Social disparity in elementary education


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EDUCATION is a powerful instrument for overcoming inequalities, promoting human development, accelerating social transformation and achieving economic progress. Ensuring equitable distribution of educational facilities and opportunities is the cornerstone of strategies to overcome educational deprivation. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 has made important provisions in this respect.1 However, its implementation has proved extremely challenging, not only because of political and financial reasons but also due to the extremely hierarchical nature of society. This paper discusses some issues concerning equity in education, with special focus on school participation and learning outcomes.

The growing inequality in educational access and participation has its roots in India’s patriarchal and caste based stratified social structure. Despite many constitutional safeguards (Articles 38, 15, 16, 17, and 21A) and enabling policies, social and economic divisions between different social groups remain stark. Opportunities and resources are not distributed fairly and the access to them is determined by the position of individuals in society based on caste, class and gender, leading to disparity in education. Despite the constitutional safeguards, these groups continue to lag behind the mainstream population in every aspect of life as social and regional disparities are intertwined problems resulting from an uneven spread of educational facilities across states.2

The socio-economic background of children acts as a determinant for access to schools, which differ in terms of resources and quality. There are many well-equipped private schools, mainly located in cities, catering to the elite strata3 and there has been a steady increase in enrolment in these schools.4 These schools enhance gender and social inequality, as only 20% SC/ST children were enrolled in private schools at the primary level and their proportion was only 14% at the upper primary level in the year of 2005-06.5 This inequality is also revealed in the literacy rate of SC and ST for male and female6 (Figure 1).


Literacy Rate for Different Social Categories

Source: NFHS III, 2005.

Similarly, the children of urban poor that includes migrants, slum and pavement dwellers, sex workers also face difficulty in attending schools. As Govinda points out, ‘The life pattern of poorer people remains the same, affecting their participation in the school process, irrespective of the fact that they live in a better provided urban environment.’7 Many children from disadvantaged groups have to join the labour force to support their family, thereby losing the chance of receiving education.8 Lack of parental care and attention negatively impacts not only their education but also their health, nutritional level, physical growth, emotional and cognitive development as these are interlinked. A large number of these children, though enrolled in school, fail to attend regularly, resulting in their poor learning attainment. Despite a ‘no detention policy’, many children repeat their grades and many fail to learn adequately and eventually drop out because of ineffective teaching and a discriminatory attitude of teachers towards them. This process can be termed as a silent exclusion.9 Earlier research has already revealed that schools reproduce social inequalities10 given the dismal performance of the state in providing quality education to children who are essentially dependent on its machinery.


Post-independence education policy envisaged providing equal opportunity to all sections of the society and recommended various measures to help the education system achieve this goal. As mentioned earlier, the Indian Constitution has provided many safeguards for socially disadvantaged groups, i.e. SC, ST and religious minorities. Various provisions made in the five year plans related to ensuring equal opportunity for all, reflected a translation of the principle of equity and social justice. In line with the constitutional mandate, attempts have been made by the government to introduce different policy measures in education, including approaches like positive discrimination supported by anti-discrimination law, welfare provisions in the form of scholarships, hostels etc. targeting SC/ST and girls. These initiatives are part of a broader strategy of poverty reduction and overcoming social exclusion.

The National Policy on Education (NPE), 1986 suggested provision of essential facilities for achieving universal access to comparable quality education and laid special emphasis on removal of disparities.11 It also emphasized improving learning attainment of disadvantaged children at a faster rate to bring them at par with the others. The post-NPE period, especially the 1990s, witnessed many schemes like the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) to help bridge the social and gender gap in elementary education.


There has been considerable improvement in terms of expansion of educational facilities and enrolment even in the backward states and districts. Currently (2010-11),12 there are around 1.36 million elementary schools with 193.4 million children and 6.2 million teachers. The opening of single teacher schools (around 8.86% all schools and 11.8% of primary schools in 2010-11) in the remote rural parts has further added to the number of small schools (27.8% with 50 or less enrolment in 2010-11). Around 61% of primary schools have been found with enrolment of merely 100 children. In addition, the inability to recruit and train teachers who are sensitive to disadvantaged students and capable of dealing with diversity in classrooms remains a major challenge.


