The ninth Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) was published last week. ASER is an annual household survey to assess children’s schooling (both public and private) status and basic learning levels in reading and arithmetic, among other things. With the number of children surveyed at 569,664 from 15,941 villages of 550 districts, the sample size of ASER is larger than that of the NSS survey rounds.

Some of the important findings of ASER 2013 are:

  1. School Enrollment: Enrollment figures for children (age group 6-14) have been 96% or more since 2009, touching 96.7% in 2013. Private school enrollment stood at 29% in 2013. The number has been rising consistently from 18.7% in 2006.
  2. School Attendance: School attendance of children varies across the country. Overall, children’s attendance in government school has gone from 74.3% in 2009 to 70.7% in 2013 in primary schools and from 77% in 2009 to 71.8% in 2013 in upper primary schools.
  3. School Facilities: Facilities (available and usable) like drinking water, toilets, kitchen shed, library, etc. have been steadily improving over the years. While only 47.2% of government schools had useable toilets in 2010, in 2013 that number stood at 62.6%.

These are encouraging numbers. All these are inputs to achieve one thing and one thing only – providing quality education to children. But this is where the good news ends. The signs of success/failure of whether these efforts have been translating in providing quality education or not can also be found in ASER – in their surveys on learning outcomes.

The most worrying aspect of ASER 2013 continues to be the falling learning outcomes. As the report notes, “For a variety of reasons, close to 78% of children in Std. III and about 50% of children in Std. V cannot read Std. II text as yet. Without immediate and urgent help, these children cannot make progress in the education system. Grade level teaching of the syllabus cannot be done effectively unless the basic skill of reading with understanding is in place. Without this fundamental skill, the child cannot progress in other subjects either.”

The figures below shows the level of reading competency over the last five years for government and private schools separately.

Figure 1: % Children in Std. III who can read at least Std. I level text

Source: ASER 2013, India Findings

Figure 2: % Children in Std. V who can read at least Std. II level text
Source: ASER 2013, India Findings

As is evident from the figures above, the learning levels have consistently been falling in government schools while it is holding steady in private schools. The condition is equally grim when it comes to competency in basic arithmetic, as seen in the figures below.

Figure 3: % Children in Std. III who can at least do subtraction
Source: ASER 2013, India Findings

Figure 4: % of Children in Std. V who can do division


Source: ASER 2013, India Findings

As seen in figures 3 and 4 above, performance of both government and private schools have declined – more so for government schools than for private schools.

Learning outcomes have been accorded due importance in various policy documents and government initiatives of recent times like the 12th Five Year Plan document’s chapter on education, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) guidelines for 2014-15, Economic Survey 2012-13 chapter on Human Development, etc., but there is no PLAN that takes on the issue of learning outcomes head-on and on a war-footing.

Is it the lack of resources that is causing these falling competencies? The evidence says otherwise. Not only has the total general government expenditure (Central and State governments combined) been rising, their share as a percentage of GDP and as a percentage of total expenditure has been rising as well.

Figure 5: General Government (Central and State Governments combined) expenditure on education (in Rupees billion)
Source: Economic Survey 2012-13

Figure 6: General Government (Central and State Governments combined) expenditure on education (as percentage of GDP)
Source: Economic Survey 2012-13

Also, PAISA Report of 2012 finds that per student allocation have also increased from Rs 9367 in 2010-11 to Rs 11509 in 2012-13.
Thus we see that there has been no lack of commitment to excellence in education on the part of governments as far as resource allocation is concerned. However, steady fall in learning outcomes as seen in figures above begs the question – What are we doing wrong?

Yamini Aiyar over at the Accountability Initiative notes some important learning from their flagship PAISA survey over the years. They found that planning, budgeting and decision making are not related to learning outcomes. They also found that the entire elementary education planning and budgeting system is extremely centralized resulting in a mismatch between school level needs (even of the most basic things like inputs) and actual expenditure. Outputs and outcomes are far removed from any influence of parents or schools.

The dichotomy that exists between the centralised system of service delivery and the increasing focus on learning outcomes makes it almost impossible to get the desired results. Some pertinent questions raised by ASER and PAISA reports points in the direction that simply increasing outlays every year is not the answer. They have been highlighting that an outcomes based system requires autonomy and innovation at the school level.

What better way to have the autonomy with parents and students than by granting them the independence of going to a school of their choice? And what better way to encourage innovation and competition than to let many schools (private) bloom by removing the roadblocks in their setting up and functioning?

A major rethink of our outmoded ways of imparting education is necessary. Why not let parents and students decide who can best meet their needs?

For a quick summary of the ASER 2013, read this or see this.

Post Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.

Previous articleFree Market Fairness in Education, Tomasi Style
Next articleInterim Budget 2014-15: Same Old Same Old
Kumar Anand

Kumar Anand is an economist with over ten years of experience working with for-profit companies, government ministries and not-for-profit think tanks. Kumar has previously worked with National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) where he was part of the research team that assisted the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission (FSLRC). Before joining NIPFP, he worked with Hong Kong-based Asianomics Limited, where he kept a watch on the developments in the Indian sub-continent markets. Before his present role, Kumar worked with Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi, where he created an online library of Indian liberal works to preserve and revive the rich Indian liberal and free market tradition.

Currently, Kumar leads the research team at Nayi Disha in Mumbai, where he is exploring the right set of principles-based rules that should govern a city and a nation and the ways to create a popular demand for such a change. Kumar's research interests are in Indian economic history, urban economics and public choice economics. He is a graduate of Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune.