Expanding Secondary Education in India

By Stewart, Vivien | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Expanding Secondary Education in India


Stewart, Vivien, Phi Delta Kappan


Contrast the graduates of India's famous International Institutes of Technology and International Institutes of Management, who lead global companies, with the children in the Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire, who lack education, and you have the two faces of education in India today. India has always valued education and has some outstanding schools, but the base of the education pyramid has historically been extremely narrow. Today, however, both the business community and the government recognize that expanding secondary education is critical to participation in the global knowledge economy.

The education system in India follows the 8+2+2+3 pattern, that is, eight years of primary education followed by two years of lower secondary schooling, two years of upper secondary schooling, and three years of university education. However, until recently only a small proportion of children attended elementary schools. Over the last decade, there has been a big increase in the enrollment and graduation rates of primary school children, partly as a result of such large government efforts as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the "Education for All Movement." Nevertheless, only 40% of children are enrolled in secondary schools, a far lower proportion than in East Asia or Latin America, for example. Last year, the Indian government announced a major new effort to expand secondary education with massive new financing from both the government and World Bank, with the goal of having 65% of students enrolled in secondary school by 2012 and universal access to secondary education by 2017. The reforms also aim to achieve world-class standards in science, math, and technology and to build an educational environment that fosters innovation.

In embarking on this ambitious plan, India faces enormous challenges. How equitable are opportunities for secondary education? What are students learning and how well are they learning it? Is the system equipped to deal with expansion? Is it well managed and held accountable for the quality of educational outcomes? While India has distinctive problems, it has challenges common to all countries that want most of their students to graduate from high school while also wanting to produce the skills needed for a global innovation society.

Expanding Access and Equity

Access to secondary education in India continues to be inequitable across income and social groups, gender, and states, which bear the main responsibility for secondary education. The income inequality in access to secondary education is greatest in the states of Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, and it is the lowest in Kerala and West Bengal. With regard to gender, girls are only half as likely to enroll in secondary school as boys in states such as Bihar and Rajasthan. But some states, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have gender parity or even slightly pro-female secondary enrollment rates.

India is implementing many strategies in response to the strong concern about unequal access, especially with regard to the rural poor, certain castes, and other minority groups. In expanding access and graduation rates from secondary school, India can also look to the experiences of other countries, such as South Korea, which over 30 years has achieved the highest secondary school graduation rate in the world through a combination of government action, private investment by parents, and the pull from a growing economy. Or China, which expects 80% of its students to have access to 12 years of education by 2010 through such strategies as satellite-based distance education, fee waivers, and boarding schools in rural areas. The United States experience shows that universal access to school does not guarantee universal graduation, and U.S. efforts to combat dropouts through strengthening preparation before secondary school, providing educational supports to students and families, and making schools more relevant and engaging, are similar to approaches being tried in India. …

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