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Primary education in India


Indian girl doing math on chalkboardIndian girl doing math on chalkboard
The World Education Forum, held in 2000 set an ambitious goal: universal primary education by the year 2015. Schooling all children until they reach young adulthood is recognized as important because it leads to many substantial positive effects: better family health, lower birth rate, higher productivity, higher earnings, and improved economics of the country as a whole. Globally, however, more than 115 million children of primary school age do not attend school.

The constitution of India supports the right of universal education until age 14 and has had a long-standing goal of free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of six and 14. However, India remains a land of contradictions. Despite a vibrant emerging economy and a string of excellent colleges that produce high caliber professionals, India has not made the grade yet on primary education.

Current status of primary education in India

About 20% of Indian children between the ages of six and 14 are not enrolled in school. Even among enrolled children, attendance rates are low and 26% of pupils enrolled in primary school drop out before Grade 5. The situation is worse in certain sectors of the population: the poor, those living in rural areas, girls, and those living in some states, such as Bihar and Rajasthan.

Barriers to universal primary education in India

The reasons for the situation are many and complex.

  • India is a developing country with a population of over one billion. A significant portion of that population lives in poverty: 26% live on less than US $1 a day and 35% are considered illiterate.
  • In a large country, physical distance can be an issue. In rural areas, some communities do not have a school nearby. In urban settings, unsafe travel conditions, such as traveling alone or crossing busy roads and train lines, may prevent parents from sending their children to school.
  • Social distance can be an even greater hurdle. Some communities do not see the value of school education - they feel the things learned at school are not relevant to their lives. In some cases, the school may be in another community of a different socio-economic class, caste, or religion, making it difficult for the child to cross that invisible but effective barrier. While discrimination on the basis of caste is now illegal, attitudes of thousands of years are difficult to change quickly.
  • Gender gaps exist. Literacy rates are 21% lower for females than for males. Among those children aged six to 14 not enrolled in school, more than 60% are girls. Some communities do not see the need to educate daughters because they will be married off at an early age and live and work with their in-laws, mostly doing housework and raising children.
  • Child labour is prevalent. Many children need to work and earn in order to supplement a meager family income and therefore do not attend school.
  • Schools often lack facilities and teaching aids including classroom space, toilets, drinking water, blackboards, and chalk.
  • Teachers lack training and motivation.

Improving primary education in India

Realizing the importance and the critical state of primary education in India today, many organizations on many levels are focusing on this issue.

International agencies, such as UNESCO and UNICEF, are deeply involved. UNESCO has pledged to work with national governments and development partners to achieve universal free primary education by 2015, as was agreed upon at the World Education Forum in Dakar. UNICEF also has primary education as part of its mission. Both are supporting the Government of India in its task with funds and expertise.

The Government of India began a program for improving the status of primary education in 2001, with the following areas of focus:

  • Increase in teacher appointments and training
  • Improvement in elementary education content and techniques
  • Provision of teaching materials
  • Improvements in infrastructure
  • Education for disadvantaged groups: girls, disadvantaged castes, and the disabled

The Indian national government is hoping to achieve universal primary education by 2010, five years earlier than the goal set in Dakar. This is an ambitious goal, and much depends on the will to make it happen at the national and international level, and on the thousands of NGOs involved in education.  

Many NGOs in India run schools for poor children. Some organizations, such as Katha, Pratham, and Prayas, have made universal primary education their focus and operate education centers for children in slum areas. Others NGOs are niche players that target particular segments of the child population with innovative programs. For example, Ruchika School Social Service runs 20 schools in the eastern state of Orissa on train platforms so that the many homeless children who live in the train stations, begging and working, can learn something as well. Hole-in-the-Wall Education has set up computers in slums and rural areas throughout India. These computers are easily accessible to children and are loaded with simple children's education software. There is little supervision or intervention and the children learn at their own speed and in their own way. The program has been so successful that there are plans to try it in Cambodia and some African countries.

The future of primary education in India

The importance of universal primary education has now been widely recognized by everyone involved. Policies and pledges are easy to make but implementation can be difficult and goals hard to achieve, especially in a vast and populous country such as India. International agencies, the government of India, and the numerous NGOs will have to work together - with will, wisdom and tremendous energy - to make their desire for universal primary education by 2015 a reality in India.

Ranjani Iyer Mohanty
India Correspondent


Master Plan of Operations, 2003-2007:A Programme of Cooperation for Children and Women in India, Government of India and UNICEF.

Critical Review of Primary Education in India, American Institutes for Research, Nov. 2004

Public Report on Basic Education in India, The Probe Team and the Centre for Development Economics, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Primary Education for All, UNESCO, 2003, available from:

The Dakar Framework for Action, UNESCO, World Education Forum, Dakar, 2000. Available from:

Education for All, Elementary Education, Department of Education, Government of India, 2004. Available from:

Hole-in-the-Wall Education Ltd. Available from:

Ruchika Social Service Organization. Available from: