12 years of quality education for all children and promoting lifelong learning opportunities is fundamental to young people reaching their full potential, as set out in Sustainable Development Goal 4.
Over the last two decades, we have seen significant improvement in access to education in India, with vastly increased school and university enrolment rates and reduced overall levels of student dropout.
Yet despite these gains, overall learning outcomes remain shockingly low with significant and widening inequalities in educational achievements both across and within our study countries. Addressing the growing learning crisis involves delivering on every child’s right to basic foundational skills, including basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Young Lives unique mixed methods data on education is collected through our household and school surveys, in-depth interviews with children and their families, teachers and head teachers, and pioneering research on how cognitive, socio-emotional and job-related skills develop.
With this data now covering two decades, we can track the skills development and educational and learning journeys of our study participants from infancy through to early adulthood. Our comprehensive data allows us to evaluate the causes and consequences of inequality in education and learning, by exploring individual characteristics, skills and aspirations, family circumstances and expectations, and school effectiveness, and how this affects securing work and forming families.
Our evidence shows that intersecting inequalities impact skills development and learning outcomes from very early in life, with children from the poorest households, in rural areas, and from minority status backgrounds consistently underperforming. Malnutrition experienced in early childhood can not only cause physical stunting but can significantly affect the development of important cognitive skills, such as vocabulary and basic mathematics, with longer-term consequences for the development of socio-emotional skills such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, and agency.
Gender gaps in learning emerge more strongly around 12 years of age and continue to widen into early adulthood. Interestingly girls are not always disadvantaged; for example, girls have lower aspirations and underperform in learning outcomes in India.
Where gender intersects with other inequalities, such as wealth, rural location, and minority status, adolescent learning, and outcomes are more profoundly affected. Girls who drop out of school, especially in rural areas and among poorer households, are much more likely to be married off early by their parents, than those who stay in education. Likewise, early motherhood puts girls at much greater risk of dropping out of school, as well as having detrimental effects on the health of the baby.
Our longitudinal evidence shows that early life inequalities have later-life consequences. Early childhood exposure to malnutrition can have long-term consequences on later socio-emotional skills such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, and agency. Poor skills development and lower aspirations can affect access to higher education and the ability to secure a decent job. Conversely, stronger skills and aspirations are associated with reduced levels of risky behavior and teenage pregnancy.
The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating inequalities in education following the closure of schools and universities and disrupted classes. Evidence from our 2020 phone survey shows that it is young people from poor households and rural communities, especially vulnerable girls and young women, who have been hardest hit by interrupted education. Persistent learning gaps, worsened by a digital divide in online learning, has left a substantial proportion of vulnerable young people at risk of being left behind and never returning to the classroom.