Although India’s total school enrollment rose to a record 97.2 percent in 2018, according to the Annual Status of Education Report, there is an alarming trend of dropouts in secondary schools when compared to the national average. Poverty is the greatest obstacle for students above 10 years of age in India, and almost 18 percent will drop out by Secondary Level nationwide . In some states such as Assam and Bihar, the dropout rate doubled or tripled the national average in 2018 (MHRD).
Why do students drop out?
Soha Moitra of Child Rights and You (CRY) states, “When a family is not financially secure, prioritising a child’s education takes a backseat. Post-Class V, distance to school also tends to increase, and parents deem it unsafe for a child, especially girls, to travel far. You see this validated in dropout rates as well, which rise sharply after Class V.”
By definition, people living in poverty experience a scarcity of resources and, therefore, face fewer opportunities to improve their station in life. While education is a human right, it is not a top priority for all. Poverty is often further complicated when combined with factors such as family responsibilities, single parenthood, exposure to toxins like lead and inadequately safe drinking water, food insecurity, and parental unemployment (Dr. Radhika Kapur).
Solving India’s dropout dilemna will require a multifaceted approach and cooperation between states and central governments, teachers, parents, and NGOs.
National Trends are looking up
Looking at the national data, there is some hope. Fewer Primary School students are discontinuing their studies. Additionally, many states are taking the initiative to educate parents about the importance of keeping their children in school. These achievements are attributed to the 2009 Right To Education Act, which mandated free education for 6 to 14-year-olds and is credited with reducing “inequalities in access between states”.
The Indian government also implemented the “Midday Meal Scheme” which offers free lunch to all students on school days. The aim of this scheme is to improve students’ access to proper nutrition and boost school attendance. While it seems to be a simplistic approach, one free meal during the day helps low income families, particularly those that depend on daily or hourly wages. According to a survey conducted by ASER in 2018, a mid-day meal was observed to be served to 87 percent of the schools visited. This is an impressive outcome, and a key government program that directly tackles the prevalence of childhood malnutrition.
School facilities have also been addressed in the Right To Education Act, which mandated separate boys and girls toilets. Close to 67 percent of rural schools and nearly 98 percent of urban schools were found to have constructed toilets for both genders in 2018. Boundary walls, which are important for student safety, have been built in an additional 13 percent of schools nationwide, when data from 2010 and 2018 are compared. The proportion of schools with non-textbook reading materials for students has increased by almost 10 percent in the same period (Bloomberg Quint). It’s apparent that school safety and student engagement are becoming increasingly important nationwide.
Yet, as Mr. Krishna Kumar, educationalists and former director of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), points out, “There is no such thing as a national picture when it comes to school dropouts. If you create a national picture by mathematical aggregation, that picture is meaningless since regional variations are far too big.”
State-wise Trends still show some gaps
In the 2017-18 academic year, 22 out of the 36 Indian States and Union Territories lowered their dropout rates when compared to the previous year. While the national average of primary and secondary school dropout rates is improving each year, certain states are still facing steep numbers (MHRD).
Let’s take a look at the worst affected states across India:
Assam has the highest rate across the board, with 10 percent of primary school students and 33.7 percent of secondary school students dropping out in the 2017-18 academic year. Interestingly, in the 2016-17 academic year, Assam reported much lower dropout rates among primary and secondary schools – 5.6 percent and 27.6 percent respectively. In one year, dropout rates in Assam increased approximately 5 to 6 percent.
Disparities are wider when the data is examined on a district level. One such extraordinary example is Andhra Pradesh, which had a state-wide secondary school dropout rate of 26.8 percent in 2013-14 according to the Educational Statistics data. However, the district of Kurnool experienced a dropout rate of 45 percent that year. Such drastic variations within regions and states suggest that socioeconomic and cultural factors play a key role in school attendance, and, therefore, intervention needs to be rooted in local contexts.
Despite the troubling data, Mr. Partha Pratim Rudra of the Smile Foundation, whose aim is to get dropouts back into school, believes there are a few generic approaches to solve this problem. He stated that, “we should respond quickly to early indicators of a potential dropout, such as absenteeism, by counseling the student and parent.” He adds, “Ensuring social inclusiveness [especially with regard to girls], sensitizing teachers, and convincing parents of first generation students of the value of education always makes a big difference.” (The Hindu)
So, how do we make a difference?
A common misconception among India’s rural and urban poor is that their children must begin earning and saving at a young age, despite the impact this will have on their education. We as educated people can gently nudge parents to keep their children in school and offer career guidance. The quintessential motivation is to help parents understand the importance of education while making them feel positive about their efforts.
Although educators are notoriously overworked and underpaid in India, teachers need to take extra effort in helping students understand the purpose of learning the class syllabus. By applying the lessons to real-world situations, students can view the bigger picture of their lessons.
School staff must also learn to observe the early warning signs. Students with low attendance, below average performance, less involvement in classrooms, incomplete homework, and extra duties at home are at higher risk of dropping out. Necessary steps to intervene must be taken at an early stage to retain these students.
Lastly, we ask all educated Indians to nurture a relationship with their domestic helpers, drivers, and other people working for them. Refer these low income families to their childrens’ schools, NGOs, and charitable organizations like JS Trust for additional resources.