Since 2000, South Asian education systems have seen in creasing school access, higher prioritisation in budget allocation and a dramatic increase in enrolment rates in primary and secondary education. In spite of this quantitative progress in education levels, there remains a significant gap in qualitative outcomes, according to a new study by the World Bank.
The report titled `Student Learning in South Asia: Challenges, Opportunities, and Policy Priorities,' aims to explore the performance of education systems in South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), the factors that determine student learning outcomes and the policy initiatives that are effective in improving these learning outcomes.
The study, launched last week, revealed that learning levels, measured by factors such as students' ability to read texts in their native language or to pass class X exams, are still low throughout South Asia.
In rural India, for instance, more than half of fifth grade students were unable to read a second grade text in their native language, which meant they were already three years behind in grade-appropriate competency.
"The fact that one-quarter to one-third of those who graduate from primary school lack basic numeracy and literacy skills that would enable them to further their education, undermines the growth potential and social cohesiveness of the region," the report says.
While enrolment rates in the region have demonstrated progress, they are highly uneven across countries and still low as compared to international standards.
To improve quality of education, the report highlights certain specific successful policy interventions and priority areas to improve learning outcomes. Given the severe child malnutrition rates in South Asia, ensuring early childhood nutrition and providing additional instructional resources to disadvantaged children is crucial. Increasing well-designed public-private partnerships and improving systems to measure progress in student learning is also important.
Much of what South Asian students are taught by teachers is `procedural' or rote-based. Hence, the education reform agenda also prioritises raising teaching quality, effectiveness and accountability, through measures like curbing teacher absenteeism, setting up transparent standards for recruitment, deployment and transfers, and financially incentivising teachers to boost performance. "Some teachers in rural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar cannot solve simple math questions. Financing infrastructural inputs such as blackboards and toilets has been carried out sufficiently; now is the need to finance teachers and build incentive structures," says Tara Beteille, an economist at the World Bank and one of the authors of the report.