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How can we remedy India’s learning deficit?

Anamika Majumder

HOW CAN WE REMEDY INDIA’S
LEARNING DEFICIT?
Isn’t Demographic Dividend A Far Fetched Dream?

Anamika Majumder

anamikam@onebillionliterates.org

Reviewed by Ruby Kamdin, Manosh Sengupta and Shruti George

One Billion Literates Foundation, Bangalore, India
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How can we remedy India’s learning deficit?

Anamika Majumder

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
With a state run primary school in almost every remote corner of the country, distance is no
longer an impediment to achieving the millennium development goal of universal literacy in
India. However, the annual ASER studyi done by NGO Pratham tells us that although at least
96% of children in the age group of 6-14 are in schools, and the infrastructure of the schools
has somewhat improved since the studies began a decade ago, there is a massive learning
deficit in this age group, a matter that needs urgent attention as our primary education system is
plagued with serious issuesii.
The very prescriptive style of teaching that doesn’t encourage out of the box thinking in the
mass schooling system and teachers who aren’t motivated, lead to poor learning. This in turn
causes a huge number of drop outs among children who are in the age group 15-17. In a
country with a billion plus population, only 16% of the workforce earns regular wages. A visit to
any metro city clearly shows that the majority of the population is under employediii and is
struggling to make ends meet. India is a young country with over half a billion people under the
age of 25iv, and in the next few decades will have the majority of population in the age group of
15-64. A country’s economy grows as more people join the workforce, and it is assumed that
because of India’s unique demographics, the country’s economy will growv immensely in the
coming decades.
However, in order for the country to reap the benefits of her unique demographics, two things
need to happen urgently. Firstly, a massive skilling exercisevi would be needed, so that the
citizens can find employment and secondly we must encourage women who are mainly home
makers and child minders to join the workforcevii, so that they become financially independent
and can stand up for themselves when needed in a country where antiquated social problems
are still rampantviii. And these two tasks will be even more daunting when the ability of the
masses to comprehend basic information and leverage the tools that are out there is so
abysmally poor.
This study talks about a pilot experiment being done by a nascent Bangalore based non-profit
organization named One Billion Literates Foundation that has the potential to address the
learning deficit and improve comprehension in the mass schooling system at the primary school
level. The Foundation works as a partner to the State Government and uses the existing
infrastructure of government schools. The mission is to improve basic English and computer
skills using non prescriptive teaching methodologies and technologies that are not seen in these
schools. The Foundation engages rural women from the communities around the schools to
teach the children in the adopted schools. The women or Coordinators are constantly monitored
and trained by dedicated volunteers. Assessments done twice a year have proved that the
model has not only succeeded in helping children comprehend what is in their English textbooks
and exposed them to the latest and greatest technologies, but has also given the Coordinators

One Billion Literates Foundation, Bangalore, India
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How can we remedy India’s learning deficit?

Anamika Majumder

the confidence to step outside their comfort zones and gain some degree of intellectual and
financial independence.

THE PROBLEM: QUANTITY YES, QUALITY NO
The population of India has grown more than three times in the almost seven decades since
Independence. Out of the 350 million people who lived in India in 1947, only about 42 million
were literate (age 15 and over and can read and write). As per reports published after the last
census (2011) the number of literates grew from 660 million in 2001 to 890 million in 2011ix.
Yes, we have made great progress and are slowly yet steadily moving towards our goal of
achieving universal literacy. However, the number of illiterate adults hasn’t changed in the 70
yearsx since the country attained Independence and we are being warned year on year about
the poor learning outcomes in our schools. It is about time, we took a closer look at the
education scenario in the country.
Out of the 1.21 B people living in the soon to be the most populous country, there are about 200
million children in the age group 6-14 who should be in schools. Due to the passing of the Right
to Education Act in 2009 which has made it compulsory for children under 14 to get a free
education, today 96% of the children are enrolled in schools. A surveyxi carried out by the
National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) tells us that 61% of the children
attend state run/government schools. To measure learning in these schools, the NCAER
administers tests developed by the NGO Pratham and publishes the Annual State of Education
Report (ASER).
The ASER is a process that assesses basic reading and math skills of children in the age group
of 5-16 in the middle of the school year. These surveys which started in 2005 and have been
carried out in 570 rural districts in India every year since then, show more children enrolled in
schools, better infrastructure, and a shift towards private school enrollment despite the high cost
of education in private schools. However, they have also been reporting year on year a huge
deficit in learning throughout the country. The surveys are conducted in every rural district of
India with the help of volunteers from local organizations and reaches out to about 600,000
children every year.
The ASER reading assessment is done orally, one on one with children, in a language they are
most comfortable. The children are asked to read letters, common words, a few lines to small
paragraphs at Grade I and Grade II level difficulty. The Math assessment measures one and
two digit number recognition and the ability to perform basic operations like subtraction and
division. The ASER found out that in 2013, only 32% of Grade III children attending government
schools could read Grade I level text, 41.1% children in Grade V could read Grade II level text,
18.9% of Grade III students in government schools were able to do basic subtraction and 25.6%

One Billion Literates Foundation, Bangalore, India
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How can we remedy India’s learning deficit?

