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  • ASER fine print: Figuring out the 14 to 18 year bunch

Rukmini Banerji: ‘We should come up with a combination of working and learning’

ASER fine print: Figuring out the 14 to 18 year bunch

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Mar. 12, 2024
Updated: Mar. 12, 2024

THE problems with school education are there for all to see. Children get enrolled and teachers are better paid, but learning outcomes are up in the air.

Children reach the last few years in school with abysmal capacities in maths and reading and writing. It is a grim situation with the numbers piling up.

For almost two decades now, Pratham, the NGO, has been bringing out the Annual Status of Education Report or ASER which is a survey that provides India-wide snapshots of how children are doing in school.

It is not perfect, but it is a sincere attempt to get a ground-level picture of school education and nudge along the process of finding solutions.

When ASER findings get announced, they make headlines because the numbers are truly worrisome. But, like the day’s news, they are soon forgotten. Civil Society spoke to Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, to get a better understanding. Edited excerpts from a long conversation:


Q: After four years, your report focuses again on students between 14 and 18. What was the reason for revisiting this particular age group?

In 2017 we did 14 to 18 because we felt, and we still feel, that it’s an age group that is relatively neglected. It is overwhelmed by exam pressures, but there isn’t as much thinking within our education system on this age group as there is on children in the primary, and now the pre-primary group. 

We had a sense back then that the New Education Policy that was coming would emphasize pre-primary. There was Covid in between. Among the several reasons that we came back to the 14 to 18 age group was the changes that Covid brought to the lives of young people.

There has been an increase in digital access and availability. In 2017 we did not look at that. I think Covid was the big jolt with which some things became important. 

As you know, ASER in 2017 or 2019 or 2023 is much smaller in scale, one district per state and sometimes two districts in the case of UP and MP. The data is useful at the district level, but it is not a national picture in that sense. It is our attempt to kind of explore something more for this age group. It is to start a continued discussion on what does India want for its 14 to 18 year olds.


Q: Underlying everything you are saying is the need to understand the needs, problems and aspirations of young people entering the world of work and employment. Your study shows many of them are already working at 14 and so on.

And after 14 you are not under the umbrella of the Right to Education Act — technically, I mean. You cannot be officially placed in a job in the formal sector until you are 18. But I think this combination of work and being enrolled in school is happening.

We didn’t do this for the 2023 report, but for the usual ASER, we visit a government school in the sampled village and note down attendance which tells us how many children from 14-18 who were enrolled were actually present. We know that the attendance in high school is actually quite low. 

In a way, I feel the kids are working, they’re studying, so they’re probably not studying that well. They’re probably not doing work that they like. But all this doesn’t come to the fore. Whether it is a push factor or a pull factor. Or a default factor. Whatever it may be, we probably need to come up with some kind of combination of working and going to college in this age group. 


Q: One of the highlights of your report is the poor levels of learning that these teens actually have. The lack of capacity with simple maths and reading and writing.

It is really an extension of the Class 8 learning levels from 2005 onwards. So for us in some ways it’s not news. We know that if you haven’t had the opportunity to go back and build your foundations, it’s not that much better. Having said that, I found this year’s digital stuff quite interesting. Because it’s not like if you can’t read fluently you’re not on the internet and doing things. You know what you’re doing.

One part of our survey of (access to and use of) digital resources is self-reported, which is what usually surveys are about. But we also actually ask the kids to do something in front of us. That’s how you really know the difference between self-reported and actually being able to do.

Obviously, both things have their own constraints. You know, how much can you ask about self-reported till it becomes an opinion or a view as opposed to what you can do. And when you ask people to do something, you know you’re in a one-on-one situation in the household. So, you know you can’t be doing lots of things.

Even with those whose reading and maths are not strong and they are doing less, what they can do on a smartphone is not zero. There is something about this age group that I think needs to be taken differently. Firstly, how did everybody learn how to use the smartphone? Self-taught. Learnt from friends. Learnt from siblings. When learning levels are weak, applications in real life are also weak. But what you can do with a smartphone needs to be looked at further because this is all about self-motivation and kids this age are influenced much more by their friends than textbooks.


Q: When the ASER findings are made public each year the headlines are all about 50 or 60 percent of the children not having very basic skills. In a country of our size these numbers are huge. And we keep adding to these numbers year on year. Isn’t this a point of great concern?

Absolutely. The question is what do we do so that it doesn’t become like this. Let’s say between NIPUN Bharat and whatever we are doing in primary, this will reduce if we do things well early on. Equally, what can we do before a young person leaves school. And that what can we do is going to be different from what I can do with kids in primary school.

Yes, the situation in Class 8 or above is not good but I think it’s a different age group and different kinds of methods could be used to say we are supporting you. Or, we can improve you.


Q: A whole generation of people minus the skills, capacities to survive in the modern world. How effective can smartphones be to bridge gaps in learning?

I think we should start from what kids are doing. It’s entertainment. Songs and films. They are listening to things that their friends are listening to. I don’t think they’re searching high and low to find all kinds of music in the world. They are influencing one another. What if the smartphone could be effectively used for learning in the same way.

From our Pratham work, we see that group dynamics are important. You know, you can influence people individually. Those who are outstanding can take a thread and run. But when you have to catch up, it helps to combine a nudge with a group with an interesting project. You tend to have more confidence when you are in a group. 

One of our Pratham programmes, Second Chance, is to help girls and women who have not completed Class 10.  Then, we do skilling programmes for young people between 18 and 20. It is for entry-level jobs.


Q: How important is the role of the teacher? Using technology will depend on the teacher.

For us, the teacher is not your usual teacher. For example, the person who teaches our Second Chance girls has also found them and brought them together. She’s more than a teacher. She’s the one holding your hand. She’s the one who goes and talks to your father. Things like that. On the skilling side, a large number of our skilling programmes are residential. The instructor there is also part of that family. I see a very strong role for the human interaction. I think there is a big role of connecting, facilitating, explaining, just knowing where else to go, guiding. There’s a lot of guiding to be done at this age.


Q: You’ve been doing vocational training. Why is there so little interest in vocational courses? Everyone seems to want to join the government.

They want white collar jobs.  Or to join the armed forces.  Or  the government. That is what, you know, people want to do. We have 140 skilling centres around the country. We see much more uptake in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha. It is very low in Bihar. Everybody in Bihar knows somebody somewhere. So, you’d rather go to your uncle to enter the job market somewhere else than opt for skilling. Not so in Chhattisgarh or Gadchiroli in Maharashtra. We get so many students from there because they don’t have the ready connections to somewhere.


Q: Do they get jobs? Do they get work independently? What do they do? 

Our skilling programmes are very basic. We do about 14 different entry-level training programmes in food, service, housekeeping. We don’t place in Delhi, Mumbai and the big cities but in other places. The hotels give you accommodation. It’s a very good entry and then you can maneuver your way around in the hub. We’ve been doing largely entry-level job placements.

We are beginning to explore local employment — you know, within cycling distance at the village or block levels.

Similarly, self-employment, starting low but what you can do that takes you higher.


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