There are many schools with a high number of para-teachers and devoid of basic facilities like drinking water and toilets, located mainly in habitations of disadvantaged groups. The policy of recruitment of para-teachers13 on a contract basis and at low salary further exacerbates inequity. As Subrahmanian observes, ‘The haste to achieve "education for all" has been interpreted in policy terms as a race of numbers, rather than a shift towards the creation of the kind of education system that can embrace diverse groups and acknowledge and address economic constraints that limit education participation.’14 As revealed by recent estimates,15 while at the primary level enrolment of SC and ST children accounts for 20% and 11% respectively to total enrolment, it reduces to 18% and 9% respectively at the upper primary level. Further, the dropout rate is disproportionately high among scheduled tribes with 34% and 58% at primary and upper primary levels. It is also high among scheduled caste children. In this context, it is worthwhile to examine the access and participation behaviour of children from different social contexts based on evidence from empirical studies in two states of MP and Chhattisgarh.


Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, conventionally among the most educationally backward states, have witnessed considerable increase in enrolment along with expansion of schooling facilities. As per the 2010-11 data, the total number of elementary schools in Chhattisgarh and MP is 51,423 and 137,113 respectively. Recent estimates16 reveal that while the percentage of SC enrolment at the elementary level is nearly 15% in Chhattisgarh and 17% in Madhya Pradesh, the proportion of ST enrolment is 32% in Chhattisgarh and 24% in Madhya Pradesh. Both states have a high proportion of OBC population and proportion of OBC enrolment is 42% in MP and 45% in Chhattisgarh.

We now examine the status of social equity in access and participation of children in three contiguously located clusters – Rajnandgaon (Chhattisgarh), Rewa and Dindori (MP). These clusters, in that order, present a development continuum in terms of general infrastructure as well as literacy rates. While Rajnandgaon is located alongside the main national highway and has relatively better access to several other development facilities, Rewa is comparatively a more interior rural cluster; both these clusters are dominated by other backward classes. The third cluster, Dindori, is difficult to access and is inhabited by ‘Baiga’ tribes.

The household survey data revealed that a majority of children were enrolled in school in 2008, but 293 children were ‘dropouts’ and 296 ‘never enrolled’. STs accounted for 48% among dropouts and 61% among never enrolled. These proportions were high in case of OBCs too, constituting 39% among total dropouts and 22% among total never enrolled children. Since SCs had an insignificant presence in these three clusters, their proportion among educationally deprived was low. Nevertheless, the proportion of SC children among total dropouts was 10% and 14% among total never enrolled.

It is evident that girls were more disadvantaged among the ST children. The proportion of never enrolled was higher among tribal girls (13%) compared to boys (10%). Around 9% of total tribal boys and a similar proportion of tribal girls dropped out from schools in 2008. Similarly, among SC children, on average around 8% of boys and 7% of girls remained never enrolled and around 5% boys and 4% girls reported as dropout.


Along with the social background, poverty too contributes to exclusion. The children of the poor are more likely to be on the margins of the system, and eventually pushed out altogether.17 About 11% did not go to school as they were working, 20% were engaged in household chores and family occupation, and 5% reported non-affordability of the family to bear the cost of education. A closer analysis shows that economic impoverishment itself is deeply embedded within the discriminatory social structure. Around 20% SC, 9% ST and 9% OBC children were contributing to the economic activities of the family. Further, 16% SC, 19% ST and 26% OBC children were engaged in household activity which inhibits school attendance. Children of parents with little or no previous educational experience are more likely to be excluded from schooling.


