Government schools will be crucial to post-pandemic learning recovery. Centre and states need to back them with resources.
There is little doubt that the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic — followed by one of the longest school closures in the world — has redrawn India’s education landscape. How and to what extent is revealed in the latest ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) phone survey of 75,234 children in rural India. The most significant shift is the surge of students into government schools. In the last year alone, enrolment, across gender and age, has jumped from 65.8 per cent to 70.3 per cent. This reverses the trend since 2006, when private school enrolment grew steadily to settle at around 30 per cent in 2018. In the two years of the pandemic, this has fallen to 24.4 per cent. The reasons are not hard to surmise: The economic shock of the pandemic has not just squeezed incomes of families and led to a reverse exodus into rural India, it has also led to the closure of several low-cost private schools.
The ASER 2020 report offered a snapshot of digital inequality, with the majority of students shut out of the online classroom. That divide exists. Even though rural homes with smartphones have doubled since 2018 — and nearly 30 per cent of households reported buying a device to help their child’s education — 26.1 per cent children, and especially the young, still struggled to access it. In any case, the experience of the pandemic has called into question the efficacy of remote learning and technological solutions to a crisis of access and inequality. In the absence of schools, the report found a sharp rise in the dependence on private tuition classes. The largest increase in children taking tuition was in the most disadvantaged households — a sign of the persistent demand for good education even in straitened circumstances.
While the shift to government schools might not be permanent, it is now crucial to the post-pandemic recovery of learning levels. In the reopened schools surveyed, children unable to catch up with their syllabus posed the biggest challenge to teachers. One-third of children in Classes I and II have not yet seen the inside of a physical classroom. From designing bridge courses that can help restore children’s skills and confidence, to dealing with more students, government schools have their task cut out. But let’s not forget that in February this year, the Centre slashed the education budget by 6 per cent, with school education taking the biggest cut. Educationists fear that the learning loss caused by the pandemic might be inter-generational, with grave consequences for the economy and society. Government investment must match up with the challenge of educating the future.
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