India has the largest youth population in the world. Almost a third of Indians are between 15 and 29 years old. The country is set to become the world’s youngest with 64% of its population in the working age group. By 2020, the average age of the country will be 29.
India has also made significant progress in ensuring access to education through its Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) programme and the implementation of the landmark Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act. There is near-universal enrollment in primary education and almost all children in rural areas now have access to a primary school within a one-kilometre radius. The number of out-of-school children has decreased from approximately eight million in 2009 to just over six million in 2014.
Despite these achievements, challenges remain in moving beyond access, to a focus on learning and ensuring equity. Over one-third of children drop out before completing the full cycle of elementary education. The majority of children not in school are from vulnerable and marginalised groups, including from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe groups, religious minorities groups, and children with disabilities. Evidence also indicates that children are not learning at expected levels. According to the National Achievement Survey 2015 conducted by the National Council on Educational Research and Training, less than half the reading comprehension questions and mathematical questions posed in the survey were answered correctly by Class 5 students.
For the RTE Act and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be realised, it is essential that children receive quality, early childhood education to lay the foundation for lifelong learning. Data indicates that slightly over 70% of children between the ages of 3 and 6 are attending pre-primary education. While this is relatively high, it translates into approximately 20 million children not attending preschool, especially those who are from the poorest families, and those who live in rural areas. When children enter primary school directly, without quality preschool education – and thus, without school readiness – they are more likely to drop out and not learn to their full potential. Much thus depends on how well they start their education and how prepared they are for school.
Furthermore, to capitalise on India’s remarkable demographic dividend, the country must not just improve the quality of its education but also create employment opportunities, while ensuring increased participation of women in the work force. Young people must be motivated and allowed to participate in decision-making, especially in areas that have a direct impact on their future. As of today, young people contribute to about 34% of India’s gross national income.
Government of India Programmes and Initiatives
Aligned with the SDGs, the Government of India’s vision to empower young people is articulated in the National Youth Policy 2014. The government has undertaken initiatives to enable youth to fully participate in the job market and gain access to employment services. It has launched skill development programmes to build the competence of rural youth, especially those belonging to the below poverty line (BPL) and scheduled caste and tribe categories.
UNICEF and UNESCO convene the priority area group on inclusive quality education and employability. The group also constitutes FAO, IOM, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNEP, UNFPA, UN Women, UNODC, WFP, and UN-Habitat. The group aims to support the Government in achieving the national priority of quality education for all children ages 6 to 14. Focus areas for cooperation include reaching vulnerable and deprived children; adapting international best practices; and supporting care provides and community advocates to demand inclusive, quality education.
UNICEF has provided support for the development of the child-friendly schools and systems (CFSS) guiding principles, approved by the Ministry of Human Resource Development and launched in 2014. Assistance has also been provided for monitoring tools and the integration of the CFSS indicators into state plans in support of making schools child friendly.
In addition, as part of a global initiative, an India report titled ‘Out-of-School Children’ was prepared in collaboration with UNESCO-UIS and the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, which helped in understanding the profiles of these children and the data, definitional and statistical challenges with regard to estimating the number of out-of-school children.
UNICEF, in collaboration with UNESCO, is implementing a project entitled, ‘Promoting the Rights of Disabled Children to Quality Education’, funded by the UN Partnership to Promote the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As part of this project, UNICEF provides support to states to make the primary education curriculum more inclusive of children with disabilities and to build the capacity of teachers in this regard.