The provisioning of educational facilities by various providers, public and private, has an impact on participation behaviour of children and their learning outcomes. While there are private schools in Rajnandgaon and Rewa, Dindori has no such school. Out of the total enrolment of 4325, only 568 (13%) were in private schools of Rajnandgaon while in Rewa the proportion was 11% (331) out of the total enrolment of 3,050 children. The share of private schools is small. Around 32% children in Rewa and 11% in Dindori were enrolled in government run EGS schools, thus segregating a section of children within the government system. Many government formal schools are of small size and a large proportion of children were enrolled in these schools. 25% of the schools are very small with less than 50 children enrolled and another 31% have less than 100 children. Though such small schools may provide access to more children, they fail to provide a suitable learning environment, negatively affecting their learning attainment.18

The social gap between children attending private and public schools is high. In Rajnandgaon, a majority of the children belonging to the OBC category, particularly girls, attend government schools. The social hierarchy in access to school is the most pronounced in Rewa, as data reveals that the highest share of children enrolled in private schools in this cluster are from the general category. In contrast, most of the OBC, SC and ST children in this cluster are enrolled in government schools and EGS. Clearly the social background of children determines the type of school they can access.


While access to school shows a persistence of inequality among different social groups, the data suggests that incidence of absenteeism among students is high in all schools, though it varied among clusters. Attendance was particularly low in Rewa and Dindori, with many children from disadvantaged groups absenting for a week or more each month. The school register reflected that absenteeism was higher in government schools. For instance, around 20% children attended school for 15 days or less in a month in Dindori, while the corresponding figure was 25% in Rewa. Such a high incidence of student absenteeism has a bearing on learning, as in most cases there is a strong link between learning and participation of children.

Most of these children are from poor households. For example, in families with income below Rs 3000 per month, the absenteeism of children was highest in Rewa at 25% followed by 19% in Rajnandgaon and 9% in Dindori in the year 2008. Similarly, parents’ levels of education are found to be closely associated with attendance. Data reveals that children of illiterate parents are more likely to remain absent from school. For example, 26% of the students in Rajnandgaon, 24% in Rewa and 10% in Dindori whose fathers are illiterate were often absent from school; the proportion of absentee children whose fathers had secondary or higher education is much lower. The rates were 9% in Rajnandgaon though it was higher in Rewa (18%). Notably, in Dindori, not a single child of a father with higher educational levels remained absent from school. A similar relationship exists with mother’s level of education.

Like absenteeism, the close association between the social background of children and their learning outcomes is revealed by an analysis of competency test scores obtained for Grade IV and V. Students from tribal areas like Dindori were placed at the bottom with very low mean scores and high standard deviation. In other areas, low achievers were mainly concentrated among deprived groups. A majority of low achievers who secured less than 30% were from SC, ST and OBC backgrounds. The disparity in learning is closely linked with the disparity in schooling facilities and quality of school functioning. A majority of children enrolled in private schools in Rajnandgaon and Rewa performed much better than the children enrolled in the government schools located in the same areas. A few children belonging to the SC, ST and OBC enrolled in private schools also showed a better performance than their counterparts from government and EGS schools. The data revealed that tribal girls enrolled in EGS learnt the least and showed the worst performance.


Grade repetition, an indicator of learning achievement, was an additional problem in all clusters. Although the existing policy of automatic promotion is expected to ensure that children do not repeat the same grade and thus lose their motivation to learn, detention was nevertheless practised in all schools, though some improvement could be found in Rajnandgaon where the rate of repetition went down from 11% to 5% during 2008-2010; in Rewa, it increased from 18% in 2008 to above 20% in 2009 and 2010, and in Dindori from 15% in 2008 to 24% in 2009. The high levels of repetition are a cause of serious concern since they lead to overage enrolment and increased risk of dropouts. By Grade V more than 60% students were overage by one or more years in Rewa and Dindori, and by Grade VIII this figure was over 70%. In Rewa, over 25% of those in Grade VIII were 16 years or older and in Dindori it was over 33%. Frequent absenteeism, repetition and overage problems eventually lead to dropout from school, resulting in permanent exclusion from the education system.

