The 10-year-old son of an illiterate metal crockery peddler in rural Rajasthan, Surinder Gavariya dreams of being a police officer. But his prospects already seem bleak. Despite four years at the local government primary school in his village Gawariya Ki Dhani, the boy, now a fifth-year student, cannot read basic Hindi.

His teacher, Jagdish Prashad Bairwa, blames Surinder’s inability to read on his erratic school attendance; he often misses classes to take the family goats to graze. “They are not very regular,” Mr Bairwa says of the 19 children enrolled in the tiny village school. “During the harvest season, or when there is work at home, they don’t turn up. Whatever they learn, they forget.”

Yet the proceedings inside the bare-walled class are hardly inspiring for first-generation students like Surinder, whose family was unable to provide any pre-school preparation for their son.

Each day, the students — a mix of different ages, grades and skill levels — sit together in a single dim room, spending most of their time working independently on written assignments, which Mr Bairwa then corrects.

Surinder’s failure to achieve basic literacy after four years of school is a reflection of a deep crisis in India’s primary education system, which threatens to stunt the prospects of tens of millions of young people — as well as India’s broader economic ambitions.

Though the country has succeeded in getting nearly all young children enrolled in primary school, studies suggest it is failing to teach many of them even basic skills.

According to the 2014 Annual Status of Education Report — a survey of 650,000 children organised by the non-governmental Pratham Education Foundation, more than half of rural India’s fifth-year students cannot read a simple story from a year two textbook fluently. Around 75 per cent of third year students cannot do two-digit subtraction, while nearly 20 per cent of second year students cannot recognise numbers up to 9.

Worryingly, results have declined considerably since the assessments began in 2005. Madhav Chavan, Pratham’s CEO, estimates over the past decade, 100m children completed primary school without attaining basic reading and maths skills.
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