Anamika Majumder

of all the Grade V children assessed were able to solve a 3-digit by 1-digit division problem. The
report’s findings clearly show a decline in learning levels especially in government schools in
most states in the last few years. This huge crisis in learning is ultimately going to threaten the
economy and the future of millionsxii. We need to take a look at the country’s demographics to
understand the gravity of the issue.
It is estimatedxiii that in 2020 India will be the youngest country with an average age of 29 years
and 64% of the our population will be in the age group of 15-64 and are expected to contribute
to the economy. Also unlike most countries in the west, only 13% of the population will be 60 or
older, or there will be very few dependents. At a time when new technologies are being
showcased every day, and information is available at our finger tips and no longer needs to be
‘memorized’, it is not enough to have a huge number of people who are young and energetic. In
today’s globalized world, where a vast source of information is available in Englishxiv it is
imperative to equip people from across the socio-economic strata with English comprehension
skills so that they can leverage new technologies and better their lives and also communicate
across different cultures both within and outside India.
India’s IT growth in the recent decades can be attributed to English proficiency of the
population, however that is a very a small number and the penetration of the language at the
grass root level is too slowxv. In a country that speaks more than a 100 languagesxvi, better
English comprehension can help bridge the gap between the privileged and not so privileged as
that will give them the ability to leverage the various technologies and information that is out
there to improve their lives.

SO WHAT HAVE WE ACHIEVED SO FAR?
Despite a growing trend among parents across all sections of the economic strata (even in rural
India) to send their children to private schools, only about 30% of children in the age group of 614 attend private schools which means a huge absolute number of children in this group are in
the mass schooling system. Before we come up with a solution for the poor learning outcomes
in our schools, we need to first understand the reasons causing that and the steps that have
been taken so far to mitigate this issue. The Government of India has started programs like the
Sarva Shikhsa Abhiyaan that has made access to schools much easier, introduced free mid-day
meals in schools, schools for girls and most importantly has passed the Right To Education Act
that guarantees free and compulsory education to every child.
Although these are steps in the right direction and are helping in achieving the Millennium
Development Goal of ‘Universal Primary Education’, our primary education system is plagued
with serious issues like teacher absenteeism, poor student teacher ratios, text books beyond the
children’s comprehension, schools with extremely poor infrastructure, pressure on teachers to

One Billion Literates Foundation, Bangalore, India
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How can we remedy India’s learning deficit?

Anamika Majumder

complete the syllabus which tends to leave many children behind as most classrooms have
multi-grade children and most importantly, a style of teaching in which the teachers aren’t
motivated and the learners are not engagedxvii.
The ASER that came out in January 2015 clearly tells us that increase in the country’s
education budget and better resources can lead to increased school enrolment but does not
guarantee better learning at the primary school level. A reportxviii published by the E&Y
estimates that by the end of the next decade the working age population of our country will be
around 870 million and will comprise of 28% of the total number of working people of the world.
With a very small number of senior citizens or dependents and an average age of 29 at a time
when the average age in China and the United States will be 37, India will have a unique
opportunity to make significant improvements to its economy. But do we have enough skilled
people?
As Dr. Madhav Chavan the Founder of Pratham says in the latest ASER – “Perhaps 50% of
India going to private schools will provide enough human capital for the economic engine.
Where is the urgency to get the rest better educated to meet the challenges of the future?”

