Will RTE address rising dropout rate?

NEW DELHI: Amid all the celebrations over the Right to Education (RTE) coming into effect from April 1, there is an elephant in the room that nobody is talking about. It's called dropout rate. The spotlight till now has been on expanding the infrastructure, appointing teachers, ensuring that schools are at walkable distances, and so on. All this is undoubtedly needed. But the biggest problem facing the schooling system is that over 50% of children who join up in Class I drop out by Class VIII. It is not about children who never attended school those are a
separate and fast diminishing category.

Total enrolment in primary classes (Class I to V) was 134.4 million in 2008-09, the latest year for which complete data is made available in the District Information System for Education (DISE) flash statistics, collected by the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA). In Classes VI to VIII, the total enrolment had dramatically dropped to 53.4 million.

In fact, earlier data from 2006-07 containing class-wise enrolment shows that with each successive class, students quit in large numbers. By Class V, every third kid has dropped out and by Class VIII every second student is no longer attending school. The Right to Education Act covers children in the 6 to 14 years age group precisely for these classes in school. So, the dropouts need to be the biggest focus of the implementation mechanism being set up.

There is no definitive number of dropouts in the government records. Last year, the joint review mission (JRM) of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the government's flagship programme for universalization of elementary education, questioned the veracity of the government's estimate of 2.8 million out-of-school children in its report. It revealed that small independent studies in Orissa and Varanasi had shown that actual number of out-of-school children were six to eight times the government's estimates from the same households.

Out-of-school children include both, those who drop out and those who never attended. According to the JRM report, nearly 2.7 million children drop out of school every year. Thus, the number of out-of-school children, in violation of the law for compulsory education, would be many times this number. Calculation based on net enrolment ratios reported by JRM reveals a much more dire picture. The net enrolment ratio for Classes VI to VIII was reported by the JRM as 54%, that is, just 54% of all children in the age group 11-14 years were actually enrolled.

This means that approximately 44 million children in this age group do not go to school. For Classes I to V, net enrolment ratio of 97% was reported, leaving out nearly 4 million children. To address the huge problem of dropouts, policy makers need to look at the factors that lead children to leave school at various stages. Surveys by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO), which asked boys and girls why they dropped out from school, got some jaw-dropping answers.

About 42% of girls said that they were told by their parents to look after the housework and 14% said that their elders thought that more education was unnecessary for them. In the case of boys, these two reasons were minor, given by only 11% of them. Their main reason for dropping out, given by 68%, was to supplement the family income. Clearly, if the Right to Education is not to remain merely a paper exercise, policy makers need to delve deep into the broader social and political architecture of our society at the grassroots.

3 April, 2010