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Why are children not in school?

By Mini Shrinivasan

According to the 2001 Census, 65 per cent of Indians are literate. And almost every child now has access to a school, with around 95 per cent of our rural population having a primary school within one kilometre of their habitation. This is a significant achievement. But the big questions are: does the socio-economic condition of children allow them to go to those schools? How many dro p out within a year or two? And what is the quality of education available at these schools?

A school for every child / The big questions / Why are children not in school? / The quality of education/ Who is accountable? / Political and economic climate / Priorities for action

On India's 50th anniversary of independence, we scored another 50. Fifty per cent of the population was literate by that time, against 18 per cent in 1947.
Do we have 50 per cent literacy? Or 50 per cent illiteracy?

The 2001 Census figures show that the literacy rate in India has improved further to 65.38 per cent. The gap between male and female literacy is also decreasing with the figures now standing at 75.85 and 54.16 per cent respectively. There is, however, a wide disparity in the literacy rates of different states - Kerala has achieved 90 per cent literacy while Bihar has only 38.5 per cent. (


 The links between education and reduction in the rate of population growth, between education of women and family health, between education and equitable economic growth etc are by now well-documented in many third world countries. Elementary education is considered a basic developmental right of every child. Article 45 of the Indian Constitution states that, "The State shall strive to provide free and compulsory education to all citizens up to the age of 14." At present, all political parties have expressed their commitment to convert this Directive Principle into the Fundamental Right to Education. This famous 83rd Amendment, introduced in 1997, has not yet been enacted, but hopefully will soon be.

Meanwhile, in the 50 years since the Constitution was adopted, access to elementary education has indeed increased dramatically. The Sixth All India Educational Survey (NCERT, 1993) states that there were 570,455 primary schools (schools up to class IV or V) in India by 1993 and 705,834 schools with primary sections. There were 162,805 upper primary schools (schools up to class VII) and 224,544 schools with upper primary sections. By 1993, 94.45 per cent of the rural population already had access to a primary school or section within one kilometre of their habitation and 84.98 per cent of the rural population had access to upper primary schooling facilities within three kilometres of their habitation. When we look at the daunting size of this country and its population, this is no mean achievement. It needs to be firmly kept in mind as an indication of the successes possible through the commitment of successive governments to providing elementary education to the children of India.

The management of these schools is a vast and varied patchwork of agencies, both government and non-government. Basically, while the Centre is responsible for providing general direction in terms of educational policy and curriculum, education is predominantly a state subject, and the running of this vast school network is the responsibility of individual state governments. This is done in two ways: either by directly running schools, or by supporting privately-run schools through grants. A very small number of schools in each state are completely independent of government funding, and only these can really be called private schools.

Broadly, the vast majority of the population, both rural and urban, sends its children to government-run schools, as these are free, ie they do not charge fees. However, given that the quality of education in these schools is usually quite poor, the fast-increasing middle class prefers to send its children to the government-aided, privately-run schools. The third category, the private schools, caters to the elite upper-class population.

If one were to identify the single most important achievement in the field of education by the government in the post-Independence era, it would have to be putting a school within reach of almost every child.



Of course, a school within reach is not the end - it is only the beginning. The significant questions are:

  • Does the socio-economic situation make it possible for that child to actually go to school?
  • Is what happens there attractive and relevant enough to keep that child in school for at least seven years?
  • In these seven years, does the child gain anything of significance and value in her life?

While there is an increasingly apparent focus on these issues, both in government and in civil society, the answers to these questions are at present an alarming but definite NO.

Consider these facts:

  • In 1993, enrollment in Class Five was 54.63 per cent of enrollment in Class One.
  • Drop-out rates are officially admitted to be as high as 35 per cent.
  • Most independent tests of achievement levels continue to show dismally low levels of achievement in the basic literacy skills.

The access to education that the girl-child has is another area of concern.

    • It is estimated that for every 100 girls that enroll in school in rural India, 40 will reach class IV, 18 will reach class VIII, nine will reach class IX, and only one will make it to class XII.
    • Though the national rates of female and male literacy show a decreasing difference, states like Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal still have several districts where female literacy is less than 30 per cent. (

This is because, given restricted resources, it is the education of the boy-child that is given priority.



Do children fail to attend school because they are forced by economic circumstances to work? Or do they work because the system allows them to stay out of school, which is boring and irrelevant to their lives in any case? The truth, surprisingly, lies closer to the latter statement.

One of the eye-opening findings in the Public Report on Basic Education, the PROBE report, (OUP 1999: brief summary available on is that only one to five per cent of out-of-school children are actually involved in earning significant wages. Many of the children working up to eight hours a day were not earning any significant income as they were involved in jobs like looking after their siblings, cattle grazing etc. and not in wage-earning labour. Another surprising and heartening finding was that 98 per cent of parents felt that education was necessary for boys, and 89 per cent felt it was necessary for girls.

