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Reaching Millions in India: Primary Education For All Children

March 18, 2010

March 18, 2010 - India’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) program was created with ambitious objectives - to increase enrollments, reduce out-of-school children, narrow gender and social gaps, and improve the quality of elementary education for all children.

Since 2001, India's Education for All program (SSA) has enrolled some 20 million previously out-of-school children, especially girls and children from socially disadvantaged families. Special residential schools have encouraged girls’ education in areas where female literacy is low. The state of Tamil Nadu has dramatically improved learning through new methods such as Activity Based Learning.

Enabling Girls' Education

“I used to tend to the cattle, fetch water and firewood, and look after my 5 younger siblings,” recalls 12 year old Madhubala Bishnoi in Jodhpur district of Rajasthan, India's desert state. Married at eleven, Madhubala would typically have remained with her impoverished farmer-parents till she reached an age when she could be sent to her husband’s home.

But now, a newly-opened residential school about a half a day’s journey from her village has provided Madhubala and her parents with an opportunity to break with old ways, turning the young girl’s life around completely. Now Madhubala,scrubbed and clean, enjoys playing on the computer whenever she has free time at school.

The school caters specifically to girls like her living in distant villages who have either dropped out of school or never been to school at all. It is one of the 1200 or so upper primary residential schools that have been opened under India’s ambitious Education for All program – the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) - to encourage parents to send their daughters to school. These schools have been opened in all districts of the country where female literacy is low and gender gaps are large.

The schools provide the girls, between the ages of 11 and 16, a safe place to live away from home, enabling them to at least complete Grade 8. The state of Rajasthan, one of India’s most educationally challenged states, has some 200 such schools.

Transforming village girls

Madhubala’s school in rural Jodhpur district has both electricity and running water, unlike her village home. Moreover, the girls’ basic expenses - board and lodging, medical check-ups, uniforms, stationery, and books - are provided for by the SSA, making it an attractive option for reluctant parents.

At school, the girls catch up on lost learning. They are also encouraged to paint, sing, dance, and play games, as well as to ride bicycles to become more independent. The schools also expose them to new ideas by taking them on excursions to the wider world beyond.

The girls are introduced to successful women from all walks of life to fire their imaginations about the brave new world of opportunities that lie ahead once they finish their education.

From grazing goats to engineering

13 year old Mamta has recently completed Grade 8 at the residential school in Shergarh, a desert village in the far reaches of Rajasthan. Mamta spent her early years grazing the family’s flocks.

Once at school, Mamta proved to be a quick learner. Now, her father has a host of aspirations for his bright daughter. “I want her to study science and become an engineer,” he says with visible pride.

Achievements against all odds

Pappu Devi, an illiterate mother beams as she looks at her young daughter. “Her whole look and demeanor has changed. Even the way she speaks now is much nicer,” she says approvingly.

Attitudes to girls’ education are undoubtedly changing. The parents are now proud of the girls’ transformation.

Although more remains to be done to bring girls into schools, a good beginning has clearly been made.


  • Over 98% of children now have access to a primary school within 1 km of their home.
  • The gender gap has reduced. As of 2008, there are 93 girls for every 100 boys in
    primary school, compared to just 90 in the early 2000s.
  • The enrollment of children from long-deprived and marginalized communities in public schools exceeded their share in the general population.
  • Of the 2.7 million children identified with special needs, 2.6 million were enrolled by 2009.
  • Transition rates from primary to upper primary school rose from 75% in 2002 to 83% in 2009.
  • Annual drop-out rates fell from 10% in 2004 to 8.6% in 2008
  • Many states are either approaching universal primary enrollment or have already achieved it.

World Bank's Role

The program is supported by the World Bank, the European Commission and the United Kingdom’s DFID. The World Bank is the single largest contributor.

In the first phase of support (SSA I: 2004-2007) the World Bank contributed $500 million of the total program cost of $3.5 billion. In the second phase (SSA II: 2008 - 2010), the World Bank is providing another $1.35 billion.The Bank’s support to the program gains importance in light of the Government of India’s recently–passed historic Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009.