The numbers of out-of-school children (OOSC) put out by various official sources in India, show wide variations. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) survey by Social and Rural Research Institute – Indian Market Research Bureau (SRIIMRB) estimate of this figure is around 6 million, while for the same year 2014, the National Sample Survey (NSS) figure is around 20 million. The problems lie not just in the definitions of OOSC used by each data collector but also in their systems of collecting and collating data as well as the methods of estimation. For instance, all school level information is collected only by teachers who have a conflict of interest in relation to indicators, such as in inflating student attendance for purposes of mid day meal allocations or their own job security. Further, dropouts are estimated on the basis of continuous non-attendance over a period of time that varies from state to state (2 weeks in Karnataka to 3 months in Gujarat). Sporadic or irregular attendance is not taken into account when estimating drop out rates. This calls for a closer look at the attendance patterns of children with special emphasis on sporadic or irregular attendance. With learning outcomes dominating the policy discourse on education, unpacking the links between attendance and learning thus becomes important.
The pilot study of out-of-school children (OOSC) presented here was undertaken to unpack the phenomena of OOSC through an intensive micro-study of enrolment and attendance of all children in a single Gram Panchayat (GP or Panchayat). The emphasis of the study was on providing a methodological framework to understand the phenomenon of OOSC by a) looking at attendance patterns across social groups (caste, gender and migratory families); b) broadening the scope of the definition of an out of school child by including irregular attendance in it; c) highlighting the gaps in the official data system on OOSC; and d) linking attendance with aspects of school functioning such as infrastructure and availability of teachers.
The study highlights the need to examine the issue of the out of school child in greater detail especially its links with irregular attendance and school functioning as they bring to light not just the gap in universal provision of elementary education, but also one of the reasons for poor learning outcomes. It highlights further the need to align methods of data collection and estimation on this important indicator, in order to enable validation of data across sources for research as well as policy.