In 2012, more than 96% of all children age 6-14 in rural India were enrolled in school. This figure has been well over 90% for close to a decade. India is thus well on its way to achieving the MDG goals for education. However, enrolment in school does not automatically translate into regular attendance; and neither enrolment nor attendance ensures that children acquire even basic abilities in reading and mathematics. A growing body of research in India shows that while children may be in school, they are not learning; and that improved provisioning and infrastructure does not contribute to better learning outcomes. This paper will summarize emerging findings and conclusions from an ongoing longitudinal study of primary school children. The original study tracked about 30,000 Grade 2 and Grade 4 students over a period of 18 months (2009-2011). It assessed gains in student learning over this period and related these to household, classroom, school, and teacher related factors. In a subsequent stage, a subset of these students has been tracked for an additional 2.5 years. This paper will present preliminary findings for this subset of children who have now been tracked for 4 years. It will analyse learning trajectories and patterns of transition as children move from early primary to upper primary classes, and relate these to the larger (classroom, school and home) context in which these children live. The paper will focus on key issues requiring attention from policy makers if learning, rather than schooling, is to be guaranteed to all children.

During the last decade India has made enormous progress towards universalizing access to elementary education. According to all available statistics, today over 96% of children in the elementary school age group (6-14 years) are enrolled in school. This is an impressive achievement given the size and diversity of the country. Substantial progress has been made with respect to provisioning in terms of buildings, classrooms, teachers, textbooks and other facilities. However, a growing body of evidence points to the conclusion that children are far below the standards established by both the Indian curriculum framework and international benchmarks in terms of learning outcomes. Data from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a national survey that annually assesses basic reading and arithmetic skills of about 600,000 children in the 5-16 age group across all rural districts of India, show that in every state, children in primary school are struggling even with basic reading and arithmetic.1 Nationally, about half of all children in grade 5 are unable to read a grade 2 level text; outcomes in arithmetic are even poorer. Despite substantial increases in budgetary allocations to the elementary education sector, this situation has not improved over the eight year period for which ASER data is available. Findings from other large scale assessments, including those conducted by the Government of India, utilize different tools and methodologies, but also suggest that children are not at the level expected of them by the curriculum.2 Not surprisingly, then, the results achieved by the two Indian states that participated in the 2009 round of PISA put them almost at the bottom of the ranking of 74 participating countries – ahead only of Kyrgyzstan. On April 1 2010 the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (hereafter RTE) became law in India.The new law makes it the responsibility of the state to ensure that every child in the age group 6-14 in India receives eight years of education. The spirit of RTE clearly intends ‘education’ to go beyond access and guarantee learning for all. However, what the law actually specifies are the inputs that should be present in schools (in the form of buildings, facilities, teachers, etc.) rather than the outcomes that children should be guaranteed (in the form of specific learning benchmarks). It thus makes a series of assumptions about how the inputs it mandates will translate into processes in schools and outcomes for children. These assumptions are based on how schools should, in theory, be organised and function rather than on the realities of children, classrooms and schools in India today.

In this paper we use evidence from several sources to argue that some key assumptions underlying RTE are not valid in the context of schools in rural India today, and will not help to move the country further along the path towards ensuring access to quality education for all children. Moving from guaranteeing access to ensuring that all children learn requires going beyond the provision of inputs to rethinking how resources can best be organised within schools in order to facilitate learning. First, RTE’s focus on ensuring that all children are in school translates into a directive that all children should be enrolled. In India, enrolment figures for the 6-14 age group have been in excess of 90% for many years now. But unlike in western countries, enrolment is a highly misleading indicator of children’s actual exposure to school. An examination of children’s attendance provides far more accurate information about children’s actual participation in school and can provide important insights into where educational policy should focus in order to ensure that all children learn. Once in school, what is the content that children should be expected to learn? RTE has little to say about children’s learning outcomes; however it does require teachers to complete the curriculum of the grade they are teaching. Clearly, then, it is assumed that all children are at a level of mastery where they are able to keep up with the content prescribed for the grade in which they are enrolled, such that when teachers have finished the syllabus, presumably children have mastered its contents. We present evidence from several sources to show that this is very far from being the case in rural India today. Large proportions of children are two or more grade levels behind where the curriculum expects them to be able to be. Ensuring that children learn therefore requires either that the curriculum be redesigned in line with children’s actual abilities, or that remedial programs be instituted on massive scale to enable children to catch up. Finally, we examine the assumption that children in school today are enrolled in the ageappropriate grade. The elementary education system and RTE both assume that children enter school at a certain age and advance a year at a time through the system, such that children enter grade 1 at age 5 or 6 and complete eight years of schooling at age 13 or 14. In fact, large proportions of children in school today are overage for the grade they are enrolled in. We provide evidence to show that overage children attend school less often and learn less than their peers. While RTE requires all states to provide age-grade mainstreaming support for the small proportion of children still out of school, reality on the ground shows that if schools are to be organized by age and grade, then age-grade mainstreaming is needed on a massive scale for children already in school. We focus these analyses on students in grade 4 in government schools.3 In the Indian elementary education structure grade 4 is usually the penultimate year of primary school (grades 1-5), which is followed by upper primary school (grades 6-8).4 Transitioning from grade 5 to grade 6 often requires children to change schools and travel longer distances to school.5 Before the introduction of the RTE, grade 5 was also the grade in which students were required to pass an examination in order to be promoted to grade 6. Additionally, it was often the level of schooling at which girls, by now at the age where they were approaching puberty, would be taken out of school. For all of these reasons grade 5 has historically seen the highest dropout rates of any grade in the primary school years.6 A focus on grade 4 thus enables us to examine what children have learned during their first three years in school and also what happens to them as they reach the stage of transitioning from primary to upper primary school. These analyses are of crucial importance if RTE is to achieve its goal of guaranteeing eight years of grade-appropriate learning to all children.