Every child in school by 2015: India gets UNESCO praise

education2It’s a vision the world has for itself – to send each and every child to school by the year 2015. But it’s a vision that’s tough to gaze at, even tougher to turn into reality.

So, here’s the good news for this world vision: India is at the forefront in helping to make it a reality. Here’s how: our state educational initiatives like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act are giving handsome returns. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has assessed that, among all nations, India has registered the greatest progress in terms of sending children to school.

“India has made the largest progress in absolute terms of any country in the world … reducing out-of-school (children) numbers from 20 million in 2000 to 2.3 million in 2006, and (around) 1.7 million by latest data (2011),” says UNESCO’s latest Education For All Global Monitoring Report.

India has upped its primary school attendance rate, and has expanded the net of literacy to cover approximately three quarters of its population. By any standards, it is an achievement.

An official at the Ministry for Human Resource Development claimed that the elementary education scheme has started showing results, and that the benefits of the right to education law are sure to follow suit in a few years’ time.

“Since 2000, it’s a fact that enrolment has gone up significantly. But many students are only in school registers,” explains educationist Vinod Raina. “Education is not about only enrolment. You have to look at enrolment, attendance and dropout rate together.”

“In India, the attendance rate is around 70% and the dropout rate is nearly 40% at the elementary level. These are not comfortable numbers at all,” admits Raina, who is in the Central Advisory Board on Education, advising the government.

“Many UN bodies are not very critical of countries because they don’t have their independent source of information. They depend on data provided by governments.”

In India, there are pockets of schooling utopia. Kerala has the best numbers in elementary education. Its literacy rate jumped to 93.91% in 2011 from 90.86% in 2001 as per the population census of India 2011 report.

Significantly, despite roadblocks, India’s commitment to elementary education has been steadfast. This singular commitment helped it get the largest share of aid to basic education among all countries. At 10% of the total aid given to all countries, India received $578 million during 2011. This was 50% higher than the previous year, Pauline Rose, Director of the Global Monitoring Report told Mint, an Indian daily.

However, in a fast growing country like India, government should itself make higher budgetary allocations for education-related initiatives, rather than depend on foreign aid. For example, in the current year’s budget, there has been a 21.7% increase in the allocation for the Right to Education Scheme. Similarly, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan saw an allocation of Rs 25,555 crore, an increase by 29% and Rashtriya Madhayamik Shiksha Abhiyan was allocated  Rs 3,124 crore.

Saddled as it is with a host of problems, South Asia has, however, made impressive strides in sending children to school.

“As Africa’s proportion of the world’s out-of-school children grows, South and West Asia’s declines,” says the UNESCO report. In 2000, there were some 37.8 million out-of-school children in South and West Asia, which dropped to 12.4 million in 2011. During the same period, sub-Saharan Africa reduced the number of its out-of-school children from 40.6 million to 29.8 million.

Despite the encouraging response in some regions, including India, the entire world may still fail to achieve 100% schooling by 2015, UNESCO believes. This is because several key donors, including countries and multi-lateral agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have reduced education grants to needy countries. In 2011, the world had some 57 million children out of schools, the report said.

“As debate continues over the goals of the post-2015 development agenda, new data show that the world is unlikely to fulfill one of the most modest commitments: to get every child in school by 2015,” the UN body asserts. “More than 57 million children continue to be denied the right to primary education, almost half of whom will probably never enter a classroom.”
Donor countries and agencies that are themselves facing a tough economic environment have cut their education grants. Of the 10 major bilateral donors to basic education, six (Canada, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and the US) have cut back on their aid. While the World Bank increased its aid to basic education overall, its allocation to low-income countries declined by almost a quarter. The Netherlands, too, has cut its aid by 33% as this does not contribute to its foreign policy priorities, the report states.

This puts the onus on individual countries to continue on their mud-baked paths that bring all their children to schools. It is not only about the economics, but equally about cultural constructs, social attitudes and mores, and how deeply entrenched the government’s commitment is. Is it committed enough to create more vocational education options for children to increase employability? Is it committed enough to create more jobs at a basic level, so more children are encouraged to stay in school rather than drop out because they see it as serving no future purpose? Is it committed enough to separately encourage girls to attend school in as large numbers as boys?

These and more questions confront governments as the world confronts the reality of its vision to send each and every child living on this planet to a school.