Human Development

Improving children's learning: Challenges and priorities for the new government

  • Blog Post Date 14 July, 2014
  • Notes from the Field
  • Print Page

Over the last 15 years, continued effort to universalise access to elementary education in India has resulted in high enrolment rates in schools. Now that most children are in school, policy and planning efforts are beginning to focus on improving their learning levels. This note contends that it is imperative for the new government to maintain, monitor and strengthen this priority and improve mechanisms for achieving learning goals.

Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA)1 was launched in 2000-01 by the Vajpayee government. In many ways, SSA continued and expanded the work that had been started a decade earlier under the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP)2 . For both DPEP and SSA, the major thrust was to ensure universal enrolment in elementary school and reduce/ remove social and gender gaps in schooling. When the Manmohan Singh government (United Progressive Alliance (UPA)) came to power in 2004, they continued the main interventions under SSA and ensured that the key priorities within the programme were maintained and strengthened. The 2% education cess was set into motion in 2004 and, in fact, there was no opposition to the levy. SSA made substantial progress in the UPA years. By 2013, more than 96% of children in the age group 6 to 14 were enrolled in school. Over 90% of habitations had primary schools. In fact, the passing of the Right to Education (RTE) Act in 2009 can be seen as a final touch to the efforts for achieving universal enrolment in India. The story of the last 15 years has basically been of continuity. Despite change of governments, the fundamental priorities remained unchanged. The continuous striving towards the universal enrolment goal in India has led to the fact that almost all children are enrolled in school today.

High enrolment in school, poor levels of learning

But there are new challenges facing the country. From 2005 onwards, every year Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) have pointed out that while the enrolment picture continues to improve, on the learning front, the story is far from satisfactory. For example, five years ago, for 2009, ASER reported that close to 53% of children in Standard 5 could not read a Standard 2-level text. The status has not improved much over time; in fact if anything we see a slide. In 2013, the corresponding figure was about 47%. In arithmetic, in 2013, a little over half of all children enrolled in Standard 5 could do a two-digit subtraction problem with borrowing. Other studies3 done in the last ten years also strongly suggest that student achievement needs to be given urgent attention.

Shift in focus from inputs to outputs

It has taken UPA almost five years after enacting RTE to accept and articulate poor learning outcomes as the next challenge. The 12th Five Year Plan (released in December 2012) makes explicit that this is the critical challenge that needs addressing, for development, growth and equity. The Central Government encouraged the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to come up with clear learning goals by grade and by subject that would guide the move to bring outcomes to the centre of all educational efforts. All these initiatives were part and parcel of translating policy into practice and of finally accepting that ‘business as usual’ was not going to be enough to bring about the required fundamental shifts. By 2014-15, the annual work plan guidelines of SSA had incorporated the learning outcome priority; the Central Government urged the states to focus on ensuring that children were learning well and also strongly suggested that states undertake their own measurement to understand what the situation is in terms of learning. In state after state, large-scale measurements of learning outcomes are beginning to take place. Programmes are beginning to be designed and implemented to see how basic learning can be improved. The shift in policy and practice from input-based expenditure to outcome-focused achievements has taken more than 10 years to come about.

Following in the tradition of the last 15 years, it would be important that each successive government continues to carry forward the national agenda as it has evolved. It has taken a long time for learning outcomes to come to the centre of action in India. It is therefore essential that this priority be maintained, strengthened and built upon and the mechanisms for achieving the goals be improved.

Improving learning outcomes in elementary education

Outlays leading to outcomes is an important policy goal. Such statements have been made in the past but they need to be put into operation in a serious and meaningful way. For the new government and the new budget period, there are several things to think about. The first challenge is to get much more effective utilisation of the resources that are spent on elementary education. It is very critical that the focus of SSA plans moving forward are strongly centred on learning outcomes and states clearly articulate stage-wise goals for learning improvement. Effective spending implies that the expenditure is influencing progress towards goals, especially in terms of improving learning outcomes of children in elementary school.

Second, the current planning cycle in elementary education for districts and states is one year long. Perhaps, for input-oriented strategies like building construction and teacher recruitment, annual targets may be appropriate. But for improving learning, a three to five year strategy is needed to ensure continuity. A three-year time frame will also enable states to plan for how these goals are to be achieved incrementally. Achievable goals have to be set and all elements of the education system (teacher training, on-site support, materials and measurement) have to be aligned to help schools and teachers help children learn better. Plans can be reviewed and adjusted on a year-to-year basis but the overarching strategy has to span multiple years.

