India has been making steady progress in improving literacy, and has celebrated its improvement with aplomb over the last few years. This is with good reason. Young Indians are far more literate than their older counterparts, and the gender gap in literacy is also much smaller for young Indians as compared to that for older ones.


However, near-universal literacy is a bare minimum for a country with the stature and ambitions of India. For a country that aims to be a superpower, the state of Indian education is astonishingly poor.

High Inequality in access to education

According to the human development report, India's inequality in the number of years of schooling is amongst the worst in the world. Sub-Saharan countries like Congo and Kenya perform better than India on this measure. This inequality was measured by the Atkinson inequality index of the distribution of years of schooling based on data from household surveys.

Ensuring that all segments of society have equal access to education should be the next major focus of Indian policymakers.

Exceedingly poor quality of education compared to global standards

While Indian elites feel that the country's performance in Science and Math is exceptionally good, the numbers state otherwise. The average Indian school child (taken from Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu - historically India's best performing states)  performs far worse than the average child from Shanghai, Finland, or even Indonesia. India ranked second from bottom in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009.

Instead of treating this as a wakeup call, and revamping policies to improve performance, the UPA government claimed that the PISA was unfair for the average Indian student, and declined to take part in 2012 and 2015. Unfortunately, it did not stop there. It introduced a policy that has decimated the performance of low performing rural students.

Rising ineptitude after implementation of the RTE Act

According to the Annual Status of Education Report, 40% of rural 3rd graders cannot even read a word (in any language of their choice), while half of rural 5th graders cannot performance basic subtraction (as of 2014). Educational performance has worsened significantly since 2010, when the Right to Education Act was implemented.

What causes these problems?

1. The RTE is a deeply flawed act

Many provisions of Kapil Sipbal's Right to Education Act have reduced the incentives for students and teachers to perform. Under the act, no student from Class I-VIII can fail. This has led to a decline in effort from students, parents, and teachers ( according to various education ministers ). With no immediate incentive to study in the short-run, students are not putting in the effort to gain skills that will form the foundation for education. Moreover, many state governments had scrapped school examinations altogether in the aftermath of the RTE due to a “ misunderstanding " about what the RTE would entail, further exacerbating the lack of motivation.

At the same time, the act requires schools that do not have a playground (amongst other things) to be closed. This means that many cheap private schools, which parents increasingly prefer over government schools, are not eligible to be open any more. Many think tanks (including Azim Premji Foundation and Centre for Civil Society ) have criticized the act, but no action has been taken yet from the NDA government to repeal or modify it.

2. The curriculum is too broad
Education policy has largely been set by urban-education, generally wealthy ministers and bureaucrats. As such, the curriculum is consistent with the experiences that they have had. The Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) policy, wherein students are graded on projects over the course of a year (instead of only being graded on a final exam) is an example of such policies. While students in urban, well-to-do environments will benefit significantly from such policies, they will hamper progress in rural schools where students are barely making progress.

These policies can further exacerbate the learning gap in the country. A UNESCO report found that the Indian curriculum “outpaces what [most] pupils can realistically learn and achieve in the time given, is a factor in widening learning gaps”.

A separate curriculum and realistic policies for less developed parts of the country can go a long way in ensuring equitable education in the country.

Here is what you can do to help

Spread awareness about how performance of rural students has deteriorated significantly after the implementation of the RTE Act, and write to the Ministry of Human Resource Development to encourage them to revamp it. The Act did have some great provisions that allowed access to education to a larger array of students, but data shows that some of its features have been clearly counter-productive. You can also tweet to @SmritiIrani to demand a revamp of the act.