India’s learning crisis has reached staggering levels, with pandemic induced school closures expected to have far-reaching consequences on schooling. However, with the gross enrollment ratio for students at elementary level (grades I-VIII) reaching 97%, access to education is not our primary concern anymore. The high percentage of students going to school does not necessarily suggest that all these students are actually learning.

If only half of all students in grade 5 can read texts meant for grade 2 students and only 22.7% of all students in government schools in grade 5 are able to do division, India has a learning crisis on its hands. This learning deficit witnessed across both government and private schools highlights the dire state of Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) in India.

*Source: ASER 2018: % children in primary school who can read at different levels

FLN is commonly understood as the ability to read and comprehend basic text and the ability to carry out basic addition and subtraction with Indian numerals. To be able to learn, a student needs to be able to read first, whether in English, Hindi or their regional language. If a student is unable to attain expected literacy and numeracy skills at an early stage, progressing to higher grades will not amount to mastery of the higher grade-level curriculum. 

The potential impact of this learning lag is enormous. As these students progress to higher grades, the gap between their average learning levels and the standards of the curriculum will also expand. This gap continues expanding, resulting in the students eventually losing out on higher education and employment opportunities. Estimates suggest that nearly 5 crore children have not learnt these critical skills yet and over 43 % of children under the age of five are at risk of not fulfilling their full developmental potential.

This has significant repercussions for the Indian economy as well. Low levels of conceptual know-how, creativity and critical thinking skills in the youth will result in a workforce that is ill-equipped and underprepared for 21st century jobs. The growing shortage of skilled workers and knowledge workers in the Indian economy is a testament to the need for universal FLN.

Against this backdrop, the National Education Policy 2020 underlines the importance of universal FLN, with its aim of “ensuring every child in grade 5 and beyond has achieved foundational literacy and numeracy”.  Through the proposed Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Mission, India is expected to achieve universal FLN in primary schools by 2025. The mission would focus on redesigning the curriculum, conducting teacher training and facilitating community participation. NEP mandates state and UT governments to develop a roadmap for attaining universal foundational literacy and numeracy in all primary schools, identifying stage-wise targets and goals to be achieved by 2025. Government platforms like Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA) will make available high-quality teaching and learning resources.  

While the NEP provides for a much needed push towards investing in early childhood education, its implementation will need to work in alignment with other government policies. Success of this mission will hinge on creating an ecosystem where learning triumphs schooling. Schools’ performance will need to be measured on learning outcomes of the students and not on enrolment rate or infrastructure. Experience with early grade teachers and teacher educators suggests that attaining universal FLN will require a significant shift in the organizational structure and associated incentive system. NEP also needs to further decentralise implementation of the FLN mission from the states to districts, making them the unit of administration with more flexibility in making plans and control over the budget. With a focus on reforming curricula and teacher recruitment, training and incentive-based performance plans, district-level officials can create roadmaps for improving learning outcomes. Given the enormous learning gap India is facing today, remedial education for those who have failed to attain FLN skills will also need to become a priority.  

FLN skills form the basis of all future learning, without which the benefits of education are lost. Foundational learning has been linked to increased employability, better later-life outcomes and as a result, higher GDP for the country. While NEP clearly articulates the goal of attaining universal FLN by 2025, the success of the mission will hinge on decentralization, curriculum reforms, teacher training and incentives, and prioritising remedial education. Acquisition of FLN skills at early grades is the only way to ensure that a new generation of educated and skilled youth can serve as driving forces for innovation and growth in India.

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