While India has made significant progress in raising enrollment rates for primary education schools have been less successful at preventing dropouts during this critical learning phase.
According to data put out by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), the national dropout rate at the primary level was 4.34 per cent in 2014-15, and it was even higher at the secondary level, at 17.86 per cent.
There are many reasons why a child might drop out from school, which range from migration of families and child marriage, to lack of school infrastructure such as drinking water and toilets.
“Poverty, availability, and accessibility are three big reasons why children drop out of school,” says Soha Moitra of of Child Rights and You (CRY). “When a family is not financially secure, prioritising a child’s education takes a backseat. Post-Class V, distance to school also tends to increase, and parents deem it unsafe for a child, especially girls, to travel far. You see this validated in dropout rates as well, which rise sharply after Class V.”
Another reason why drop-rates rise after Class V is that this is the stage when a child reaches the age – 10-11 years – when it is considered suitable for induction into child labour. The role of the teacher, too, is critical, as drop-outs often speak of teachers beating them, and complain that teachers waste class time in chit-chat with other teachers.
And yet, as Mr. Krishna Kumar, former director, National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), points out, “There is no such thing as a national picture when it comes to school dropouts. If you create a national picture by mathematical aggregation, that picture is meaningless since regional variations are far too big.”
Indeed, while Karnataka has a dropout rate of 2.3 per cent, which is below the national average, Rajasthan’s, at 8.39 per cent, is double the national rate, and Manipur’s is four times, at 18 per cent.
The variations are sharper if the data is disaggregated to district level. For example, if we take Andhra Pradesh, as per Educational Statistics 2013-14 data, the state as a whole had a secondary school dropout rate of 26.83 per cent. But the Maoist insurgency-affected district of Kurnool had an extremely high dropout rate of 45.02 per cent. But neither of these numbers would mean much for the tribal children in Nellore district, where the dropout rate for STs was a mind-boggling 77.07 per cent, as opposed to a general dropout rate for this district of 29.40 per cent.
Similarly, if we take Telangana, the primary level dropout rate for girls in Hyderabad district for 2013-14 was 7.95 per cent. While it looks healthy compared to the state average of 22.32 per cent, it forms a startling contrast to the drop out rate for ST girls in Mahbubnagar district, which is 57.18 per cent.
Such sharp variations between states and even within states suggest that local, social and cultural factors play a major role in school retention and, therefore, any intervention to reduce dropouts need to be rooted in local contexts.
Nonetheless, it is possible to identify a few generic approaches. “We should respond quickly to early indicators of a potential dropout, such as absenteeism, by counselling the student and parent,” says Mr Partha Pratim Rudra of Smile Foundation, which runs informal learning centres that aim to get dropouts back into school.
He adds, “Ensuring social inclusiveness, especially with regard to girls and SC/ST children, sensitising teachers, and convincing parents of first generation students of the value of education always makes a big difference.”
According to a recent report in The Telegraph , the MHRD has already initiated a new system of tracking drop-out rates by students’ Aadhar IDs, so that early intervention can be made to bring the child back to school. The data will be maintained by the National University for Education Planning and Administration (NUEPA).
This is the first in The Hindu’s seven-part series on the crisis in India's primary education.