In just over three years, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is expected to meet its avowed goal of ensuring that all children are in school. Celebrations aren't underway as yet but the sense of accomplishment is difficult to miss in the corridors of power. In fact, when the government asked a committee to look into universalising secondary education, it did so on the basis that the demand for secondary education was bound to go up — thanks to SSA and the resultant higher enrolment rates at the primary level.

But a more pertinent question that needs to have been asked at this stage seems to have been ignored: how reliable is the enrolment figure as a measure of success? In their quest to reach SSA's targets, officials seem to have neglected the fact that enrolment and learning do not necessarily go hand in hand. Worse still, enrolling a child in school doesn't even mean that the child is attending classes, passing exams or going on to the next class. As Magsaysay award winner Shanta Sinha, of Andhra Pradesh-based MV Foundation, points out, "The health of a school system is known according to the number of children in school. But the maximum number of children is in Class I. If a school has 4,000 children, 3,000 of them will be in Class I." These skewed statistics, and indeed the stories of the missing children, are indicators of the many things that have gone wrong in SSA's emphasis on numbers.

One question, many answers

That there is nothing sacred about numbers becomes clear if one asks the simple question: how many children in India are out of school today? The answer to that depends on who is answering the query or which survey one is consulting. The recently released Education for All Global Monitoring Report-2007 of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) itself mentions this contradiction. While stating that India, with 4.6 million children out of school as of 2004, is one of the four countries (the others being Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia) with the largest number of out-of-school children, it notes that the figure — derived from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics data — is at variance with the results of an Indian government-commissioned household survey done by the Social and Rural Research Institute in 2005. This survey said that 13.5 million children were out of school, a figure that was close to the results of non-government organisation Pratham's national survey, which put the figure at 14 million.

"Enrolling a child in school doesn't even mean that the child is attending classes, passing exams or going on to the next class."

 •  SSA in Kerala, next frontier
 •  Acclaim hides many failures
 •  Measuring the state of education

While Shanta Sinha refers to these contradictory surveys as a "data war", Dayaram, an expert on SSA who prefers to be known only by his first name, says that all and any data that is thrown around is likely to be "unreliable". Dayaram worked for long with the SSA programme as the chief consultant on alternative schooling methods, and also did one of the first studies on the impact of para-teachers in primary education. The primary users of the data are at the state or national level, such as officials who use the statistics for planning purposes, and not those at the school level, he points out. "Why would the schools put in any information which will make them look bad?" he says.

R Govinda of the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration at Delhi points out that both the parents and the teachers are likely to say that the child is enrolled in school. "What needs to be checked is how many children there are in a village and whether they are all in school — one has to visit more than once to check this. Find out which schools the children are going to, and check with the schools. Do this twice a year, then it is a scientific method of conducting a survey," says Govinda. However, even with such stringent guidelines, it is not enough to measure SSA's success by numbers alone, he adds.

The missing children

Ramesh Sekhar Reddy, programme director of Mahita, a non-government organisation that works in the area of education in Hyderabad, calls the enrolment game a "funny affair". "You will find children working in urban areas and grazing cattle or doing agricultural work in villages, but technically, their names will be in the register of schools," he says. Reddy's organisation has come across several such cases in the slums in Hyderabad as well in villages in Andhra Pradesh. The distribution of funds and food for the mid-day meal scheme is done on the basis of these fraudulent enrolment figures, which is why in many cases school and village-level officials have no qualms in perpetrating the sham.

Reddy points out that one of SSA's major failings is that it doesn't have a strategy to retain children in school. Many schools have unqualified para-teachers hired on contract, and poor infrastructure with insufficient toilets and drinking water. These are all reasons why children may not want to be in school even if they are enrolled. Pointing out that quality has suffered in SSA's obsession with numbers, activist Bharat Bhushan, who has worked in Andhra Pradesh, says that enrolment figures are often fudged to hide drop-outs and poor attendance rates. For instance, the attendance and enrolment records do not even reflect the changes due to seasonal migration amongst poor households. Even in drought-prone areas where large-scale migrations take place, the attendance is shown as stable, says Bhushan.

One main reason for this is the mid-day meal scheme. Dayaram points out that 80 percent attendance is expected in schools where mid-day meals are served. "So schools show 80 percent attendance even if the classroom attendance is less," he says. Dayaram remembers visiting six schools in Maharashtra and finding that though the teachers claimed that the attendance rate was 80 percent, less than half the students were present in class. "There were several students who hadn't been coming to school for months," he adds.

Aditya Natraj, who heads Pratham's operations in Gujarat, says that the enrolment figures don't take chronic absenteeism into account. "A child may not be attending school because he has to take care of siblings, has to work, doesn't like school or because the school is far away," he explains. But, a child's name is removed from the rolls only if he or she has not attended school continuously for three or six months. Even if the child turns up for a day in between, the name continues to be on the records. "That doesn't mean that he is learning or attending school," says Natraj. It is, therefore, important to recognise absenteeism and the problems children face. The children may have disabilities, could be working, or could be migrating with their parents for certain periods of the year — such as during non-harvest season — for work, he adds.

New indicators

Natraj says that a number-based approach is inevitable when one is dealing with 20 crore (200 million) children. "Indicators evolve over a period of time," he says. "In 2000-2001, 70-80 million children were said to be out of school. Now, even the largest estimate will put the number at 35 million." According to the UNESCO report, state governments had estimated that 25 million children in the 6-13 age group were out of school in 2002, but by 2005, their number had almost halved going by the government figures.

While some experts question even this drastic reduction in numbers, Natraj points out that the indicators have evolved simultaneously. "In the schemes for 2001 to 2004, the emphasis was on teacher appointments and civil works. In the 2004-2007 schedule, the stress is on tribal communities, migration and integrated education. A change in priorities can be seen," he says. The awareness generated in the initial stages of the programme could explain the surge in enrolment figures, though it is clear that a lot more needs to be done in terms of retaining children in school.

An effective monitoring system, created by the community, would put pressure on the school for improving teachers' timings and the quality of mid-day meals.