The Constitution of India has based on the premise that all citizens are equal. However, access to quality education is becoming increasingly inequitable, evidenced by the fact that girls belonging to rich families (top 20%) get on an average nine years of education, girls from poor families (bottom 20%) get none at all. This inequality plays out across regions, gender and social groups. The evidence clearly shows that a strong, well-funded public education system is the foundation of economic development and people’s life chances.
However, India continues to suffer from chronic under-funding of public education; current levels of education spending have stagnated to around 3-4% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), nowhere near the target of 6% recommended by the Kothari Commission more than 50 years ago. The upcoming Union Budget is an opportunity for the government to take measures towards reducing the persistent inequality in education by enhancing expenditure, particularly for regions and social groups that have been traditionally underfunded.
The first focus area of the Budget should be prioritizing improvement in school infrastructure in underdeveloped and remote regions. Research indicates that school facilities and infrastructure have a direct impact on the teacher as well as student attendance. However, only 12.7% of all schools comply with the infrastructural norms laid out by the Right to Education Act. Yet, this is only an aggregate.
The compliance of schools in backward regions such as Bihar and Jharkhand is less than 4%, reflected in poorer retention of students than the country average. Poor compliance with infrastructural norms is a consequence of resource inadequacy. In more than 16 states, resource inadequacy exceeds 1% of GSDP (Gross State Domestic Product). A big push from the Centre in terms of substantial fiscal transfers to these states is imperative to support them in meeting RTE norms.
The second area that the Budget needs to focus on is improving educational outcomes of socially disadvantaged groups through scholarships, strengthening community accountability mechanisms and providing multi-lingual education. While close to 95% of students belonging to the general category transition from elementary to secondary school, the corresponding figure for Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis is 80%, 87%, and 83% respectively.
Discrimination, economic circumstances, and weak community voice are historical reasons for poorer educational outcomes for these groups. In addition to increasing scholarships, the government needs to invest in capacity building of School Management Committees, particularly those located in areas with traditionally disadvantaged groups.
While the Census lists more than 100 languages spoken in the country, very few languages not specified in the 22 official languages find representation in the school curriculum as a medium of instruction. Ample evidence points towards better learning outcomes for children learning in their mother tongue. The Union Budget can take active steps towards improving the learning of tribal children by actively funding as well as expanding existing programs of multi-lingual education.
Lastly, the Budget needs to ensure a substantial increase in public spending on the education of children aged 0-6. About 90% of brain growth occurs by the age of five before the age when children enter primary school. While children in this age group constitute around 30% of the 0-18 age group, public spending for their education hovers at only around 10%. In states such as Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal, public spending for the education of children aged 0-6 is only around 5%.
Due to the massive under-spending for early childhood education, a majority of children do not receive a developmentally appropriate education, preparing them poorly for primary school. Thus, the government needs to exponentially increase public spending in the Union Budget for the education of children aged 0-6 with a focus on building the capacity of early childhood educators and ensuring the availability of developmentally appropriate teaching materials in ECE centers.
To ensure that children aged 6–13 achieve elementary education as per the RTE, additional spending needed is 5% of overall public expenditure per annum. It is crucial that the Centre supports states, particularly those lagging behind in meeting their expenditure targets, by providing a fiscal stimulus.
While achieving equality in education will be a long-drawn and prolonged battle, policy decisions in the upcoming budget will determine the direction in which we are headed—one where all children have access to an excellent education or one where only those who belong to the top 1%.
Ankit Vyas, Programme Coordinator, Inequality and Education, Oxfam India