THE OBLF SOLUTION
Although the recent ASER reports show an increase in enrolment in private schools in rural
areas over the years, 61% of the children still attend the mass schooling system where learning
levels are dangerously poor and the need of the hour is to immediately come up with a solution
that can be easily replicated anywhere in the country. One Billion Literates Foundation (OBLF),
a Bangalore based nonprofit organization was founded in Jul 2010. OBLF is doing a pilot project
in Anekal Taluk (District Sub-division) in Bangalore, in which the organization is working as a
partner to the state by adopting state run higher (Grades 1-7) and lower (Grades 1-5) primary
schools.
The mission of this organization is to instill the joy of learning and build basic English and
computer skillsxix by adopting non prescriptive teaching methods. The foundation has signed an
agreement with the Block Education Officer of Anekal Bangalore to run its School Adoption
Program in government schools within the block. The School Adoption Program is free and is
open to every child attending the adopted school and is offered within the school campuses and
outside of school hours in most schools. At the beginning of an academic year the children in
all the schools who sign up for the Program undergo a baseline assessment (both oral and
written) and are divided into three levels/groups solely based on the performance in the exam
and not according to grade or age. The three levels are junior (children who have no knowledge
of English), mid-level (children who can read short sentence) and senior (children who can
comprehend basic English well).

One Billion Literates Foundation, Bangalore, India
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How can we remedy India’s learning deficit?

Anamika Majumder

OBLF believes in learning by doing and has designed child friendly syllabi that include games,
rhymes, songs, role-playing, story-telling, activity cards, basic computer knowledge etc. Every
child who is in the program gets a copy of the syllabus for the level s/he is in. The foundation
reinforces the basic language comprehension skills by bringing resources like libraries, tablets
and laptops that are usually not seen in government schools in the country and conducts regular
sessions that allow group activities so that learning is not a teacher directed one way process.
The assessments that comprise of both written and oral tests are conducted again at the end of
an academic year. A comparison of the results of the year end assessments with that of the
baseline assessments have shown that over 56% of the children have shown an improvement
in their English knowledge skills. OBLF also assesses a smaller group of children who attend
the schools the Foundation has adopted, but do not attend OBLF’s School adoption program.
While over 50% of OBLF children scored between 50-90% marks, 100% of the children in the
control group have secured less than 30% marks in the assessments. Some of the children in
the program have transitioned successfully from Kannada medium primary schools to English
medium secondary schools.
The teachers who are called Coordinators, are women, who live in communities around the rural
schools and most of whom haven’t had a chance to complete their formal education and have
never been employed. The Coordinators receive weekly in-house training, and are constantly
mentored by volunteers. They are also sent to various Corporates and academic institutes for
training. Since the employment is for not more than a couple of hours every day, we provide
these women with financial and intellectual independence without disturbing the rural ethos,
where a woman is still the only homemaker.
This model, if replicated elsewhere, has the potential of creating a countrywide impact because
there are government schools in every corner of the country and the vast majority of the children
still attend these schools. An improvement in learning levels and the exposure to technologies
that are usually seen only in private schools will not only reduce dropping out later on in life but
also help find meaningful employment when they reach adulthood. Employing women from the
communities not only makes them less dependent on their families but also helps to build trust
of the communities. Financially and intellectually independent women also help to build a better
society by nurturing confident and independent children. Also, improving English
comprehension will not only allow people to access all the information that is out there but also
help find meaningful employment anywhere in a country as diverse as ours.

CONCLUSIONS AND CALL TO ACTION
Teachers can play a very crucial role in a country where out of a total of 198 million children
enrolled in elementary schools, 121 million children attend government run schools. The teacher

One Billion Literates Foundation, Bangalore, India
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How can we remedy India’s learning deficit?

Anamika Majumder

education program in our country needs a complete overhaul and like countries in the West
every person aspiring to be a government school teacher should not only undergo the program,
but also have a degree in Education and must have supervised teaching experience. In addition
to this, teachers must be constantly assessed and given incentives based on their performance
that will keep them motivated and engaged. The process of teaching must not be directed by
the teachers and the textbooks need to be re-designed and made friendlier.
Although the majority of primary school children in our country are currently in school, a
substantial number of 15 to 16 year olds tend to drop out due to various reasons one of which is
extremely poor learning outcome at the elementary school level. It is imperative at this juncture
to instill the joy of learning and constantly motivate and nurture the strengths of every child and
steer away from the relentless focus on securing high exam scores.
A country’s GDP grows (and hence the economy improves) when more people work. In the
recent decades the increase in the number of women getting paid jobs has contributed
significantly to growth across the various regionsxx. In a developing country like India plagued
with several social issues, it is a must to encourage more and more women to enter the formal
workforce. This will not only help improve the economy but also will give the much needed
financial independence to women which in turn will reduce social problems.
Although the economic liberalization of the early 1990s pulled millions out of poverty, a report
published by the Reserve Bank of India in 2013 tells us that there are still around 270 million
that live in abject povertyxxi. Studies tell us that only 16% of Indians get a regular wage and the
majority is still under employed and is with informal jobs, hence extremely poor. Resolving the
crisis in learning in our mass schooling system will help more people enter the formal
employment sector which in turn will break the cycle of learning deficits. It is about time we gave
some serious thought to the crisis in learning and not be complacent about the fact that we have
a young working age population.

