ASER 2022: Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown on India’s Education Landscape

The latest Annual Status of Education Report said that as schools resumed operations after the COVID-19 pandemic, the country's five to 16-year-old students' fundamental reading and math skills dramatically declined.

This is part II of a two-part analysis produced from the latest edition of Centre for New Economics Studies’ (CNES) InfoSphere initiative. Click here to access the web edition, and here for access to InfoSphere team’s previous work. All data points are sourced from the edition’s research. Read the first part here.

According to the Annual State of Education Report (ASER 2022), as schools resumed operations after the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s five to 16-year-old students’ fundamental reading and math skills dramatically declined.

Millions of students in India, from pre-primary through secondary levels of education, have been impacted by the pandemic-induced quarantine. Although a great deal of digital content has been produced and distributed to aid kids in continuing to learn at home, there is very little evidence of the impact the content has on the children.

Proportion of children enrolled in private schools. Source: ASER report 2022

According to the ASER report 2020, just 36% of all registered students received learning materials or activities from their teachers. However, 37% of students in grades 9 and up and 37% of students in grades 1 and 2 received learning materials. Across all grades, these percentages were consistently higher for students attending private schools as opposed to public schools.

More than 360 million students in India faced difficulty during the COVID0-19 pandemic-induced lockdown, due to which their education was impeded.

The report said that overall, more students enrolled in schools in 2022 as compared to 2018. At least 98.4% of students aged 6 to 14 enrolled in 2022 as compared to 97.2% in 2018.

The report also noted a decline in the percentage of girls who are not in school across the country. It said there was a dramatic rise in the number of children enrolled in pre-primary age groups in 2022 as compared to 2018.

Also read: What Happens to the Right to Education, Online?

Government schools versus private schools

Source: ASER report 2022

As the pandemic abated in 2022, school enrollment hit a record high. The percentage of children (aged 6 to 14) enrolled in government schools climbed significantly from 65.6% in 2018 to 72.9% in 2022. However, the enrollment numbers in private schools decreased from 9.51 billion to 8.82 billion in 2021-2022. The reason for the shift from private to public schools could be due to budgetary constraints because of the pandemic.

Teacher versus student attendance

Additionally, the number of schools declined from 15.09 lakh in 2020-21 to 14.89 lakh in 2021-22. This trend may not necessarily indicate a negative standard of education.

The decrease in the number of schools is due to the closure of some private schools and mainly due to the amalgamation of schools across India. An amalgamation generally means bringing together two (or more) schools as one single school, located on the same site and under the same leadership usually.

Source: ASER report 2021-22

For both students and teachers, attendance in school has stayed more or less the same since 2018. Average teacher attendance increased from 85.4% in 2018 to 87.1% in 2022. Meanwhile, average student attendance continues to hover at around 72% for the past several years.

Source: ASER report 2021-22

Family history and background

A family’s size, parents’ education, especially the mother’s, income among other factors affect the education quality and period of the children. Parents can influence educational decisions for their children in terms of encouraging them to learn as much as possible or in some cases to even drop out of studies.

The National Center for Educational Statistics found that those who started their careers directly out of high school and whose parents lacked advanced degrees were more likely to believe that a college education was not required to achieve their professional objectives. It may be possible that with time, more people began to believe that jobs can be secured without a good degree or completion of education (as employment went up for them till 2019 as seen in the table below).

Source: National Center for Educational Statistics

They may look at the short run in the sense that immediately after school or without a degree, they managed to get employed and earn a basic living. However, they fail to acknowledge that in the the long run, they need to increase their standard of living, they need better education which leads to better job opportunities.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the less educated the parent, the more probable it is that the family would be labeled as “low income”. As per the study, 86% of children with parents who have less than a high school diploma live in low-income families, as opposed to children with parents who have a high school diploma but no college education (67%), and children with at least one parent who has some college education (31%).

According to research on the relationship between income and education, children who grow up in low-income homes are destined to encounter a number of difficulties, some of which may manifest as challenging home settings, even when family resources improve. This study used 4,412 children and their mothers to look at how financial shocks affect families and children’s academic growth.

According to the study’s estimates, children who are exposed to higher incomes tend to benefit in the form of improved academic performance.

There are two ways how parents influence their children’s education, after they drop out from schools due to income restrictions: some families continue to home school their children while some got their children to help them with chores, thereby deviating them further from studies.

Source: Census of India

From the data we can form a correlation that as the education of women increased, so did the education of the children. This can be used to validate the point that a mother’s education has a positive effect on the family as it increases the chances for the child’s education as well.

According to a cross-country research in India, children with educated mothers are more likely to attend school and seek higher levels of education. In fact, women’s education has a greater influence on children’s education than men’s education (Sarojadevi & Subramanian, 2018). Therefore, women with higher education levels provide the next generation of children with a better educational foundation.

