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Universalizing secondary education in India

Universalizing secondary education in India

Universalizing secondary education in India - Universalizing secondary education in India: IIEP strategic debate, “is SDG 4 Achievable?”
UNESCO-Iason Athanasiadis




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Universalizing secondary education in India


Emeritus Professor Keith M. Lewin from the University of Sussex was a recent keynote speaker during the IIEP strategic debate on universalizing secondary education in India by 2020. This is part of the Institute’s debate series revolving around the question, ‘Planning for the 2030 Education Agenda : Is SDG 4 achievable?’ 

Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) is an initiative of the Government of India, in partnership with State governments, which seeks to universalize enrolment in grades 9 and 10 across the country. It supports the expansion of existing schools, the building of new schools to reach underserved areas, investments in quality improvement, and contributions to recurrent and capital costs. The goal is to universalize entry into secondary school by the end of 2017 and achieve universal completion of grade 10 by 2020.

RMSA responds to the fact that no more than 60% of all Indian children complete secondary school and net enrolment rates are little more than 40%. Around half of those completing secondary school fail to acquire high level Board qualifications and demonstrate mastery of the national curriculum. In the Northern states, less than half of all children make the transition to secondary school. Those from Scheduled Tribes and Castes and other educationally marginalised groups are especially disadvantaged. Only 11% of children in the lowest quintile of household expenditure are likely to reach secondary school whilst almost all of those in the richest quintile complete grade 10.

Twelve concerns will shape secondary school development

1) Most states will find it difficult to achieve secondary level Gross Enrolment Ratios (GERs) greater than 100% by 2020 and will not succeed by the target date of 2017[1]. This has several causes. These include an insufficient number of students reaching grade 8; inadequate levels of achievement of grade 9 entrants; poor attendance of students and absenteeism by teachers; wide variations between schools in staffing, class size and availability of learning materials; and failure to ensure adequate financing to universalize access.   

2) Demographic transition will lead to declining numbers of secondary school-aged children. In low enrolment states demand for secondary school places is likely to peak before 2020, after which the numbers of secondary age children will fall by 20% or more over a decade.

3) Additional demand for secondary education will come mostly from marginalized groups who were not previously able to complete elementary education. These groups disproportionately include children from rural areas and from urban and peri-urban informal settlements and slums, children from low income households, those from scheduled tribes and castes and other backward castes, and, in some states, girls.

4) Increased participation will come from areas located at a distance from existing secondary schools. This may increase average distances to travel to secondary and result in additional costs to poor households. Safety and security issues are problematic in some states especially for adolescent girls.

5) Current national/state secondary education expansion policies have resulted in a surfeit of small schools with low PTR and therefore high recurrent costs. In some states, more than 50% of secondary schools have enrolments below 50 in grades 9 and 10. In other states, ‘mega schools’ have developed with PTRs over 150 and enrolments in grade 9 and 10 of over 600 (e.g. Bihar).

6) Less than half of all grade 10-aged children take Board examinations during this grade. A lower percentage successfully graduates with grades rewarded by places in higher education and jobs. As enrolments expand, a greater number of less capable and disadvantaged children are taking summative examinations beyond their level. As a result, failure rates are likely to rise.

7) The distribution of teachers is very uneven with PTRs within the same district varying from below 10 to above 100. The problem is further exacerbated by staff recruitment. In some states, less than 14% of schools have teachers qualified in all four main subject areas and less than 10% of schools have all the basic facilities.

8) Secondary education places an additional financial burden on poor households. Much of the new demand will come from children from lower quintiles of household income and from otherwise marginalised groups likely to be poor.

9) Private schools now enrol as many as 30% of those who survive to secondary level or about 15% of all secondary age children. Most of those in private schools are from the richest households and in areas of high population density and relative wealth. Households below the second quintile will find private schools unaffordable.

10) Private tuition has grown rapidly and can cost households as much as all the other costs of secondary school attendance. Surprisingly, large numbers of those in private schools also buy private tuition.

11) Financing universal secondary education with current cost structures could require more than 2% of State Gross Domestic Product. This level is financially unsustainable without a disproportionate allocation to the education sector. Efficiency has to be increased. 

12) Growth in participation has been inequitable. Children from richer Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Class households have increased their chances of completing secondary school at the expense of those in the same groups from lower income levels. Further expansion has to be pro-poor and subsidised accordingly. No child should be excluded from secondary school by the costs of attendance.

Multiple roadmaps

Navigating the ocean of possibilities for expanded access to secondary school requires not one roadmap but a series of State and District level medium-term perspective plans sensitive to local opportunities and priorities that roll over from year to year and have the benefit of projection modelling and GIS. This research identifies major reforms that could be a basis for policy dialogue and which would be transformational. It would redraw the landscape of secondary education in India, and close the wide gap between India and other BRICS in participation, achievement and attainment.


This report is based on findings from a research programme developed by the RMSA Technical Cooperation Agency in collaboration with the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, through discussions with MHRD and with support from the UK Department for International Development.


[1] Universal access and completion would result in GERs over 100% as a result of repetition and overage enrolment. If an education system is efficient the GER would not normally be more than GER = 105%.

Contributed by : Keith M. Lewin, Professor at the University of Sussex