Low education outcomes and poor quality of education are the biggest impediments to faster economic growth, as it continues to trap young people in poverty, according to the World Bank.
In a report, Student Learning in South Asia, released by the World Bank on Monday, a comprehensive assessment has been made of the educational systems across the region spanning Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
"The poor quality of education in South Asia is a major obstacle to the region's future economic prospects. Raising education quality in South Asia is an urgent priority that could transform the region's economic landscape," said Halil Dundar, education specialist at the World Bank and one of the report's authors.
The report presents a comprehensive study which analyses the performance of the region's educational systems in terms of student learning, draws on data already available from national assessments. In the Indian case, it has drawn on studies and data collected by the NCERT and Pratham's annual state of the education reports (ASER). The report relies on data collected and published between 2000 and 2011.
Its conclusion is familiar, that governments must now focus on improving the quality of education in schools, even as it recognizes the tremendous progress in increasing schooling access over the past decade.
"Just spending time in school is not enough. There has to be a significant gain in skills that requires an improvement in the quality of education. This will help countries in the region to reap the full expected returns on their investments and generate gains in productivity and economic growth," said Philippe Le Houerou, World Bank Vice President for the South Asia Region.
The report recognizes the increased investment in education that has helped these countries achieve spectacular results as part of the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education for all children by 2015. Enrollment in schools is now nearly universal in India. However, the focus of the report is on student learning, in this the South Asian countries continue to lag behind.
While recognizing that the education system has to cope with large influx of first-generation school-goers in the last decade or so the Bank's report stresses that the system of learning continues to be "procedural" or rote based. As a result, students are lacking or fare poorly in practical competencies such as measurement, problem-solving, and writing of meaningful and grammatically-correct sentences. One quarter to one third of those who graduate from primary school lack basic numeracy and literacy skills that would enable them to further their education. This would explain why secondary level enrollment continues to be low.
To address the issue of low learning outcomes, the Bank's report suggests that there has to be renewed focus on ensuring that young children get enough nutrition, especially as South Asia has the world's highest rates of childhood malnutrition and this has a damaging effect on their ability to learn. "Investing in early-life nutrition, with appropriate coverage and age targeting, is critical to offset those disadvantages and can be a highly cost-effective investment in the quality and efficiency efficiency of education," the report says.
Improving teacher quality and the use of financial incentives to boost quality is one way to address the issue of teacher quality and performance. The Bank also makes a strong pitch for a bigger role for the private sector.
According to the report, "South Asian governments cannot afford to improve educational quality by themselves. The private sector is already playing a major role in education, and governments should encourage greater private-sector participation by easing entry barriers and encouraging well-designed public-private partnerships". It also calls for improving the measurement of student progressand suggest benchmarking national learning outcomes against international standards.