There is no denying that India has made considerable improvement in education enrolment in recent years, almost reaching the goal of universal access to schooling. But learning outcomes continue to be poor. According to the ASER (Rural) report 2018, only 50.3% of Class V children can read a Class II level text. This shows a high degree of what the World Bank defines as learning poverty – being unable to read and understand a simple age-appropriate text by age 10.
If a child cannot read age-appropriate text his or her learning curve is likely to plateau, as he or she will be unable to move on from identifying words to grasping subject concepts. Put another way, all later schooling becomes a waste. And it is generally agreed that the inflection point is Class III. Countries which have prioritised and invested in foundational learning have produced a better quality of workforce, enabling their economies to take off. Both South Korea and China did this in the 1970s, and the impact on their economies was tremendous.
Therefore, India would do well to shift the focus onto foundational learning. And getting age-appropriate reading right by Class III is a simple, quantifiable metric that can be implemented across the education landscape. As government rolls out a new National Education Policy, it would do well to code in foundational learning and oral reading fluency. Like Swachh Bharat, the government must accord the highest priority to this goal.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.