It’s not enough to just make sure that children go to school. What they learn there is equally important.

Thanks to the unfortunate and virtually relentless reports of sexual violence against women in different parts of the country, the question of women’s safety has found a place in pre-election debates. Every sexist or gender-insensitive remark made by a politician is noted and the individual is asked to explain what he meant. Several politicians, including those from the Aam Aadmi Party, have been literally hauled over the coals for such remarks, and rightly so. Mainstream parties have been alerted and are being more careful.

Similarly, the issue of bodies like Haryana’s khap panchayats that have arrogated to themselves the right to pass judgment on all manner of things including who can and cannot get married, has come up for discussion. Political parties are now being asked to state explicitly their stand on such bodies. Is it really possible to “engage” with them? Can they, should they, be banned? How do we disempower them and ensure that the rule of law, as laid down in the Constitution, prevails?

Yet a much more pervasive and in some way more insidious way of keeping women back does not get addressed. No one asks the questions. And political parties feel no need to say anything about this. It is taken for granted that everyone is concerned, much like the issue of poverty; apparently so concerned that attention to the issue slips under the radar.

This is the issue of education, not just access to education, but more importantly the quality of education that our children are getting.

Every year since 2005, the Pratham Education Foundation has been conducting a survey. Covering 550 rural districts, the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) reminds us yet again of the grim statistics of learning outcomes, based on assessing the ability of students to read, write and do simple arithmetic.

Between 2005 and 2013, although the enrolment of children in school has jumped from 93 per cent to 97 per cent, the quality of education has actually declined. For instance, a higher percentage of students today in Std. V are unable to read a textbook assigned to Std. II as compared to the figures from 2005. Similarly, more students of Std. VIII were unable to do simple division this time round compared to students of the same class in 2005.

How and why has this happened?

Internationally too India figures in the list of countries where there has been a perceptible drop in the quality of education. The 11th EFA (Education For All) Global Monitoring Report brought out recently by Unesco reveals that one third of all primary school age children do not learn the basics even if they go to school. The report points out that the goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015 is a long way off if the quality of what is taught is so poor.

Apart from those who are in schools, and yet learning very little, over half of all children out of school are girls. The problem with low quality education is that it compels parents, who believe education could pull them out of poverty, to send their children to private schools. They automatically equate such schools with a better quality of education. In India, the percentage of children enrolled in private schools is steadily increasing, even in the poorer states.

If forced to make a choice between a boy and a girl, most poor parents would spend their limited income on giving the boy a better quality education. Thus the long-term impact of poor quality education will inevitably lead to a larger percentage of girls either being pulled out of school, or being left to attend schools where they learn little.

All this then feeds into the vicious cycles of girls being given no option but to work in low-end jobs, get married young and become mothers before their time.

So, when so many questions are being asked of all political parties in this election, this is one that should be asked. Apart from access to education, what are they going to do about quality? For all its talk about education, and the allocation of additional resources, according to ASER, the quality of education has actually declined in the last decade. That does not speak very well of the current government.

Education is a vast and important subject, one that cannot be addressed adequately in this space. But the ASER report, with its devastating data, is a reminder of an issue that has to be brought to the forefront of debate during this season of talking heads. What could be worse than raising the hopes of a child and her parents with the promise of education and all it carries with it, only to have it dashed to the ground because the child comes out having learnt nothing that can carry her through to a better life?

E-mail: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com