Education in India Has Plunged into a Crisis. Just Reopening Schools Isn't Enough.

A recent survey in 16 states and union territories suggests has revealed that there has been a catastrophic slide in literacy among children from poor and marginalised sections. However, there seems to be no plan to help them.

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October is the month for new beginnings, not least for scores of children who have been unable to attend school in its physical form for the last year and a half. The pandemic has brought with it a shutdown of schools and a switch to the online format of learning. Now, as schools prepare to open their doors and resume teaching within the four walls of a learning space, there is a crying need to stop and take stock of the extent of the slide that has occurred. Because the truth is, for some, there has been no formal learning at all. Access to online learning has been deeply disparate and often ad hoc for children from poor households, particularly those from marginalised backgrounds.

In an irony of timing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told an education ministry-organised Shikshak Parv conclave, attended by teachers and students, how “easily (sehejta se)” students, teachers and parents had taken to online learning amid the pandemic.

Released just a day earlier, findings of the School Children’s Online and Offline Learning survey (SCHOOL survey) indicated the complete opposite. The survey was conducted in August across 16 states and union territories. It focused on relatively deprived hamlets and bastis (slums), where children generally attend government schools. The survey was a joint effort of nearly 100 volunteers across the country and the report was prepared by the coordination team –  Nirali Bakhla, Jean Drèze, Reetika Khera and Vipul Paikra. The findings are as far removed from the Prime Minister’s comments as day and night.

Jean Drèze. Credit: Anuradha Roy

Jean Drèze. Photo: Anuradha Roy

Speaking to me, Jean Drèze, visiting professor in the Department of Economics at Ranchi University, explained how millions of children are at risk of being permanently left out of formal learning.

“Amongst children in grade 3, only 25% were able to read more than a few words – an age where they should be able to read fluently in their mother tongue. This is way below what we would expect in normal times, based on earlier surveys. All the indicators are a lot worse for Dalit and Adivasi children compared to other children, even among underprivileged communities. The lockout for these children has amplified already extreme inequalities.”

What went wrong?

Several things, as the survey found. Drèze points out, “In rural areas, only 8% of the children enrolled in primary and upper-primary classes were studying online regularly. It was not that the children did not have a smartphone in their homes at all – half of the rural children live in households with a smartphone. But there are so many other hurdles that prevent online learning – children need connectivity, they need money for recharging phones, the school has to send online material and so on.

“Children also need to understand the material. All this makes online learning very difficult for most children. Secondly, a revelation to me was how little has been done for the majority of children who are unable to study online. In many states like Jharkhand, teachers have not received any clear instructions on how to help or support these children. In states like Maharashtra or Karnataka, some efforts were made to give children homework, but judging from the results, this has not achieved much.”

But this is neither something that has been recognised nor attended to in the period that schools have been shut down. And that points to the largely elitist nature of a system where online learning has been a more or less smooth transition for children from well-off families.

Also read: Reimagining a Post-COVID School for India

In Drèze’s words, “These children are twice removed from positions of influence – they don’t have a voice of their own, and then they belong to marginalised sections, so they are completely out of focus. The other aspect is the elitist approach to public policy in general and school education in particular. Basically, the prolonged “lockout” and switch to online learning were geared towards the privileged classes. Even the resistance to reopening schools comes largely from this section of parents.

The government’s delusional faith in online education was well expressed by the Prime Minister himself one day after the release of the report when he made a glowing statement about online education and how it had saved the day through the lockdown. All this is just another symptom of the Indian elite living in its own world and being unable or unwilling to see what is happening to marginalised sections.”

Reopening schools: Two steps forward, many steps back

While some time and attention have been spent on health safety measures that can be put in place for the children returning to school, no such plan seems to exist for adapting the curriculum or pedagogy to this unprecedented situation. Children are being promoted to higher grades without adequate preparedness. So, a child who is struggling to read a sentence in his or her mother tongue is now expected to read textbooks in completely new languages like English and Sanskrit.

