21 Jan 2024  |   05:31am IST

An Unprepared Generation?

There is reason to celebrate that greater numbers of Indians enjoy more years of schooling than ever, but the outcomes will need to improve in order to prevent the vaunted “demographic dividend” from turning disastrous
An Unprepared Generation?

Vivek Menezes

he latest Annual Status of Education (ASER) report from Pratham – one of the largest and most respected NGOs – has compiled an important data set on students in rural areas between the ages of 14-18, from the generation whose successes and failures will define the country’s future. There are hopeful signs, but also many red flags: more than half these teens cannot solve simple mathematical problems, and a quarter of them fail to read at 2nd Standard level. There’s also an excruciating gender gap in access to crucial technology of our times like smartphones and laptops, with far more boys online than girls. There is reason to celebrate that greater numbers of Indians enjoy more years of schooling than ever, but the outcomes will need to improve in order to prevent the vaunted “demographic dividend” from turning disastrous.

ASER surveyed 35,000 teenagers in 28 districts across 26 States (unfortunately Goa does not participate). In an article at asercentre.org, the organisation’s head Wilima Wadhwa says their report “gives a snapshot of the lives of young people in rural India – their school and work status, their digital engagement, their ability to do simple everyday calculations as well as common digital tasks and their aspirations.” The good news is “most young people are enrolled in some educational institution – 86.8% of 14-18 year olds are enrolled in either school or college. One major worry at the time of Covid was that with livelihoods being threatened, older children would drop out of school. That fear turned out to be unfounded.”

However, says Wadhwa, “there does not seem to be much change in their foundational literacy and numeracy skills. In 2017, 76.6% of 14-18- year-olds could read a Std II level text. In 2023, this number is slightly lower at 73.6%. In arithmetic, in 2017, 39.5% of youth could do a simple (Std III/IV level) division problem. In 2023, this proportion is slightly higher at 43.3%. Needless to say, there are differences across grades and by enrolment status – more youth in higher grades can do these tasks and similarly learning levels of youth who are enrolled in school/college are much higher than among those who are not enrolled. For instance, 78.1% youth who were enrolled in school/college could read at Std II level as compared to 43.2% of those who were not enrolled in school. Similarly, 47.5% of enrolled youth could do division as compared 14.7% of those who were not currently enrolled. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that a sizeable proportion of our youth do not have basic reading and numeracy skills.”

The inequalities are starker between boys and girls. Another article on the ASER website by Suman Bhattacharjea outlines how the survey included “self-reported questions on ownership and use of smartphones, as well as actual tasks that sampled youth were asked to do using a smartphone. There were five such tasks in all. Among these, one asked the youth to use Google Maps to figure out how long it would take to get from their current location to the district bus stand on a two- or four-wheeler. Among all the youth who were given the digital tasks, fewer than 4 of every 10 were able to answer this one correctly (37%). Moreover, this statistic hides enormous gender differences. Almost half of the males who were asked this question could use the app to figure out how long it would take to get to the district bus stand (49%). Only half that proportion – 25% of girls and young women – could do so.”

Bhattacharjea says the findings “reflect a conundrum.” On the one hand, “these data show that more females in this age group aspire to continue to higher levels of education than their male counterparts.” Nonetheless, it “does not imply they are gaining the knowledge, skills, or confidence needed to successfully negotiate their lives as adults” because “on every single one of the 17 assessment tasks spanning applied arithmetic, applied reading, financial calculations, and digital tasks, far more females failed to attempt the task than males [and] by far the highest no-response rate was for the Google Maps task (which was given only to youth who could bring a smartphone for the assessment): fully 55% of the females to whom it was administered refused to even attempt the task, as compared to 32% of the males. They did not even try to figure it out.”

ASER’s findings are highly relevant in Goa, which the RBI ranks the worst in the country in rural employment. Although literacy and education are comparatively high, unemployment is even higher, over double the national rate. Part of the problem is most current job opportunities are ruthlessly exploitative – thus filled by desperate migrants - but it’s also true many ostensibly well-educated job-seekers in India’s smallest State are underprepared for the 21st century economy. “A malaise seems to be fostered by our tedious education practices,” says Sujata Noronha of the excellent Panjim-based Bookworm Goa, which runs 19 community library programmes, as well as three wonderful public library spaces, and works with 96 primary schools across the State as well as organising invaluable public engagement activities and professional development trainings in many other parts of India. 

Noronha told me that “we too struggle at Bookworm to find graduates with adequate literacy, ambition and aspiration despite good qualifications. We are not exciting children about learning itself, and just distracting a school year away with empty events and a sense of busy-ness.” She said “our facilities, infrastructure and teacher attendance is very good in primary government schools, and basic literacy is also healthier in Goa than other States. We are primed to nurture good scholars, but something flattens out in middle school, and our students are uninspired to reach for higher goals. I wonder if we can honestly look at our schools and colleges and ask if we are doing our best to nurture our young people. We fall short. We forget they have minds, hearts, and capacities to think, and that we need to enable them to determine their future rather than deaden them.”

(Vivek Menezes is a writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival)


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