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India: Extending Education to The Millions of Out-of-School Children

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Health India

Striving For Quality and Universal Elementary Education Through a Flagship Government Program


A flagship government education program in India, the largest of its kind in the world, has succeeded in bringing more than 17 million children to school who had previously been left outside the school system. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) program, backed by funds from the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA), boosted the enrolment of children from poor families, marginalized, and tribal groups, and those with special needs. Around 54 percent of the children enrolled between 2003 and 2011 were girls. Now, the focus is on boosting the quality of education, as well as ensuring access for all.


India, a country with over a billion people and a per capita income of less than US$1,000 has managed to reduce poverty from 46 percent in the mid-1980s to around 34 percent in 2004-05; this is still high and continuing this improving trend poses a huge challenge. Similarly, illiteracy has come down from 35 percent to 26 percent between 2001 and 2011. The ability for many to find work or gain an education has been hampered by physical, social, and economic barriers, marked by regional variations and socio-cultural biases. Policies on various aspects of education (for example, teacher recruitment and qualifications) vary across states, as does the availability, quality, and efficiency of investment in education. In 2002, India accounted for more than 25 percent of all out-of-school children worldwide. They belonged to disadvantaged or minority communities, migrant families, and the urban poor, or were working children, children with special needs, or children in difficult circumstances; a disproportionate number of them were girls. Given the diversity of such groups across India, each group faced challenges that needed to be addressed with special initiatives.


The World Bank (along with the U.K.’s Department for International Development or DFID, and the European Union) has been supporting the SSA program since 2004. The Bank provided two financing facilities together worth US$1.1 billion in 2004 and 2008, and a further US$750 million since 2010. The Bank’s support to SSA is through a Sector Wide Approach (SWAp), which seeks to address issues in a holistic manner through collective dialogues and a focus on sector-wide results. The effort aims to enhance the government’s own fiduciary system, build internal capacity, and sustainability, and strengthen government ownership. It also seeks to encourage donor harmonization by using country systems for financial management and procurement activities. Implementation is monitored through a bi-annual joint review mechanism involving all the development partners and independent evaluators nominated by the government. While the Bank and other development partners’ financial contributions are only a small slice of the program (less than 10 percent combined), they have added significant value by bringing in global experience, and by enhancing implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.


In order to ensure quality education of eight years at elementary level for all children in the 6-14 years age group, the SSA program focused broadly on (i) improving access to schools and facilities, (ii) providing more and better quality teachers and building their capacity; (iii) various facilities and incentives to students, including text books; (iv) revising curriculum, and text books, and strengthening academic support mechanisms; and (v) special programs targeted at girls, children from marginalized groups, children with special needs, and the improvement of quality and learning.

  1. SSA directly benefits around 130 million children currently enrolled in government schools, and partially helps another 17 million enrolled in government-aided private schools. The beneficiaries include 71 million girls, 27 million children from India’s disadvantaged groups, 15 million tribal children and 2.8 million children with special needs.
  2. The number of out-of-school children in the age group of 6-14 years has fallen from 32 million in 2001 to 8 million in 2009, and enrolments climbed from around 160 million in 2002 to 193 million in 2011.
  3. The proportion of girls in school improved from 44 percent in 2003 to 48 percent in 2011, a level that is equal to their proportion of the child population. Enrolment of children from marginalized groups increased from 18 percent in 2003 to 19 percent in 2011, and those from tribal communities edged up to 11 percent from 10 percent during the period. The enrolment of minority communities increased from nine percent of the child population to 13 percent. According to two independent evaluations, the share of out-of-school children among girls declined from 7.9 percent to 4.6 percent, and among marginalized groups, it declined from 8.1 percent to 5.9 percent. For tribal groups, it declined from 9.5 percent to 5.0 percent and among religious minorities, it declined from 10 percent to 7 percent).
  4. The number of children with special needs identified and enrolled in schools or provided with home-based education has increased from just 500,000 in 2002-03 to 2.9 million today.
  5. The average annual dropout rate at primary school, was over 15 percent in 2002-03 but this had fallen to 6.8 percent in 2010-11.
  6. The pupil-to-teacher ratio improved from 43:1 in 2004 to 31:1 in 2010-11 thanks to the appointment of 1.8 million teachers since 2002.
  7. Around 150,000 new primary schools and 93,000 upper primary schools were opened, 1.3 million additional classrooms were built, 210,000 schools were provided with drinking water facilities and 420,000 with toilet facilities since the beginning of the program in 2003.


I want to study science and become an engineer. 

——Mamata, Student

Bank Contribution

The Government of India and state governments together invest around US$5 billion in the SSA program every year, while development partners together fund less than five percent of the total cost. On average, around half the funds go to boost education quality, and 30-40 percent toward improving school infrastructure. The rest goes for various other initiatives, including access and retention, among others. Through IDA, the World Bank contributed US$500 million for SSA in 2004 and US$600 million in 2008, with an additional financing of US$750 million since 2010.


India’s SSA program is collectively supported by IDA, the European Commission (EC), and the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID). 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. In the additional financing phase, DFID contributed US$165 million. In addition, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is very active in some of India’s less-developed states, helping government education departments implement the Elementary Education Project at the state and district levels. IDA, DFID, the EC, as well as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UNICEF also collaborate to share best practices that support improved educational quality and teacher effectiveness.

Toward the Future

With SSA having made great strides in bringing more children to primary education, especially girls and those from marginalized groups, the focus is now on including the so-called “last mile” children, and improving the quality of education, with a special focus on learning improvements. In 2009, India passed the historic Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, declaring that quality education is a right of all children, and enshrining the SSA as the vehicle to deliver it. Going forward, with larger numbers of children completing their primary education, there is an urgent need to increase the number of secondary schools, and their educational quality needs to improve. In response, a new initiative - Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) – has begun and it takes a similar approach as the SSA. While the Bank’s financial support for SSA ends in 2012, the government will keep supporting SSA at least until 2017.  

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