Third, district-level plans need to be made that accurately reflect ground-level needs and respond to specific targets for learning improvement. Such an effort would also help to ensure that districts do not have large unspent balances sitting in their accounts as they will receive funds tailored to their needs. However, doing this may mean a massive capacity-building effort by state and central governments to know how to plan for outcomes based on needs and status of each district.

Fourth, if the 12th Five-Year Plan’s priority for improvement in children’s learning outcomes is to be translated into practice financing norms and mechanisms may need to be reviewed. Current guidelines do not clearly indicate how these improvements will be funded. In the SSA planning documents there are only two line items where districts and states can directly plan and implement learning improvement programmes. These two line items are: (a) Innovation grant of Rs. 1 crore ($0.17 million approx.) per district (however, half of this is earmarked for computer-assisted learning programmes), and (b) Learning Enhancement programmes (LEP). In 2013-14, LEP and innovation grants were cut for most states. In 2012-13, out of total SSA expenditure, teacher training constituted only 1%, and remained at 1% even in terms of the approved allocations for 2013-144. Thus, from expenditure tracking exercises, it is not clear how a massive push for improvement of learning outcomes is to be fuelled.

Learning outcomes and secondary schooling

The learning deficits that are visible in elementary schooling are also there in the secondary school stage. Currently in the big move to universalise secondary schooling with focus on provision and access, recent Joint Review Mission reports of Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA)5 strongly urge the government to take urgent steps on learning outcomes in the secondary sector as well. First it has to accept that students are coming into secondary school woefully underprepared6. Next, it has to act on providing solutions to overcome this big challenge. With the RTE in place, it is likely that enrolment pressure on secondary education is going to rise tremendously. If expansion of access is not accompanied by visible increases in schooling quality and learning outcomes, the increased expenditures on this level will largely be wasted. If India has to get any demographic dividends, it is crucial that we look at cohorts that are transitioning from Standard 8 to Standard 9 and beyond. Learning assessments and student achievement surveys for the last stage of elementary school (Standard 8) must be done. This is the stage beyond which the state is no longer responsible for free and compulsory education. It is important that there is external and independent measurement of what children have learned and what they can do once they complete the mandated eight years of compulsory schooling.

Introduction of skilling programmes and apprenticeship opportunities for youth at the secondary school age group is critical. Although there are schemes, there continue to be difficulties with the content as well as with mechanisms by which such training can be effectively imparted to large numbers of young people who are still in school and to those who have left school.. The objectives of the national skilling mission are laudable and ambitious; but much more needs to be done to bring about greater impact on scale.

As secondary schooling is beyond the age specified by RTE, open schooling – that is increasingly available to youth in India - should be made a viable alternative. Building on the opportunities that are currently available, a greater and more effective variety of different models and mechanisms need to be tried. Other assistance such as waiving of examination fees or incentives for students doing well need to be put into place to encourage more students using open schooling as an alternative for continuing education and learning.

Concluding remarks

Governments may change but many national problems and priorities remain the same. It is critical that the next step is taken, building on the steps that have already been taken in the past.

The goal of the RTE is to guarantee quality education to all children in India. This has to mean not just that schools comply with norms but also that we are able to enable children to achieve satisfactory levels of learning. As a country, we are still very far from such a goal. The effectiveness and efficiency of our increased expenditures need to be seriously reviewed. Unless major shifts in focus and action are undertaken on an urgent basis, we will lose a huge opportunity to improve the life chances of a generation of children and youth in a meaningful way.

A version of this article has appeared in Dainik Bhaskar earlier this week.


  1. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is Government of India´s flagship programme for achievement of Universalisation of Elementary Education (UEE) in a time bound manner. It has been operational since 2000-2001.
  2. District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) is a centrally-sponsored scheme, which was launched in 1994 as a major initiative to revitalise the primary education system and to achieve the objective of universalisation of primary education.
  3. These include several studies by Educational Initiatives ( and by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).
  4. See PAISA reports and budget briefs on
  5. The Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) scheme was launched in March, 2009 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, with the objective to enhance access to secondary education and to improve its quality. The implementation of the scheme started from 2009-10.
  6. While RMSA planning guidelines have line items which could potentially be used for remedial education, strong measures need to be in place in secondary schools to provide strong and continuous learning support if students are to successfully complete this stage. All available data points to the fact that students in secondary schools are far below the levels they ought to be at, based on curriculum expectations. If results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009+ are any indication, then Indian youth are among the most unprepared in the world in terms of basic applied skills, to tackle the world of work or of life beyond school.
No comments yet
Join the conversation
Captcha Captcha Reload

Comments will be held for moderation. Your contact information will not be made public.

Related content

Sign up to our newsletter