ABOUT ONE BILLION LITERATES FOUNDATION
1. OBLF was founded in July 2010, by Anamika Majumder, a Software Engineer who had returned
from USA.
2. OBLF is a Registered Charitable Trust, with 80G exemption certificate.
3. OBLF’s goal is – Equality in Education (achieved through imparting basic English and Computer
skills to children in govt. schools).
4. OBLF’s present area of operation is in Rural Anekal (a Sub Division in Bangalore District). The
foundation also supports 4 urban schools in East Bangalore. OBLF adopts schools in rural areas
and supports schools in urban areas after signing agreements with Block Education Officers.
5. OBLF provides intellectual and financial independence to rural women, by identifying semieducated rural women from those same communities, and after training, employing them as

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How can we remedy India’s learning deficit?

6.
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Anamika Majumder

Coordinators, to teach English and basic Computer skills to the children of the adopted rural
schools.
Volunteers from the city visit these rural schools once a week to interact with the children, and
also mentor, guide and supervise the Coordinators. Each school is assigned one Volunteer
Libraries, Computer skills and other technologies like Tablets are brought to Rural women and
children.
In the 5 urban govt. primary schools that they support, volunteers impart basic English skills
OBLF has designed a multi-level syllabus for a fun way of learning.
OBLF uses a baseline assessment method which ignores the child’s age and grade but gauges
the child’s level of English knowledge, thus ensuring that each child gets a sound foundation by
learning at her/his own pace and no child is left behind.

Rukmini Banerjee who works with Pratham and heads the ASER effort, states in an article
published in the Indian Express of 22 January, 2015 – “These impact evaluations use
randomized control trial methodology and indicate that significant gains in learning outcomes
can be achieved by re-organizing and grouping children by their learning level rather than the
usual grouping by age or standard. This “teaching at the right level” model is straightforward and
effective.”
One Billion Literates Foundation has been doing just that.

SUGGESTED READING
1.

i

http://www.asercentre.org/Keywords/p/236.html

2.

ii

http://theviewspaper.net/condition-of-government-schools-in-india/

3.

iii

4.

iv

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/in.html

5.

v

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/18/india-jaitley-idUSL1N0Z424420150618

6.

vi

7.

vii

8.

viii

9.

ix

http://www.slideshare.net/samtron6/educational-development-in-india?next_slideshow=1

10.

x

http://www.thehindu.com/features/education/issues/india-tops-in-adult-illiteracy-un-report/article5629981.ece

11.

xi

12.

xii

http://www.oecd.org/g20/topics/employment-and-social-policy/OECD-Preventing-unemployment-and-underemploymentfrom-becoming-structural-G20.pdf

http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/budget/skilling-needs-more-financial-commitment/article6913509.ece

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/why-arent-indias-women-working.html?smid=fbnytopinion&smtyp=cur&_r=0
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-13139482

http://img.asercentre.org/docs/Publications/ASER%20Reports/ASER_2013/ASER2013_report%20sections/aser2013fullr
eportenglish.pdf
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/11/india-education-state-private-school

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Anamika Majumder

13.

xiii

14.

xiv

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/09/world/asia/09iht-englede.1.5198685.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

15.

xiv

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8365631.stm

16.

xvi

17.

xvi

18.

xviii

19.

xix

20.

xx

http://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/EY-Government-and-Public-Sector-Reaping-Indias-demographicdividend/$FILE/EY-Reaping-Indias-promised-demographic-dividend-industry-in-driving-seat.pdf

http://www.hindustantimes.com/books/780-languages-spoken-in-india-250-died-out-in-last-50-years/article11093758.aspx

http://www.cgdev.org/doc/full_text/CGDReports/3120290/schooling-is-not-education.html

http://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/EY-Government-and-Public-Sector-Reaping-Indias-demographicdividend/$FILE/EY-Reaping-Indias-promised-demographic-dividend-industry-in-driving-seat.pdf
http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/high_tech_telecoms_internet/indias_tech_opportunity_transforming_work_empowerin
g_people
http://www.economist.com/node/6802551

21. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-dobbs-/india-poverty-myths_b_5429858.html

One Billion Literates Foundation, Bangalore, India
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