Read India must come before Skill India

Read India must come before Skill India

Twenty-four-year old Rakesh Gaikwad waits for his thekedar (contractor) to come and evaluate his work for the day. He is an expert mason at a construction site, who underwent vocational training and has three years of subsequent work experience. Rakesh earns Rs 600 daily, yet he cannot even measure the square footage of bricks that he lays a day. He is entirely dependent on his boss to determine the economic value of his work and, thereby, his payments due. When we ask him whether he too wants to be a contractor, Rakesh exclaims: “Apna theka lena toh har ustaad ka sapna hota hai, lekin ganit jaane bina kaam aur paise ka hisaab kaise hoga (Every mason dreams of having his own project, but without knowing numbers, how will I account for work and money)?”

Despite attending school diligently till Class 8, Rakesh did not learn basic arithmetic application. Now, he is stuck as a construction worker, failing to rise up the ranks to become a supervisor or contractor-entrepreneur despite possessing the requisite technical skills.

Education. Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters.

But Rakesh is not alone. The recently released Annual Status of Education Report, India’s largest NGO-run yearly survey, paints a distressing picture of basic reading and arithmetic abilities of students: with 25 per cent of students completing Class 8 without any reading competency, and over 50 per cent unable to even divide numbers.

Also, the report demonstrates that students don’t bridge or overcome these learning gaps with either age or more years in schooling, and continue to struggle with foundational skills. Functionally, this leads to their inability to read basic prescriptions, calculate discounts and other everyday operational challenges.

This situation persists despite 10 years having passed since the last major policy change in Indian education – the enactment of the Right to Education (RTE) Act in 2009. The RTE has made meaningful contributions to infrastructure and ‘inputs’, and the ASER reports over the years show this improvement. However, learning ‘outcomes’ received scant mention in the Act and this neglect is visible in the results – the same reports describe how outcomes have become worse, rather than better, over the past decade. There have been recent murmurs about the HRD ministry contemplating extending the RTE to Class 12. The only reaction that comes to mind is Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.

Education, skilling and the gaps in between

Despite longitudinal evidence of this ‘learning gap’, the focus of successive governments has not been on developing basic, foundational skills, but on bypassing this harder problem with a simpler alternative of large-scale skilling for youth, who will presumably remain uneducated. A glance at the major policy announcements and speeches over the past ten years demonstrates the hype around skilling and ‘Skill India’, with barely any emphasis on basic foundational competencies.

It is, after all, much easier to create a new skilling ecosystem, rather than overhaul the long-established school system. The public is also usually willing to grant more time and rest its hopes on the creation of something new, than transforming what already exists. So, a perception has successfully been built that skills will provide livelihoods to all our youth, even as our education system continues to flounder.

In fairness, skills development done properly does work. Development of practical and social-emotional skills along with industry-connections enable young people, even if functionally illiterate, to obtain an entry-level job and earn a basic income. However, our experience and data shows that the lack of foundational education places a restrictive ceiling on the career prospects of even ‘skilled’ youth.

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Compromised quality of life and the workforce of the future

The experience of Pratham, one of India’s largest education and skills organisations, is instructive. The NGO has provided vocational training to over 100,000 youth. On tracking the career trajectories of these alumni we find that while skill training helps the learners build strong foundations to careers, there is a glass ceiling for those who lack basic reading and arithmetic abilities.

A back-end kitchen helper is unable to get promoted to be the front-end restaurant steward; an assistant electrician gives up his dream of starting his own practice; and a ward-woman in a hospital seldom moves up the value chain without the ability to read and count dosage. While we see youths building on their hands-on and technical skill during the course of their jobs, basic literacy and numeracy are hard to pick up on your own.

There are other significant ramifications of this issue. Youths with limited reading and arithmetic abilities are more susceptible to being cheated. Lowered ability to handle money and transact digitally leave them legally and financially vulnerable.

Additionally, with motor skills increasingly being replaced by automation, these youths stand at the brink of being left irrelevant. The new age of jobs in the knowledge economy will require agility to train and re-train ourselves. For the youths who have missed the boat on reading, gaining the skill of self-learning may be implausible.

Moving forward

The situation is bleak, but there are solutions. Organisations are experimenting with integrating remedial literacy and numeracy modules in vocational training courses. This is possible across the skills ecosystem, if incentivised by governments.

Another option is technology, which can enable young people to learn these skills on their own, even if they’ve already joined the workforce. Such modules and games will have to be thoughtfully designed to be effective for non-readers, using techniques such as voice recognition and natural language processing – but it can be done.

Of course, the best solution would be to build foundational literacy and numeracy skills early on in school. Effective and tested techniques exist, but governments and the public need to align on the urgency of the situation – it’s time for Read India, even before Skill India.

We cannot circumvent problems of education by creating a parallel system of adult technical training. Skill or entrepreneurship development in isolation cannot completely solve the future problems of the workforce. Foundational education is the bedrock to true opportunity.

Azeez Gupta was formerly at Pratham and McKinsey, and is currently at the Harvard Business School. Medha Uniyal leads the Vocational Training and Entrepreneurship arm of Pratham.

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Updated Date: Feb 08, 2019 22:03:02 IST

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