India’s missing millions of out of school children: A case of reality not living up to estimation?


Census of India 2011 numbers dealing with education released earlier this year showed that about 32 million children in India aged between 6-13 years have never attended any educational institution. However, government estimates of out-of-school children for the same period show substantially lower numbers. Given that out-of-school numbers consist of both the children who dropped out and the children who have never attended schools, it raises some questions about the numbers thrown up by the periodic National Surveys on Estimation of ‘Out of School Children’. 

In its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) assessment in 2015, UNDP stated that India has made significant progress in universalising primary education, and is moderately on track to achieve this goal. Enrolment and completion rates of girls in primary school have improved and are catching up with those of boys, as are elementary completion rates. At the national level, male and female youth literacy rate is likely to be at 94.8% and 92.4%.

However, UNDP cautions about the large numbers of children still out of school and failing to complete primary education. This is particularly the case of girls; children living in rural areas and; children from marginalised and minority communities. 

There are fears that the real picture in terms of children not attending schools can be much worse than what the generally discussed statistics suggest.  In the light of recently-released education tables from Census 2011, this piece explores the number of Indian children who do not attend any educational institutions.  

It is a well-accepted fact that India’s statistical achievements around human development have to be taken often with a pinch of salt. Vimala Ramachandran, who is the National Fellow at National University for Educational Planning and Administration had observed that enrolment data, particularly from schools and the education department, is often unreliable since they tend to over-report. According to her, these numbers must be complemented by data on dropouts and on those who have never attended school. 

According to Indian authorities, the number of out-of-school children has declined steadily since 2001. A national level survey commissioned in 2005 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India estimated the number of out-of-school children at 13.5 million during the year 2005. According to this survey, where data was collected from 87,874 households across the country the number of out-of-school children accounted for 6.9 % of the total number of children in 2005. 

The second round of the survey conducted in 2009 covering 99,226 households indicated that the number of out-of-school children declined from 13.5 million in 2005 to 8.15 million. In other words, it was estimated that the percentage of out-of-school children within the total population in the age group 6-14 years has decreased from 6.9 % in 2005 to 4.3 % in the year 2009. The third and the latest round of  the National Survey on Estimation of Out of School Children, conducted in 2014 covering 99,929 households, has estimated that the number has further fallen to 6 million or 2.97% of total number of children.  

A second exercise by UNICEF in 2014 based on an analysis of household surveys estimated the total number of out of school children as much higher than official projections. It showed that a total of 17.8 million children between the ages 5 to 13 were out of school in India. 

While a debate on the veracity of the number of out of school children can go on, it will be useful to look at the most reliable source among all, the Census, and the trends between 2001 and 2011. Census 2011 numbers on education were released along with thenumbers on religious demography a few months ago. It’s anybody’s guess as to which set of data got covered in the media. The media celebrated the spectacle of  respectable commentators  reading Census as some kind of a Sensex of religion, and mostly ignored the education numbers. 

What got buried in this outrageous wastage of column space were issues that actually affect peoples’ life. India’s children who never got to attend schools being a case in point, despite our high-volume rhetoric around education for all. 

Census Numbers

The Census of India remains the most reliable source for any assessment of children not attending schools, since all the other numbers that we see are estimates based on samples of varying sizes. The Census covers every household across the country. Till 2001 Census, we only got information on whether a child is attending an educational institution. However, in Census 2011, separate codes were given for children who have never attended any educational institution and persons who have attended an institution earlier. This has widened the scope for analysis. 

If we look at the total population, this means that in 2011, out of a total of 208 million children between 6-13 years, 18.3% were not attending any educational institutions as the next graph shows. In real terms, this means 38 million children, a significant reduction from 58 millionin 2001.  However, just to put these numbers in perspective, an earlier round of National Survey on Estimation of Out of School Children in 2009 indicated that the number of out-of-school children declined from 13.5 million in 2005 to 8.2 million in 2009.   There is a gap of about 30 million, between the Census number for 2011 and the 2009 GoI estimate. 

The Census 2011 figures suggest the overall numbers we are looking at are much larger.  While the situation has certainly improved over 2001 Census, in 2011 we still had 38 million children between 6-13 years not attending any educational institutions.  This included 7.1 million Dalit and 4.6 million Adivasi children.  Alarmingly, of these 38 million children, more than 80 % have never attended any educational institution. 

It is also worth mentioning that after 2011, the Census year, India’s total enrolment in Elementary schools has stagnated and has in fact started declining as the following graph shows.



Accounting for Caste-based Attendance

The National Sample Survey had estimated that three out of four children currently out of school in India are either Dalit (32.4%), Muslim (25.7%) or Adivasi (16.6%).  In real terms, the numbers were Dalit (2 million), Muslim (1.5 million) or Adivasi (1 million). 

 The Census 2011 data reveals that the actual numbers are much higher, but also suggests that while Adivasi and Dalit children are certainly less likely to be attending an educational institution, the divergence with the national average may not be as much as it was in 2001 (or what the National Survey on Estimation of Out of School Children 2014 estimated), as the following graph shows. 



In the light of these facts, the fate of 38 million children of India, who, as of 2011, were not attending educational institutions, remains unclear. The urgency of the situation is compounded when we realise that about 32 million of these children have never been to any educational institution. Can the Right to Education (RTE) Act help them? Sure it can. However, given the shift in the latest Union Budget away from social sectors, it remains to be seen to what extent. 


Oommen C Kurian is with Policy, Research and Campaigns, Oxfam India. 

Photo credit: Oommen C Kurian

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