State of Primary Education in India

India’s primary education landscape encompasses 1.49 million schools, engaging over 9.5 million teachers and accommodating approximately 265.2 million students. Among these, about 122 million students are enrolled in primary education. In recent years, governmental policies have emphasized enhancing access and equity in education for children. Although Gross Enrollment Rates have nearly reached universal levels, the National Achievement Survey 2021 indicates that a significant number of students perform at basic or below-basic levels, rather than at proficient or advanced levels.

Educational reforms in India necessitate a collaborative effort between the central and state governments to ensure effective implementation. However, systemic obstacles often hinder this process, impeding the delivery of quality education. One of the primary concerns is budget allocation. According to the Economic Survey (2022-23), educational expenditure stands at a meager 2.9% of GDP, far below the 6% benchmark recommended by the Kothari Commission in 1966 and reiterated in the National Policy on Education of 1968. Despite decades of advocacy, this target remains unmet. Additionally, a significant portion of the existing budget is allocated to teacher salaries, with comparatively minimal investment in teacher development and infrastructural improvements.

Research indicates that over half of the children entering first grade are already lagging behind the expected curriculum standards. This gap can be attributed, in part, to a disjointed approach between the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the Ministry of Education, leading to a fragmented transition from pre-primary to primary education. This disjointedness contributes to the complexities in administration, design, delivery, and management.

The Right to Education Act, 2009 stipulates a maximum student-teacher ratio of 30:1. However, compliance varies significantly across regions. In some areas, teachers are burdened with multiple classes, often teaching all subjects. A study by NUEPA reveals that 42% of elementary schools in India operate with only one to two teachers, a situation particularly acute in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, and Maharashtra, largely due to high teacher vacancy rates.

Furthermore, the scarcity of quality Teaching Learning Materials and data-driven governance exacerbates these challenges. Schools often face restrictions in procuring necessary educational resources, resulting in a weak foundational education. Studies have shown that primary education frequently relies on rote learning, with limited instructional time and a lack of clear learning objectives. Moreover, only a third of teachers have reported finding their training beneficial.

The impact of these systemic issues has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from 2022 reveals a decline with the percentage capable of performing such tasks dropping from 28.2% in 2018 to 25.9% in 2022. Similarly, the proportion of students able to handle division decreased from 27.9% in 2018 to 25.6% in 2022. While India has made significant strides in increasing enrollment rates in primary education, the quality of education and effective implementation of policies remain critical areas for improvement.

A Leap Forward in Solutions

Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) remains a persistent challenge, yet states like Delhi and Madhya Pradesh have made remarkable strides by implementing simple yet effective steps to strengthen systemic achievements.

In 2016, it was recognized in Delhi that students reaching the ninth grade often lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills, not to mention achieving grade-appropriate learning levels. This issue led to poor student performance, with more than half failing in the ninth grade.

Consequently, a strategy was developed to map students based on their learning levels. The government launched ‘Chunauti’, focusing on improving results for senior secondary students and reducing dropout rates. This initiative led to a 20% improvement in outcomes and evolved into ‘Mission Buniyaad’, aimed at enhancing FLN in classes 3 to 9. From 2018 to 2020, a 15% improvement in mathematics and a 7% increase in reading proficiency were observed. Following these initiatives, the pass percentage for the twelfth grade improved from 85.9% in 2015-16 to 97.8% in 2019-2020.

These achievements were supported by an increase in budgetary spending on education to 27%, the highest among all states in India. The per-student expenditure rose to INR 78,082, significantly above the national average. The government’s efforts in improving delivery and developing a robust feedback mechanism were key to achieving these results.

In a similar vein, the Government of Madhya Pradesh conducted a baseline survey during the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on understanding the realities of FLN and formulating strategies to support approximately 25 lakh students from grades one to three across ninety thousand schools. The government launched ‘Mission Ankur’ (2022-2023) to improve FLN outcomes by adopting data-driven governance structures. This approach addressed various aspects, including teacher training, the development of new teaching and learning materials, stakeholder alignment, and the establishment of coherent structures.

A road less traveled  

While Delhi and Madhya Pradesh have made notable strides in enhancing learning outcomes, India as a whole still has a considerable distance to cover in realizing the vision of its education policies and aligning with international education objectives, such as those set out in the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals.

With a population of 1.4 billion, India’s pursuit to harness its demographic dividend hinges critically on its ability to instill basic learning and competency skills among its youth. The most effective pathway to achieving this is through established educational institutions that provide quality education. However, the current learning crisis in foundational years underscores a significant gap in meeting even the most fundamental objectives necessary for the active development of the country, not to mention the cultivation of advanced competencies that could spur national growth.

This situation raises a pertinent question: How do education policies in India today compare to those in 1944? The Sargent Plan, once deemed visionary and ahead of its time, prompts us to reflect. Are we still trailing behind the visionary goals it set, or have we simply not yet caught up in realizing the foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) goals in India?