It is not factual, therefore, to cite poverty and ignorance as the main causes for poor school attendance and large-scale drop outs.

The increase in drop out rates can also be due to the unattractiveness of the school and teaching processes. The PROBE report recorded startling data about the lack of or dysfunctional state of basic amenities in many schools. As many as 52 per cent lacked playgrounds, 89 per cent did not have toilets and 59 per cent did not have drinking water. As for teaching aids, 26 per cent did not have blackboards, 59 per cent had no access to maps and charts, 67 per cent lacked any kind of teaching kits, and 75 per cent had no toys for the children. In 77 per cent of the schools, there were no libraries.

The report also noted that when the team dropped in at the schools, only 53 per cent of the teachers were actually involved in teaching. The rest were either in the head teachers' rooms, or standing outside the class, talking with other teachers, or involved in other non-teaching activities.

Most child-rights organisations are very clear about one thing: free, compulsory and quality elementary education is the first and most important step in the fight to eradicate child labour. In The Child and State in India (OUP, 1991), Myron Weiner makes clear the direct impact that compulsory education policies have had on reduction of child labour in other developing countries. While one may take issue with his thesis that the vast gap between official rhetoric and policy on child labour is a deliberate attempt by all sections of the middle class to maintain the status quo, there is no question that unless the State takes it upon itself to ensure that each child is in school, child labour is going to continue unabated. (See, Campaign Against Child Labour, CACL)

A mass public demand for the passing of the 83rd amendment is an essential step to make this a reality. Critics of this move have rightly pointed out that given what actually happens in most schools, this is not something we want to force on our children through the Constitution! So, the issue of the quality of education needs to be tackled simultaneously.



The basic school curriculum has evolved from colonial times, and 'what is to be taught' remains in essence a colonial view, deliberately disassociated from whatever knowledge and skills already existed in India. It is hardly surprising that the large proportion of what is taught is completely alien and alienating to the average Indian child. The hapless middle class child doggedly goes through school anyway, because she or he has no choice. However, the poor child, the first-generation learner, often takes the easy way out and stays away. This is not to say that we need to have a different curriculum for the rich and for the poor -- definitely not. The children of the poor cannot be shortchanged in the name of local relevance, non-formal education, etc. In fact, a lot of confusion and well-intentioned bumbling is going on in this area right now. For example, 'non-formal education' is often posited against 'formal schooling', implying that the latter is stifling, irrelevant and undesirable by definition, and that the former is necessarily good. Obviously this is not the case. If made truly relevant, interesting, child-centred and attractive to learners and parents, formal schooling can provide the poor child with a solid educational base that is in no way inferior to that available to her richer compatriot. On the other hand, non-formal programmes can, and often do, easily end up being extremely loose, without specific targets, and finally cheat the child of even basic literacy skills.

To really provide equity in basic education, what is needed is a combination of the best of both approaches. On the solid framework of a core curriculum needs to be built a child-friendly, locally-relevant structure that is welcoming and appealing for the first-generation learner.

The government has been making great efforts in the past few years to improve this situation by trying to develop a core curriculum, or minimum levels of learning, which will ensure a basic equity in learning, and which can then be adapted locally and made more meaningful. Government-initiated teacher training programmes also emphasise 'child-centred, activity-based' learning. New and better textbooks have been developed by most states. (See ) However, these efforts have by and large been only theoretical. The vast majority of schools continue to burden the child with vast amounts of useless information, resulting in a crisis in confidence among rural and urban learners from poor families.



The issue to be addressed is that the system, though well aware of the problems and the solutions, remains unaccountable. Teachers and the school are simply not held responsible for what the average learner actually learns. Of great importance in this situation is the increased awareness among parents, especially poor parents, that they are being shortchanged. A climate is slowly developing in which parents feel that they can demand accountability from the system that promises to educate their children, and can have a say in what and how their children are taught. This is the most hopeful sign of change, and is being greatly helped along by community-based organisations and NGOs.

The ongoing process of decentralisation, which puts increasingly more power in the hands of local bodies, is a step that can only help this process. For example, the Village Education Committee is now a statutory body, consisting of members of the village panchayat (the elected local government in a village), the village primary school, and local women's group. Parent-teacher associations at the village level are also mandatory. Of course, community involvement can also serve to perpetuate existing casteist and patriarchal attitudes. It is not enough to put control of education in the hands of existing local hierarchies; it must be truly in the hands of the people.



