Primary education (PE) is the first stage of formal education where an individual acquires the necessary ability to read and write and perform basic operations with numbers. PE is an essential foundation and an indispensable prerequisite for all future school and lifelong learning.
The World Bank terms the phenomenon of being unable to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10 as ‘learning poverty’. Children who are not able to read by the age of 10 usually find it challenging to grasp the ability to read in later years of their schooling. Without foundational learning, children often fail to flourish in their later years as they don’t acquire the required human capital needed to empower them in their careers.
Various governmental and non-governmental surveys have often indicated a precarious state of a learning crisis in India. I quote from the NEP, “A large proportion of students currently in elementary schools, estimated to be over five crore, have not attained foundational literacy and numeracy, ie the ability to read and comprehend basic text and the ability to carry out basic addition and subtraction with numerals.” The National Achievement Survey (NAS) states, students across 12 states scored significantly below the national average in mathematics ability. NAS identifies learning as the big challenge facing Indian education. The next few years are critical as India could lose 10 crore or more students from the learning system to the fold of illiteracy unless proper action is not taken soon.
What we are doing now : The Vajpayee government started the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which aimed at achieving universalisation of primary education in a time-bound manner. This legacy has been carried forward by the Modi government with a new scheme, Samagra Shiksha. The main focus of these schemes has been access to schools. The programmes and initiatives have achieved their goal, and I feel happy to state that enrolment in primary schools is 100%. However, keeping the looming learning crisis in perspective, the education ministry has put immense focus on foundational literacy and numeracy in NEP 2020.
The future course of action : One of the fundamental principles of NEP is according the highest priority to achieving foundational literacy and numeracy by all students by Grade 3, which we are committed to achieving by 2025. To translate this particular vision of NEP, under the Atmanirbhar Bharat programme, a National Initiative for Proficiency in reading with Understanding and Numeracy (NIPUN) Bharat will be launched.
This mission will cover the learning needs of nearly five crore children in the age group 3-11 years. A nationwide exercise to identify the learning gap, its probable reasons, and various strategies keeping in view local circumstance and diversity of the country will be initiated. The national mission will develop a simple and common understanding of learning outcomes and align the efforts of the education ecosystem. The mission’s progress will be measured based on children attaining the grade-level competencies.
The national mission will take a holistic approach and involve all stakeholders actively for achieving the goals. Role of school management committee (SMC), parents and community will be pivotal in achieving the desired outcomes. Training of SMC members, awareness drives for parents and community as a whole will be undertaken intensively to monitor and track the progress of students.
All state/ UT governments shall immediately prepare an implementation plan for attaining this objective, closely track and monitor its progress. Teacher vacancies shall be filled as soon as possible, especially in disadvantaged areas. Teachers shall be adequately trained and supported to impart foundational literacy and numeracy to students who have fallen behind. Particular attention shall be laid on the nutrition and health of children. Nutrition shall be addressed through the provisions of healthy meals and regular health check-ups.
The role of families and communities intertwined with teachers should be leveraged to increase the demand for education. I urge all the government, non-government and private organisations to develop an inclusive, integrated, and multi-sectoral approach for primary education. Foundational literacy and numeracy for all children must be the top-most national agenda. Quality primary education is the fundamental right of every child, and it is our responsibility that no child is deprived of this right. Let’s collate our efforts required for bringing in the transformative change of overcoming learning poverty.