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Gender- and wealth-driven disparities affecting children’s school performance in India

University of East Anglia led research reveals that gender and wealth-driven disparities continue to negatively impact Indian children’s educational outcomes, despite recent government policy reforms.

According to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA), children from poorer households consistently experience educational disadvantages compared to their wealthier peers, and girls are more adversely affected than boys. Researchers from UEA and the University of Birmingham, which partnered on the project, said their findings highlight the limitations of the current education policy and called for more comprehensive reform.

Their report, ‘Picking winners: An empirical analysis of the determinants of educational outcomes in India’, is published today in the British Educational Research Journal.

The research was conducted jointly by Dr Nicholas Vasilakos, a lecturer in International Business in the Norwich Business School at UEA and Dr Christian Darko, a lecturer in Applied Business and Labour Economics at the Birmingham Business School of the University of Birmingham.

The project used data from the Young Lives longitudinal survey to analyse the effect of socioeconomic conditions and gender on the educational performance of young children in India.

Data was drawn from standardised scores on two cognitive tests: the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) and a maths test, and the researchers looked at results from 951 children from the regions of Andhra Pradesh, Rayalaseema and Telangana.

Dr Vasilakos said: “India has undergone a period of rapid modernisation across all areas of social and economic activity – including education.

“Despite recent policy reforms in boosting enrolment rates and improving access to education, there are still substantial gender- and wealth-driven disparities affecting the educational progression of young children in India.

“Our results show that children from wealthier households consistently outperform their less-affluent peers.

“There are also significant gender differences in the way household wealth affects the educational performance of children. Specifically, boys born into wealthier households perform considerably better in maths than those from worse-off economic backgrounds. The effect of wealth on the PPVT – which measures verbal ability and general cognitive development – is stronger for girls than it is for boys.

“We also find that high caregiver aspirations are positively and significantly associated with better performance in math, for boys but not for girls.”

Children from wealthier households have fewer constraints – such as the cost of books, school fees or uniforms – and no need to work for income or perform household chores, as their less-affluent peers often must. Additionally, children from poorer households may only have access to substandard schools and resources, and less parental support with their education. They are also more susceptible to adverse economic shocks, which may in turn force parents to make choices about which child to send to school – or indeed, to choose between work and an education.

Dr Vasilakos and his colleague at Birmingham, Dr Christian Darko, said the importance of early life education is a determinant of later-life success. Moreover, additional policy reforms need to consider gender differences in access to education as well as employment opportunities, and tackle issues related to gender bias both in schools and the workplace.

Dr Vasilakos said: “Educational policy reforms may not be able to fully achieve their objectives, unless they are accompanied by economic policies that address issues of inequity and inequality.  

“Such policies should aim to economically empower poorer households to reap the benefits of educational reforms by making them less reliant on their children’s income for survival, whilst improving schooling quality, especially in areas where children from poorer households are likely to be over-represented.

“Until these changes happen, India will be limiting its economic and developmental potential.”

Picking winners: An empirical analysis of the determinants of educational outcomes in India’, is published 10 July 2020 in the British Educational Research Journal.

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