It is evident that the social background of children in all three clusters determines both their access to education and the type of schools they go to. The existence of different types of schools has made access even more unequal, because schools differ considerably in terms of physical and academic resources, further increasing inequality in participation and learning outcomes of children. Many children from disadvantaged groups have not benefited even after five years of schooling, as the schools fail to cater to their educational needs due to inadequate academic and physical resources. Thus, social inequalities and disparities continue to persist in Indian society, and their nexus with numerous interacting influences pose a formidable challenge for ensuring equity in education, both in terms of participation and learning outcomes.

This situation is more pronounced in educationally backward areas like the tribal district of Dindori. The challenge, therefore, is to move from increasing enrolment to achieving greater inclusion and quality by providing equal opportunity to all children, irrespective of their social background. Bringing children within the fold of education is not enough, providing them quality education by ensuring equal learning opportunities for all, retaining them for the entire schooling cycle and ensuring adequate learning are the real challenges that need to be met with a sense of urgency.



1. GOI, The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009. Gazetteer of India, No. 39, New Delhi, 27 August 2009. Accessed in sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/rte.pdf on 12th March, 2012.

2. R. Govinda, Literacy and Elementary Education in India: Regional Imbalances and Social Inequities. Paper presented at the national seminar on the Education Commission, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, 26-28 December 2006.

3. R. Govinda, Status of Primary Education of the Urban Poor in India: An Analytical Review. Research Report No. 105. UNESCO, Paris, 1995.

4. Pratham, Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2006. Pratham, New Delhi, 2007; Pratham, Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2011, accessed in images/Aser-2011-report.pdf (August 2012); PROBE Team, Public Report on Basic Education in India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999; Anuradha De, Reetika Khera, Meera Samson and A.K. Shiva Kumar, PROBE Revisited: A Report on Elementary Education in India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011.

5. NIEPA, Analytical Report 2006. Elementary Education in India: Where do we Stand? National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, 2007. Available in, p. 135.

6. International Institute for Population Sciences, and ORC Macro, National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), 2005-06. International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai, 2007.

7. R. Govinda, 1995, op cit., fn 2.

8. M. Weiner, The Child and the State in India: Child Labor and Education Policy in Comparative Perspective. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1991; Pratham, 2006 and 2011, op cit.; R. Govinda and Madhumita Bandyopadhyay, Access to Elementary Education in India: Country Analytical Review, in R. Govinda (ed.), Who Goes to School? Exploring Exclusion in Indian Education. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011; R. Govinda and Madhumita Bandyopadhyay, Overcoming Exclusion Through Quality Education. CREATE Pathways to Access Research Monograph No. 65. NUEPA/ University of Sussex, Delhi/Brighton, 2011.

9. K. Lewin, Improving Access, Equity and Transitions in Education: Creating a Research Agenda. Research Monograph Number 1. Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity (CREATE), Falmer, June 2007; Govinda and Bandyopadhyay, 2011, op cit.

10. D. Nawani, Contemporary Education Dialogue, Book Review, 2003, 140-143.

11. GoI, National Policy on Education 1986. Ministry of Human Resource Development, New Delhi, 1986.

12. NUEPA, Elementary Education in India: Progress Towards UEE, Flash Statistics. National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, 2012

13. Dayaram, Para Teachers in Primary Education – A Status Report. DPEP Technical Support Group, Ed.CIL, New Delhi, 2002; R. Govinda and Y. Josephine, ‘Para-teachers in India: A Review’, Contemporary Education Dialogue 2(2), 2005, pp. 193-224.

14. R. Subrahmanian, ‘Right to Education: Opportunities and Challenges’, Contemporary Education Dialogue 1(1), 2003, pp. 76-96.

15. NUEPA, Elementary Education in India: Progress Towards UEE, Flash Statistics. National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, 2012

16. Ibid., NUEPA, 2012

17. R. Govinda and Madhumita Bandyopadhyay, Educational Access in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – India: Country Research Summary. Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity (CREATE), Falmer, 2010. 13

18. R. Govinda and Madhumita Bandyopadhyay, 2011, op cit.