Access and quality in elementary Education in India: challenges for a post 2015 education agenda

Madhumita Bandyopadhyay

Associate Professor
National University of Educational Planning and Administration
New Delhi



India has witnessed considerable improvement on elementary education over the last few decades. This has been particularly evident after the Jomtien Declaration of 1990, which helped establish a new perspective on elementary education (grades I–VIII), recognizing it as a basic need. The Declaration also helped reiterate and entrench the right of every person to benefit from educational opportunities. This perspective was reinforced at the World Education Forum, 2000 where its six EFA Goals paved the way for viewing education as a basic component of human development in India. These internationally agreed goals, read along with the National Policy on Education, 1986 and its Plan of Action, 1992, have also been the guiding principles for various initiatives that India has taken to improve its education system over the last two decades. More recently India has adopted the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009. With this backdrop, this contribution considers the current situation in elementary education in India and the specific challenges that it faces in a post 2015 agenda focused on quality and learning.

An Overview

Universalisation of Elementary Education (UEE) has been a constitutional commitment in India and it has received enormous attention in the recent past, resulting in the introduction of many policies, programmes and innovative actions through different state specific programmes and centrally sponsored schemes, including Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). It has received further fillip through the recent introduction of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, whereby education has been incorporated as a fundamental right for children belonging to the 6–14 age group. Despite the considerable quantitative expansion of school education, there still exists a considerable gender gap and differences between the rural and urban areas as revealed by the recent NSS data (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Per 1000 Distribution of Persons by Completed Level of Education for Each Age-group

Access to school, along with enrolment, has improved for most of the children as almost all areas have schooling facility within close vicinity. According to the recent data (NUEPA, 2013), As many as 14.1 lakh elementary schools enrol of  137.1 million learners at the primary level and 64 million at the upper primary level.  Although the Government is main provider, fee paying private schools have rapidly expanded jeopardizing social and gender equity. Out of the total primary schools, seven per cent are private unaided and this proportion increases to 22 per cent in case of upper primary schools (GOI, 2012). While around 31 per cent were enrolled in private schools at the primary level, this proportion increases to 37 per cent in case of upper primary grades (NUEPA, 2013).

Challenges to be met

However, despite this quantitative expansion, many worrisome facts remain. Despite substantial decline, the total number of out of school children has been estimated at around 3 million in 2012, compared to 8 million in 2009 (Pathak, 2013). There are also wide variations in enrollment, retention and school completion between and within different states and districts. Some areas have been classified as educationally backward showing low rates of economic growth and poor standards of living (Govinda and Bandyopadhyay, 2011; Bandyopadhyay, 2012a and 2012b).

School participation and learning achievement remain disturbingly low for the vast majority of children. Around 53 per cent of Std. V children could not read Std II level Text (Pratham, 2013, 47).  High drop-out rate, even at the primary level, is a problem that illustrates the ongoing inefficiencies in the system. While around 27 per cent children drop out in grade V, around 41 per cent of students drop out in grade VIII (GOI, 2013). Incidence of non-enrollment, low participation and drop-out is more marked in the case of vulnerable groups and further intensifies with caste, gender, religion, racial discrimination, poverty, malnutrition and geographical location (Govinda and Bandyopadhyay, 2011). These problems are more severe in areas affected by militancy and civil strife, extending to several states of country (UNICEF, 2009).

Research indicates that the high number of drop-outs and low participation are largely due to the poor functioning of schools as a result of the lack of physical infrastructure and academic resources, poor administration and monitoring, and low investment of financial resources, which often coalesce together to make education provisioning more challenging.

Present and Future Policy Agenda

In light of the above discussion, development of a more egalitarian education system in India in a post 2015 world seems an urgent imperative so that all students, particularly the marginalized are about to learn, complete their education and transit to the next level. An increase in aspiration levels along with improved literacy rates is visible among all sections of the population, leading to an increase in demand for quality education. This seems to be an opportune time for all service providers and stakeholders to address this demand through their collective actions. Targeted investment of adequate resources with disaggregated actions by public and private agencies is necessary to reduce regional and inter-state disparities.

Since each school functions within its own context, a sustained school specific focus is needed to ensure that they are inclusive learning spaces that value diversity while providing equal learning opportunities for all. An Increased focus on learning is most critical in today’s context of developing a knowledge-based society but mere external testing or terminal examination may not improve the teaching–learning process. Learning should be conceptualized in a more holistic and contextualized manner including a focus on teacher empowerment and professional development. It is important to note that India has sizeable young population (10 to 24 age group), numbering around 360 million, India may reap this ‘demographic dividend’ only if quality learning opportunities which enable them to innovate and take on new challenges for ‘living together’ in a pluralistic world are prioritized. In this regards, gender and social equality needs to be made a core priority especially for marginalized populations. For this, strong political will is necessary to bring elementary education at the center stage of the agenda of inclusive growth and ‘development with human face’ agenda, as envisaged by Millennium Development Goals.


 Bandyopadhyay, M. 2012a. ‘Social Disparity in Elementary Education’, Seminar, October, 2012, pp. 21–25.

Bandyopadhyay, M. 2012b. ‘Gender equity in educational access in India’, Southern African Review of Education (SARE), Volume 18, Number 2, 2012, pp. 9–24.

GOI. 2012. Selected Educational Statistics, 2010–11, MHRD, Govt. of India.

GOI. 2010. NSS Report 64th Round—Education in India, Participation and Expenditure, Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation, New Delhi, pp. A-16–21.

Govinda, R. and M. Bandyopadhyay, 2011. ‘Access to Elementary Education in India: Analytical Overview’, in Govinda, R. (ed.) Who Goes to School: Exploring Exclusion in Indian education, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp. 1–86.

NUEPA, 2013. Elementary Education in India: Progress Towards UEE, Flash Statistics, DISE, 2011–12, Provisional; NUEPA, New Delhi, India.

Pathak Kalpana (2013)   No. of out of school children down from 8 mn to 3 mn since 2009: MHRD, Business Standard, Mumbai, May 15, 2013

Pratham, 2013. Annual Status of Education Report, Rural, 2012 ASER Centre, New Delhi, Accesed in on 28June, 2013.

UNICEF (2009) Machel Study 10-Year Strategic Review: Children and Conflict in Changing World, New York, USA