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Going Beyond the Gap in Foundational Skills, ASER 2023 Report Raises 3 Important Questions

The latest ASER report has expanded its view by looking not just at the abilities of language and math amongst children but also at other important facets of their world. What are they doing outside of schools? What kind of work do they aspire to do?
Photo: Ankita Konwar/Unsplash

The Annual Status of Education Report 2023 is out and this time it’s called ASER: Beyond Basis, where over 34,000 individuals in the age group of 14-18 in rural India were surveyed across 26 states.

According to the report, 14-18-year olds are still struggling with foundational skills of reading and basic division. About 25% of those surveyed could not read Standard 2 level text in their regional language and only 43% could do a simple division problem. Nearly 43% of those enrolled in undergraduate courses also could not do simple division problems.

Those deep in the trenches of education quality and reform will tell you that they are not shocked by these numbers. Improving learning outcomes has been a hard battle, and continues to be so. 

The latest ASER report 2023 expands its view by looking not just at the abilities of language and math amongst 14-18 year olds but also at other important facets of their world. What are they doing outside of schools? Are they taking tuition, working, or preparing for an exam? What kind of work do they aspire to do? Do they want to study more? Are they financially aware? Do they have role models?  

As an organisation concerned with children’s rights, here are 3 areas this data is asking us to deliberate upon: 

1. Inequality outside school

A very high number of surveyed children reported doing household chores daily (82% of girls and 64% of boys in Standard 10 or below stated so). ASER data also highlights that one-third of 14-18 year-old rural youth worked (besides housework) for at least 15 days in the preceding month of the survey, of which 76% are working on their family farms.

In Aangan’s work across Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Bengal, we see household chores in rural India range from cooking for a whole family while both parents are out for work, fetching water from kilometres away, bringing firewood and care responsibilities for infant siblings. During the 56 focus group discussions that ASER conducted in 8 government senior secondary schools in 3 states, many girls said “they like to go to school because it is their only escape from their household duties”. 

In West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas, 14-18 years olds often support their families to meet the stringent and fixed deadlines of contractual work for rolling beedis. This means that a child, aged 15, is reaching school having spent at least 2-3 hours on household work in the morning and has at least 4-5 hours of work after school rolling beedis

Also read: More Than Half 14–18 Year Olds in Rural India Cannot Do Simple Division: ASER Report

These children’s lives are hard. They have real and important responsibilities outside their school hours. In this context, how can  children’s learning levels be addressed without taking a hard look at other inequalities? Will this data spark conversations and deliberations on economic policies and social safety nets? Or will it only concern those interested in curriculum, pedagogy, school infrastructure and learning outcomes?

2. Social desirability of vocational work   

ASER survey also points to us that vocational work is not the primary work aspiration of youth. Over 60% of those enrolled in any education institution aspire to continue studying to undergraduate level or higher. The two most popular choices of professions among the boys and young men in the sample were joining the army (13.8%) and police (13.6%).

Among girls and young women, teacher (16%) and doctor (14.8%) were the most common choices with police (12.5%) being the third. Only 1.4% of youth aged 14-18 want to pursue agriculture as their primary work. 

These numbers tell us that the New Educational Policy 2020, which emphasises on vocational education, is not in alignment with the aspirations of the young

In a caste-ridden society, vocations are not just linked to one’s interests and what’s lucrative but also dignity, respect, and shadows of generational discrimination. The awareness of these is evident in an exchange captured in the qualitative data by ASER.

On being asked why student from Standard 12 wanted to become a teacher, she said, “Because, unlike a beauty parlour where you have to do manual work, teaching requires intellect and knowledge.”

So how do the young bridge the gap between what they aspire for and what is on offer? Does one ask the youth to temper their aspirations? How does one change the social desirability of vocational work in a caste-ridden society?

3. Barriers to access

According to the survey, more than 85% of 14-18 year olds are currently enrolled in an educational institution. While the soaring numbers of enrolment should be applauded, other more difficult-to-achieve indicators of access –  attendance and regularity – are missing from the picture. 

At Aangan, we have heard school principals in Dumka and Jamtara districts of Jharkhand speak candidly about girls in senior school only turning up to school twice a week because they shoulder full-time responsibilities of caring for siblings at home and the school is too far for travelling daily.

In Patna, 17-year-old Anjali has enrolled herself in a private coaching class for Rs 500 a month because she can’t travel 10 kms to college every day. Her parents believe that the coaching class will assist her in taking the exam at the end of the year without compromising her safety. 

Nearly 20% of girls and young women in the ASER household survey quoted “family constraints” as a reason for discontinuing education. If one were to dissect it, the rather nebulous category of family constraints hides social norms, constraints of mobility and lack of safety as well. 

How then do we create solutions, models and interventions without looking at what barriers to real access are? What is stopping children from utilising the opportunities available to their fullest potential?

ASER 2023 has widened the scope of questions they asked children in their survey. And in turn, it’s on us to expand the questions we ask of this data. It would be a disservice to children and to this mammoth exercise of asking children what they want, what they do, and what can they do, if we restrict how these insights and learnings are used for decision-making. 

Kanika Saraff is Head, Policy Advocacy and Communications at the NGO Aangan.  

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