The UN Report on Out-of-School Kids is Bad News for India. The Real Picture May Be Worse

If irregular attendance is included in the definition, the total percentage of children out of school would be much higher

Young boy at school in Pillicula Village, Karnataka. Credit: Asian Development Bank

Young boy at school in Pillicula Village, Karnataka. Credit: Asian Development Bank, CC 2.0

The newly released UNESCO e-atlas on out-of-school children (OOSC) provides worrying evidence not only of the low priority being accorded to basic education across developing countries, but also by the developed world in terms of the aid given to education. As many as 124 million children and adolescents worldwide are out of school, 17.7 million – or 14 per cent – of whom are Indian. The rise in the number of children who are out of school around the world closely mirrors the situation in India, where public education is slowly falling off the policy map of the government. The massive cuts in the last budget and the recently released policy document of the Rajasthan government inviting the private sector to take over government schools are important indicators of the new policy thrust.

It is ironic that as the demand for basic education – especially amongst the poorer sections of the population – has increased, the state’s commitment to providing the opportunity to help this section move up the economic ladder has decreased. This is evident from the fact that the share of GDP to education in India has remained at a very low and constant level over the last decade or so – hovering below 4%. This is amongst the lowest in the world. The situation has been worsened by the decline in foreign aid to education over the same period. This is the result of a worldwide trend as indicated by UNESCO, but in the Indian case, also of the perception that India does not need the aid – a perception projected by the Indian state as well. Without the government itself stepping in to make up for the loss in foreign funds, the result is a growing neglect of this crucial sector.

However, while low finances are no doubt an important part of the story behind the increasing number of out-of-school children, the statistics, as released by UNESCO, or indeed generated by the Indian state, conceal more than they reveal.

Unreliable numbers

For instance, who is considered an out-of-school child and how “official” statistics are being collected, are questions that still do not have clear answers. In particular, three issues must be borne in mind while looking at the numbers generated.

First, there is no standard definition of OOSC. This is of particular relevance to the estimation of children who drop out. While such children are included in the broader definition of the out-of-school child, what is not clear is who is considered a drop out? In India itself, this varies from state to state. Thus, in Karnataka, a child that is consistently absent for a week is considered to have dropped out, while in Gujarat, she would have to be consistently absent for 2 months to qualify as such. But even as absence for extended periods of time is considered in the understanding of an out-of-school child, irregular absence is not included as reason or cause for considering a child “out of school”. The reality is that many children, especially in the vast rural landscape of the country, attend school only intermittently. It could be a few days a week, or even a few hours a day – often leaving after the mid-day meal is served. It is worth asking, if such children should be considered “in school”? And if not, then the numbers would swell by a significant margin.

Second, the reporting on attendance is highly unreliable. Teachers routinely mis-report for various reasons. On the one hand, they are under pressure to show high attendance to justify mid-day meal funds and on the other they are under pressure from parents, often of migratory families, to continue to show attendance, even when children leave for long periods under seasonal migration. In fact, teachers are reluctant to strike off names from the rolls unless the children leave permanently from the village. Thus, they may be absent for long periods, qualifying under the dropped out category of out-of-school children, but come the new year, the child is still likely to be on the rolls.

Third, there are problems with the actual estimation of out-of-school children by the official machinery. And this is where the real nub lies. States collect their information on out-of-school children by conducting surveys or collating data from school registers and teacher interviews. The margins of error in the latter have already been indicated. However, the method of estimation creates an even bigger problem. The District Information System for Education (DISE) provides the government with age-wise data on the number of students who are enrolled in school. The number of enrolled children is then compared to the total number of children estimated to be in the corresponding age group. The difference between the two then becomes the official estimate for the number of children who are “not enrolled”. The DISE data is also used to form an estimate for the number of children who have dropped out of school. This is done by calculating the difference in the number of enrolled children of a particular age in two consecutive years. If there are 100 enrolled children aged 10 in 2013, for example, but only 95 of the same age in 2014, then the drop out rate would be 5 per cent.

Timely reminder

Clearly, the two numbers i.e. those “not enrolled” and those who have “dropped out” cannot be simply added up to give an estimate of out-of-school children as the cohorts in the estimation of “dropped out” children relates to a varied age group that would not correspond exactly to the age sets considered in the estimation of the “not enrolled”. What this means is that it is impossible to calculate the number of out-of-school children from the DISE database.

Household-level surveys are of little help either. The National Family Health Survey, the IMRB survey and the latest entrant in the field, the Child Tracking Survey, all use different definitions for school dropouts. How then is it possible for the government to calculate the actual number of out-of-school children in a state?

The UNESCO e-atlas reflects some of these problems. A total of 1.7 million and 16 million Indian children are shown to be out of school at the primary and upper primary levels. By any yardstick, this is a very large number of children who are being denied their fundamental right. But if irregular attendance were included in the definition, the total percentage of children out of school would be much higher than the 1.4% and 23% that those numbers correspond to. Further, the India map is coloured grey in several places because data is unavailable. India not only does not collect data on many variables, it apparently does not submit this data on time either.

By putting the spotlight on the most vulnerable within the education scenario – out-of-school children – UNESCO’s latest statistical portrait of global childhood is an important reminder of unfinished business. On the eve of the Oslo summit on Education and Development, one hopes that it will serve as a wake up call to all those who can make a difference – donor countries and national governments included.

Kiran Bhatty is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and a Founder Member of the Forum for Deliberation on Education