National Education Policy 2020: hope versus reality?

From the multifold objectives of NEP 2020, we focus on two points here, namely,

  • Decrease in dropout rates
  • Increase in enrollment

The gross enrollment ratio (GER) is the ratio between the number of pupils enrolled at a certain educational level (such as elementary schools or higher education) and the number of children who would typically attend that level of instruction. We see that although India’s higher education GER is improving each year, it is far less than what is needed for India to achieve its $5 trillion economy dream.

Source: Press Information Bureau

This can be attributed to the fact that India’s GER drops as the level of education increases (as seen in secondary and higher secondary data). Hence, NEP 2020 aims to attain 50% higher education GER by 2035, accelerating efforts towards boosting enrollment rates in the lower levels of education as well. Therefore, the NEP 2020 has two objectives: decrease dropout rates and boost enrollment rates.

Although, according to the most current Economic Survey, dropout rates decreased between financial year 2013-14 and FY2021-22, and GER across schools rose in FY22 at all levels. It is important to improve this trend further.

One huge area of concern is the dropout rate of girls among marginalised groups. The Gender Inclusion Fund, which will provide educational support to girls, as mentioned in NEP 2020, aims to counter this problem.

The policy also recommends that regions of the country with sizable populations from the socio-economically disadvantaged groups be designated as Special Education Zones (SEZs), where all programmes and policies are implemented to the fullest through additional concerted efforts to significantly alter their educational environment.

According to the Economic Survey, Samagra Shiksha, the RTE Act, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, and the PM POSHAN programmes played an important role in enhancing enrollment and retention of children. With NEP 2020 aiming to raise educational expenditure to 6% of India’s gross domestic product, such programmes can be expanded significantly.

Also read: What the New Education Policy Will Mean for Universities in India

Where the NEP’s execution may falter?

As a columnist recently remarked, “One of the besetting sins of (Indian) policymaking has always been an excess of ambition. Policy is rarely written for the constraints of implementation in Indian context.”

Among many other scholars and writers reviewing (and reflecting) on India’s public-policy environment, one of us previously argued that our public policy ecosystem suffers from a chronic “implementation curse”.

In the context of the NEP, too, much praise and some critical scrutiny has emerged on the nuances of developing a more holistic, multi-layered content of learning through a localised-linguistic outreach. There’s a need to make an over-arching attempt to overhaul India’s broken education system, but what’s missing is the underlying reality on how ruptured our implementation and executive capacity is.

It isn’t as if there is just a behavioural crisis of a weak executive intent to not implement a policy (or law) but this surfaces from a decentralised fragmentation of state authority, poor accountability, and an under-allocation of financial resources in doing what needs to be done.

Apart from the bureaucrats, other stakeholders, too, (in the context of NEP) need to work and operate under a better structured incentive-system that makes the implementation process a ‘win-win’ for both in the future. Adopting principles of multidisciplinary, flexible learning, ‘easier’ evaluation systems, and a more diverse linguistic exposure, are all welcome in India’s diverse ethno-linguistic and socially fragmented national identity.

What remains to be seen is the Union and state governments’ effort in executing this policy. In the projected vision of regulatorily easing educational rules, or by setting up a new National Higher Education Body (replacing the University Grants Commission), one isn’t sure if these steps may only be a tool to exert greater political control over universities.

The National Research Fund, too, for example, may turn into a tool for imposing ideological dispositions on educational institution across different levels.

The 6% GDP annual expenditure on (higher) education sounds more ‘ambitious’, given how overall Union government spending on education has remained sub-par for most of the last nine years. The vector of fiscal priority and political preference has been pointed at the reverse direction, say, towards promotion of rampant privatisation and commercialisation of education; reducing funds to top public institutions, while posing concerns of unequal access to quality education for most of India’s young citizenry, marred by a socio-economic divide. The policy needs more scrutiny and debate on its implications for the ‘marginalised’ groups too.

While the excitement and praise on an ‘ambitious’ plan to overhaul India’s education system may be understood, the underlying ability of the state to implement what it wishes and demonstrate effective executive capacity requires greater scrutiny and engagement. It might be better to have an annual exercise of independent policy assessments, as part of periodic cycle of policy evaluations to understand context-specific ailments, afflicting the executive’s policy implementation process at the ground level. Else, the realisation of an executive ‘overload’, among other reasons, may transpire as an inevitable outcome.

Deepanshu Mohan is professor of Economics and director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University. Yuvaraj Mandal, Bilquis Calcuttawala, Amisha Singh, Nishit Patil, Vedika Singhvi are all research analysts with CNES, and members of the CNES-InfoSphere team.