Falling Through India’s Cracks: School Children in the Subcontinent

Few countries are more paradoxical than India; from her snow-capped mountains to her sandy beaches, or the Indian elites and royals to the slums. Much like many other aspects of India, there seems to be quite a distinction in education across the country. While India is certainly an active competitor in the world space race, the country leaves a lot to be desired in terms of overall education, and in a country of 1.2 billion, it’s become evident that a large number of the countries children are falling through the many cracks of a quite broken system. But what are these cracks, and why is the system so broken? The following article aims to take a deeper look at education across the subcontinent- what’s working, and what ‘s being overlooked, to ultimately shed a bit of light on the problems rooted in and facing education across the country.

Before we dive into the why behind the lagging education system, it’s important to note that India is making strides toward bettering the accessibility of education; In the past decade, the unenrollment number of schoolchildren has dropped from 25 million to 8 million, with the enrollment rate now at 95%. Furthermore, under the new Indian Constitution, free and compulsory education is provided as a fundamental right for children from ages 6-14.

However, despite the above promising figures, the following still also hold true:

  • In 2012, India’s students finished second to last among the 73 participating countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted annually to evaluate education systems worldwide by the OECD(Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Secretariat.
  • Indian 8th graders tested at the level of South Korean third graders in math and Shanghai second graders in reading in the 2012 PISA evaluations.
  • Nearly 1/3 of Indian women are illiterate.
  • Less than half of grade five students could read a text designed for second graders, and 40% of fifth grade students could not do a second grade addition problem.
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Children sitting on bricks attend an open-air class in New Delhi. There is a pressing need for further education reforms in India. Photograph: Parivartan Sharma/Reuters


So unlike many impoverished countries where students don’t have access to or the means to partake in education, it becomes evident that children in India do have access to education, so why the poor performance?

To understand this, we must ask ourselves what constitutes a good education: Student-to-teacher ratio? Qualified teachers? Healthy students? Encouraging parents? Proper funding? There are several issues at hand when determining why certain education systems deliver what are considered poor or excellent results. When we look at some of them numerically, it becomes clearer why India’s students perform poorly..

  • One in five students in India drop out during primary school and never reenroll; in 2013, 14% of female students between 7-16 went missing from the school system.
  • 40% of children experience chronic malnutrition before they reach school age, causing problems with brain development.
  • Only 2/3 students in primary school attend regularly.
  • Approximately 25% of India’s teachers don’t show up for work each day, and of teachers that are present, only about half actually teach.

When looked at objectively and on the surface, the reason for poor performance amongst Indian students seems obvious: The schools are crap, the teachers aren’t showing up, the children aren’t healthy, and often, they don’t finish.

And when we take a deeper dive, we can start to understand the why behind these things..

  • The expectation of domesticity of Indian women at such a young age:
    • The Harvard School of Public Health survey conducted studies in Gujarat looking into rates of child marriage, and found that of girls aged 14-17, 37% were engaged and 12% married. The same study found strong correlation between marital status and school attendance rates (in which married children were over twice as likely to not attend school than single children.)
  • 29% of the country lives in poverty– that’s 360 million. To put that in perspective, that’s 40 million more than the entire population of the U.S.
  • Many schools don’t have the funding for proper infrastructure- as of 2012, 40% of all government schools lacked a functioning common toilet, and another 40% lacked a separate toilet for girls. Parents worried about the safety of their daughters/ the shame that would fall on their family following an all too common sexual assault often keep their daughters from attending school for this reason.
  • There are little to no consequences for teachers missing work- the problem is not low salaries.  Salaries for public school teachers in India are above the norm.  Indeed, if anything, absenteeism increases with salary (and it is higher in public schools than in private schools, despite lower wages in the latter).  The problem is political power, teacher unions, and poor incentives.  Teachers are literate and they vote, so they are a powerful political force- especially where teacher unions are strong.  Furthermore, teachers have historically had a guarantee of representation in the state Legislative Councils, so political power has often flowed to teachers far in excess of their numbers.  As a result, it’s virtually impossible to fire a teacher for absenteeism.
School children in Ullannur, Kerala.
School children in Ullannur, Kerala.

Ultimately the country is left with some tough choices to make, but in reality, few actual options. If India wants to raise itself from a country known for it’s overwhelming poverty with a poor performing education system, more money must be invested in schools and their infrastructure. Teachers must be better qualified, with tougher punishment for absenteeism, and parents must somehow be informed of the importance of their children attending school. It’s a cycle that must be broken and can only be done by Indians alone. The emphasis should be shifted from regurgitating facts for government tests to actually building students’ knowledge and developing their thought process, and in a country of 1.2 billion with 360 million living in poverty, it’s clear than many of these changes must come from the top down. How can families living in poverty make the best, educated decisions for their children when they often can’t even feed them?

Poverty is defined as a state of depravation. Although measured subjectively, it’s generally referred to in terms of income poverty, meaning one can obtain the minimum level of calories needed to live, but are unable to live a human life with dignity. The World Bank gave a more dimensional definition of poverty, saying, “Poverty is not only a problem of low incomes; rather, it is a multi-dimensional problem that includes low access to opportunities for developing human capital and to education…” And the UNDP further commented, “human poverty is more than income poverty; it is a denial of choices and opportunities for living a tolerable life.” It’s evident that India must address the poverty that plagues the country if they want to better their education system.

While real change must come from India within, if we want to help, we can certainly try; every student that receives a better education in India can raise a better-educated family. Better-educated families can lead to better-educated communities, which can lead to better-educated cities, and so on.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”- Margaret Mead














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