Maximising India’s demographic dividend through foundational literacy & numeracy - Hindustan Times
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Maximising India’s demographic dividend through foundational literacy and numeracy

ByHindustan Times
Nov 07, 2023 10:39 AM IST

This article is authored by Aditya Sinha, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM) and Sparsh, Central Square Foundation, New Delhi.

The demographic dividend, often hailed as an opportunity for economic growth, can quickly morph into a demographic curse if a population lacks the requisite education and skills. The danger lies in the precipice between the potential for innovation, economic growth, and social change and the harsh reality of under-utilised human capital. This may result in social unrest, poverty, and economic stagnation. The fulcrum of this delicate balance is quality education. The starting point for education is early childhood education. Quality and appropriate education at the foundational level prepares children for better comprehension of academic subjects later in life and assists in acquiring the necessary wisdom and skills to deal with challenges. On the contrary, if this crucial stage of development is overlooked, it threatens to transform the demographic blessing into a curse, leaving a massive generation ill-equipped to contribute meaningfully to society.

Learning is a result of changes in the pattern of neural connectivity in the brain.
Learning is a result of changes in the pattern of neural connectivity in the brain.

A peer-reviewed study published in the journal Development Psychology, authored by Duncan et al. found that a child's early math and reading abilities, even before they join school, are directly linked to better learning outcomes in the future. Numeracy skills in the early years can predict future academic success. They help grasp complex math and enhance problem-solving abilities, supporting cognitive development like memory and information processing. Given that 90% of a child’s brain development occurs between the ages of three to eight, the foundational stage of education becomes extremely critical.

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Even beyond academics, children with solid foundational skills tend to exhibit positive socio-emotional growth, better self-regulation, social skills, emotional health, and so on.

Putting children on the optimum trajectory of learning right from the foundational stage has tremendous economic benefits. The State of Foundational Literacy and Numeracy in India Report highlights the economic importance of early childhood education, stating, ‘early education is crucial and important as it paves the way for future income, given that the elementary stage (three to 10 years) is an exceptionally rapid period of growth and development for a child. The aforementioned report makes a strong case for investing early in human capital and quantifies that investment in each child in FLN will lead to a gain in overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) between four and 12 trillion dollars towards India’s GDP over the next 20 years, stating that an investment of 15,696 per child in FLN can lead to a benefit of 5,98,537 per capita over a period of 20 years. However, it also warns that ‘if this is not achieved, the evaluated gain will not materialise and will be lost’.

An analysis of The Impact of Early Childhood Education published in BW further breaks down the economics of foundational education and its long-term impact on the economy. It suggests that an investment in adolescent development through one year of elementary education will increase the income potential of the individual by 7.02%, that is, 7,696. These analyses give us an idea of the potential impact of investing in FLN in terms of economic benefits to an individual. Therefore, it becomes imperative to invest in the early childhood education of children to develop high-quality human capital and maximise India’s demographic dividend.

Unfortunately, several studies and surveys have suggested that the state of FLN has not been up to par in India. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated this problem. For instance, the National Achievement Survey (NAS) by the ministry of education and NCERT found that between 2017 and 2021, average language scores for 5th graders on the national assessment declined from 319 to 309 and average math scores from 310 to 284. The Annual Status of Education Report by Pratham, too, points out that 70–75% of Grade 3 children in India do not have FLN skills.

Recognising its importance and the reality that ‘five crore children in India may not have the requisite FLN skills’, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 advocates for the highest priority of the education system to be accorded to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school by 2025. Consequently, the Government of India launched the National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy (NIPUN Bharat) Mission in July 2021 to achieve proficiency in FLN skills amongst all children by the end of Grade 3 by 2026–27. The mission was launched under the flagship Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, with an outlay of 13,000 crore. Official data from State Project Approval Boards shows that the government has allocated 1,873 crores towards the NIPUN Bharat Mission in 2021–22 and 2,359 crores for NIPUN Bharat in 2022–23.

