Despite recent unprecedented economic growth, India continues to face an enormous challenge in fighting poverty. It has a per-person income of less than US$1,000 a year. About two-thirds of the population depends on rural employment to make a living. Educational opportunities and access have been uneven and affected by significant disparities. In 2002, when the program was launched, India accounted for 25 percent of out-of-school children worldwide.
In 2002, India unveiled its national flagship program, the Elementary Education Project (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan or SSA), financed by the International Development Association (IDA).
The SSA is the largest ongoing Education For All program in the world. It has sought to enroll all 6–14-year-olds in school and provide them with quality elementary education. It has also aimed to bridge gender and social gaps, avoid dropouts, and provide quality education until at least grade eight—a much tougher goal to be reached by 2015 than called for by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Primary school facilities were to be located within one kilometer of all habitations, including provision of alternative education programs and “bridge courses” for out-of-school children and dropouts. The program supported teacher recruitment and training, helped develop teaching materials, and monitored learning outcomes. Villages were to identify out-of-school children and get them enrolled, and organize to manage school resources and construct classrooms and school buildings. Direct grants to each district helped spur context-specific innovations.
As SSA brings more and more children into school, the program is increasingly focused on improving quality through a whole basket of interventions, including the provision of child- friendly schools and improved teaching and learning materials.
Since 2001, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has helped the government enroll nearly 20 million out-of-school children into elementary school. This includes girls, first-generation learners from long-deprived communities and minority communities, and children with special needs. With these efforts, India is clearly moving towards its target of ensuring that all children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling much before the international MDG target date of 2015.
- In 2002, before the SSA began, India accounted for 25 percent of the world’s out-of-school children. This number has now been reduced to less than 10 percent.
- Between 2003 and 2009, the number of out of school children declined from 25 million to 8.1 million (less than 5 percent of the age cohort 6-14), a remarkable achievement.
- Universal access is almost achieved. Across the country, 99 percent of households now have physical access to a primary school within one kilometer of home, and 93 percent to an upper primary school. Nationwide, 92 percent of schools are provided with drinking water facility.
- The number and share of children who complete primary grades in the appropriate age group (12-14 years) have been steadily rising. At the beginning of the millennium, only around 59 percent of children completed primary education. Now, 81 percent of children do so. If this trend continues, India will achieve universal primary completion well ahead of 2015.
- India is now very close to achieving gender parity in primary education. By 2009, 94 girls were enrolled for every 100 boys in primary school compared to 90 in the early 2000s. Moreover, the gap between girls and boys in terms of primary completion is narrowing. With this, the primary completion rate is expected to achieve gender parity by 2013.
- Real progress has been made on inclusion. Public school enrollment of children from long-deprived communities—Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes—now exceeds their shares in the general population. And, the gap in enrollment between the richest and poorest quintiles of population has reduced from 30 percentage points in 2002 to below 15 percentage points.
- Around 2.78 million children with special needs have been identified and are being covered with a variety of interventions like residential centers, home based education and integrating these into teacher training modules and programs.
- Transition rates between school levels have improved. In 2010, 83 percent of primary school graduates went on to upper-primary school, compared with 75 percent in 2002.
- To provide a more holistic education, a clear shift is taking place from a teacher-centered classroom to an active classroom that provides maximum opportunities for students to participate and learn through knowledge construction and activity based learning rather than on rote memorization.
- Early indications are that the focus on improving quality is bearing results. National learning achievement surveys conducted in 2008 show modest but consistent improvement in learning across all grades and all subjects as compared to the first round in 2004. This is an accomplishment given that international experience finds declines in average learning levels as large numbers of first-time learners entering school.
Mamta spent her early years grazing the family’s flocks of sheep and goats along Rajasthan desert wastes. Once she joined the the residential school opened under India's SSA program, Mamta proved to be a quick learner. Now, her father has a host of aspirations for his bright daughter.
The SSA is basically a government–led program that is supported by IDA and other donors. IDA is the single largest donor. IDA’s SSA I project (2004 to 2007) contributed US$500 million of the program’s total cost of US$3.5 billion. In May 2008, SSA II was approved with an IDA commitment to provide an additional US$600 million to the program, which has a total cost of approximately US$7.2 billion.
In March 2010, following the Government of India’s decision to extend SSA II for another two years, additional IDA funding of US$750 million was approved for 2010-12; this became effective in June 2010. In addition to financing, IDA experts have worked closely with the government to support the overall SSA program by bringing evidence from other countries and from rigorous global research of what works to improve educational quality and raise outcomes.
India’s SSA program is collectively supported by IDA, the European Commission (EC) and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) in a sector wide approach. In the program’s first phase, while India’s central and state governments contributed the lion’s share—about US$2.5 billion - the EC and DFID together contributed over US$500 million. In phase two, the Indian government invested more than US$6 billion, while the EC and DFID together contributed almost US$400 million.
Toward the Future
With SSA having made great strides in increasing access to primary education, the focus is now on bringing the remaining 8.1 million out-of-school children into school, boosting provision of upper-primary educational facilities, and improving learning outcomes. In addition, with the annual average drop-out rate at the primary level hovering at around 9% for the past few years, retaining first generation learners and children from deprived communities remains the last mile challenge. Going forward, with larger numbers of children completing their primary education, the number of secondary schools urgently needs to be expanded and along with an increase in quality.