Primary education, as all basic necessities for the poor in India, is inextricably bound up with the existing political and economic climate. The impact of globalisation is being acutely felt, with the World Bank dictating the forms that the so-called 'social safety net' should take. Enormous externally funded primary education programmes with dubious benefits are generating a large amount of research and information, but are only helping to obfuscate the main issues of relevance and accountability. Large-scale projects targeting girls, backward castes etc may disguise the fact that public spending on education is stagnant. India's expenditure on education is extremely low (3.5 per cent of GNP) for a country that has such a large stake in winning the battle against illiteracy. The share of Plan allocations to education declined from 7.8 per cent in the First Plan to 2.7 per cent in the Sixth Plan. Though it increased to 4.9 per cent in the Eighth Plan, it is still well below the First Plan allocation. Similarly, the share of elementary education decreased from 56 per cent in the First Plan to as low as 24 per cent in 1966-69. It has since gone up to 42 per cent in the Eighth Plan, but is still lower than in the First Plan. While it may be argued that decline in central spending is a step towards decentralisation, there is a general fear that in the new economic climate, government spending on primary education will remain stagnant, or even decrease. This will put education out of the reach of the poor family since it will fall into private hands where the profitability of a school will be its major raison d'être. Another source of concern is the politicisation of the framing of the national curriculum. Skewed views of what constitutes 'Indian culture' threaten to undermine the possibilities of education as a force for liberation of thought and for social change.



In the light of the situation described above, what are the priorities before the organisations seeking to improve the opportunities for and quality of education for all children?

· More transparency
The first priority is to place before the public a clearer picture of the situation, ensuring a better critical analysis of the reams of reassuring data that is being constantly generated by the government's new Educational Management Information Systems machinery. Claims of the phenomenal success of various schemes for improving enrolment and attendance, of the amazing improvements in learner achievement, and of the increased involvement of the 'community', rarely stand up to even the most cursory critical study. These need to be widely discussed.

The PROBE report, a detailed and scientific attempt of this kind, has sunk without a trace after the initial hue and cry. We need to have a more systematic and large-scale discussion of some of the facts in the report. For instance, the average number of school-going years for a female is 1.8 and for a male, 2.9. The report also says that only about 1 to 5 per cent of children who are out of schools are engaged in wage-earning labour. So what are these children doing and why are they outside classrooms? How do these facts check out against the claims mentioned earlier?

· Involvement of those directly affected
Secondly, the involvement of those sections of the community which have a stake in a better education for their children, ie the rural and urban poor and the dalits, needs to be mobilised. This may be supportive or confrontational, as the local situation demands. In a democracy that has come of age, there can surely be more instances like the one in a remote village in Maharashtra where the village people put a lock on the school and refused to let the teacher enter to sign the muster until their demands for a better school were met. Community involvement should not be used as an excuse for the State to shrug off responsibility in an area that, along with health, is surely the most important social responsibility of an elected government. The role of the community and community-based non-government organisations should be that of demanding the best possible education for their children and ensuring that they get it. They should support government efforts by ensuring enrolment and attendance, providing assistance to teachers, contributing to the improvement of the school building, and keeping close watch on the quality of education being provided to their children.

· Creative inputs in curriculum design
The third area where the involvement of non-government agencies will prove of critical importance is in evolving curricula and pedagogy suitable for local needs and demands, while keeping in mind the important issue of equity in educational opportunities. The old established State institutions for educational research have repeatedly shown themselves incapable of genuine innovation, being by and large content with periodically bringing out further batches of 'old wine in new bottles'. The community-based organisations and people's movements are not, for the most part, equipped with the technical expertise and the broader national and international perspectives needed to develop appropriate curricula and pedagogy for local needs within the larger mainstream. Specialist technical support organisations, along with colleges and departments of education and social work in universities, have a crucial role to play in this area.This is also the area where non-government organisations can play a useful and appropriate role. This would create a space for them to work positively and dynamically in the field of education, and at the same time ensure that the government does not abdicate its social responsibility in the name of structural adjustments, globalisation, privatisation or whatever new jargon emerges to explain away that abdication.

· Towards total literacy
The National Literacy Mission launched in 1988 aimed at attaining functional literacy for 100 million people in the age group 15-35 by the year 1999. The current target is to attain 100 per cent adult literacy by 2005. The NLM defines a literate person as one who can "with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his/her everyday life." However, it is true that in many cases literacy ends with being able to sign one's name. The Total Literacy Campaign of 1989 in Ernakulam in Kerala state is taken as the model. The NLM also emphasises Post-Literacy and Continuing Education for the neo-literate through the establishment of Jan Shikshan Nilayam in 1998. The goal is to help the neo-literates retain literacy skills and to establish adult education programmes. Of the people covered under the programme, 60 per cent are women, 22 per cent are scheduled castes and 13 per cent are scheduled tribes. The effective implementation of these programmes also needs to be addressed.

(See also,,

Infochange News & Features, 2001