The NIPUN Mission is already powering significant changes in the school education system in India. With several innovations such as school readiness (Vidya Pravesh), play-based learning, and a focus on the competencies of children rather than rote memorization, the NIPUN Bharat Mission is acting as a catalyst to bolster the skills of children studying in India’s schools. By focusing on aspects such as classroom instruction, teaching-learning materials, structured pedagogy of teaching, defining learning outcomes and competencies, focusing on capacity building of teachers, and involving the parents and community, it is transforming the quality of education imparted to the child within the classroom while simultaneously equipping them with the necessary skills to become holistic, productive, and lifelong learners.

The Union Government has indeed been proactively investing and championing FLN, and the state governments, particularly those underperforming on the FLN Survey, NAS, and ASER, should follow suit. According to the seventh schedule of the constitution, education is on the concurrent list, meaning that while both union and state governments have the power to create laws relating to education, the execution of centrally driven educational initiatives primarily rests with the state governments.

The varied degree of implementation and an absence of uniformity within the state education boards, especially in the foundational stage, have been examined as causes of disparities in learning outcomes across different states. The NAS (2021) presents a concerning picture of this disparity. It was observed that the performance in mathematics for third-grade students in several states, including Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, was significantly below the national average.

Similarly, NCERT conducted a foundational learning study in 2022. Most of the students in Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu were either not able to meet global minimal proficiency in numeracy or were able to meet global minimum proficiency.

The states must ensure that the last-mile implementation of NIPUN Bharat is prioritised and done in an effective manner through abundant budgets, policy support, teacher training, and assessment. Several states, such as Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, and Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, are already pioneering FLN through their flagship missions: NIPUN UP, Tholimettu Mission, NIPUN Bihar, and Mission Ankur, respectively. Other states, too, can take cues from the various initiatives being driven as part of these missions.

Encouragingly, FLM was also the centre-piece of the recent G20 Education Working Group Meeting in June 2023. NIPUN Bharat was showcased as India’s national mission to transform the quality of schooling and FLN. Quoting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address during the G20 meeting, ‘the NIPUN Bharat Mission is a crucial step towards universal acquisition of foundational literacy and numeracy in India by 2030 and is India’s effort to deliver quality education with better governance.’

Countries across the world identified various critical areas of intervention, such as capacity building of teachers, materials to enhance the conceptual learning of students, creating robust evaluation mechanisms, fostering active involvement of parents and the community, etc. What should most importantly serve as encouragement for Indian states to prioritise FLN is that foundational literacy and numeracy have been identified as a critical priority in education and the primary building blocks for education and employment in the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, thereby etching them as a truly global priority.

The practices under NIPUN Bharat are aligned with these interventions, and India’s commitment to FLN exemplifies its will to create a robust groundwork of education for our children.

India is set to have the largest workforce in the world by 2047, and nearly 25% of the global workforce is estimated to be Indian by then. To fulfil our aspiration of becoming a $20 trillion economy at 100, this workforce will need to consist of highly learned, skilled, and diverse individuals across a multitude of fields. The Centre has already defined a clear roadmap and allocated budgets for foundational learning while also providing mentorship. The states must utilise these to focus on learning outcomes, goals, strategic work streams, implementation, and robust monitoring through state-driven missions and initiatives.

Focusing on FLN can play a crucial role in setting this trajectory early, and the NIPUN Bharat Mission is pivotal for providing our children with the best possible environment to learn, grow, and succeed because, through them, India can transform into a hub of innovation and prosperity. Also, a critical part of the New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration from the recently-concluded G20 summit, India’s emphasis on FLN is a testament to the will to empower our students to contribute to the development of the nation, but it is imperative that the Centre and states are aligned and work in tandem for a brighter and more prosperous future for India and her children.

This article is authored by Aditya Sinha, officer on special duty, research, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM) and Sparsh, project manager, policy and communications, Central Square Foundation, New Delhi.

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