(The writer is senior fellow, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration)
Publishing misleading data will not help the government achieve universal elementary education.
"Primary education on track, what about higher levels" reads a news item. "Numbers are okay,but quality is the key word" runs another. This is not just the popular journalistic view. Even official sources consider that only 5-6 per cent of about 210 million children in the age group 6-14 are out of school. To cap it all, the Budget speech of the finance minister endorses this view, putting a final seal of official approval to the figure. But are we really so close to the goal that has eluded the country for more than five decades? Are all our children really in schools? Or is it only a statistical illusion?
These questions gain significance in the backdrop of the Right to Education Bill waiting to be introduced in Parliament, making elementary education a fundamental right. These questions should also be examined against the repeated assertions by the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report that India is one of the 40-odd countries not likely to meet most of the Education For All goals even by 2015. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has kept a tougher target of achieving the goal by 2010. If one goes by the official word on out-of-school children, there is not much left to be covered.But various figures on school participation contradict each other. If children are not out of schools then they should be in the schools. But are they?
Traditionally, three indicators are used to determine whether all children of a particular age group are in school. The first is the enrolment ratio. Unfortunately, official statistics produce only gross figures, which include underage and overage children attending school. Inclusion of such children inflates the ratio by 20 percentage points. Official figures of enrolment ratio for 2003-4 show only 85 per cent children were enrolled.Current figures making rounds in official discourses claim this to be 93 per cent. Though such a steep rise in two-three years is difficult to digest, if the figure is corrected to exclude those below and above the 6-14 age bracket, it comes to 75- 78 per cent, which means a whopping 45-50 million children are outside the fold of schooling. The second indicator to assess school participation is the attendance figures. Again, official statistics do not regularly give figures of average school attendance. Official estimates made in 2000 showed the figure to be 64 per cent for classes I to V. Assuming that the attendance improved in subsequent years at about 3 percentage points annually, there would be 57 million children out of school in 2005.
An all-India sample survey of rural schools recently conducted by Pratham showed that only about 73 per cent of enrolled children attended the school. This would bring the number of children out of school to a staggering 60 million. The third indicator is the retention rate. Nearly 50 per cent children drop out without completing the elementary cycle. If one takes this into account the number of out-ofschool children rises enormously. Why are these indicators at variance with official figures on out-of-school children? The answer lies in the erroneous method used to compute the figures.
Counting outof- school children is not part of the regular collection of school statistics. The origin of the present method lies in the conduct of household surveys (HHS) under SSA. It was envisaged as a means of assessing the resource required in each district plan in terms of those children who are older and need to be mainstreamed through bridge courses, those who are young enough to be enrolled or re-enrolled in the primary school and to examine if there is need for an alternative school. The purpose was to prepare the ground for the district plan, not to project statistics on schooling. It is no surprise that a government- sponsored survey, conducted by a private consulting firm adopting a similar methodology, has come out with similar figures. But this does not prove that the figures are correct. Both flout a simple principle-if you have to find out whether children are in school, look for them in the school, not at home. Publishing misleading statistics will do nothing to achieve universal elementary education.