Drèze adds, “Children in class 2 have more or less forgotten whatever they learnt in grade 1,but now find themselves in grade 4 with textbooks in alien languages like English. It is even worse for states like Jharkhand where teachers are going to be busy with duties for Gram Panchayat elections for the next few months. By the time that is over, the children will be promoted one more grade.

“So, a class 2 child who should now be re-learning the basics is going to be catapulted to class 5 in April. I feel that either you take drastic steps to simplify the curriculum, or you give children more time. Why can’t children be given time until, say, April 2023 to complete the grade in which they are enrolled today? That would not be a violation of the Right to Education Act. The Act says that an ‘individual child’ should not be held back or detained – if all children are given time, it would not be detaining them. Many parents, I am sure, would welcome this.”

File photo of school children studying in a classroom at a government-run school in Kolkata, November 20, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Files.

Symbolic short-term bridge courses are unlikely to serve the purpose. When Drèze spoke with a block education officer in survey areas in Jharkhand, for instance, on what would happen once schools reopened, he was told the plan was to mobilise “volunteer teachers” to give instructions outside school hours for a few months while the regular teachers carry on with the standard curriculum.

“The volunteer teachers are not even going to be trained – we need to go beyond symbolic measures of this kind,” said Drèze.

Not just about fixing learning

The survey has also found that among children within the sample who were studying in private schools before the lockout, 26% have now switched to government schools for lack of funds. The transition from private to public schools has been underway because of the costs involved with private schooling. That magnifies the challenge of reopening schools since it means that public school classrooms will be dealing with a larger number of children.

Of course, physical infrastructure may present another problem with schools going unkept and crumbling with seepage. The costs of reopening schools are real and do not seem to have been budgeted by states or the Union government.

Also read: Modi Govt’s Inability to Send Children Back to School Will Affect India’s Future

In fact, the survey has also found 8% of the children (boys and girls) had done some paid labour in the preceding three months, another high figure that points to confirmation of how children may be pulling out of the learning ecosystem.

And the ironies continue. On Wednesday, September 30, the Union government announced that the mid-day meal scheme will now be known as PM POSHAN and that around 24 lakh students receiving pre-primary education at government and government-aided schools will also be brought under the ambit of the scheme from next year.

This is perhaps a course correction from the ruthless slashes in spending on nutrition programmes being carried out under the Modi government: one in 2015-16 (when the Mid-Day Meal or MDM allocation was cut from Rs 13,215 crore to Rs 7,775 crore) and another that came through on ICDS spending in 2021-22.

The SCHOOL Survey has found that mid-day meals had been discontinued in all sample schools. While many states arranged for food grain to be provided as take-home rations to children’s families as a substitute for midday meals, Drèze said this wasn’t achieving the same outcome, all the more as the distribution was quite erratic.

Indian school children eat their free midday meal at a primary school. Photo: Adnan Abidi/Reuters/Files.

“Most of the families had received some food grain, but they are also supposed to receive cash to the extent normally provided for the so-called conversion costs, that is, to purchase vegetables, fuel and so on. There is no system to do that, so for a while, some states were distributing cash in hand but now the Union government is insisting on doing that through the DBT system which is proving very complex.

In Jharkhand, for instance, there has been no cash disbursement since September 2020, meanwhile, teachers are struggling to collect Aadhaar numbers, bank account numbers and so on. So this is another way in which parents have been short-changed.”

So, what next? Says Drèze, “We are certainly heading for a crisis unless something drastic is done now. We need to wake up and see that unusual measures are called for. Especially for children in lower grades 1,2 and 3 even up to 5 who have been abandoned and are now unable to cope with the system, they need intensive attention for many years. I wouldn’t say the schooling system has been destroyed by the lockout, but I would say that it is a good time now to open our eyes to the deficiencies and pathologies of the schooling system – I see this as one of India’s biggest failures since Independence.

“Seventy-five years is not a short time to make it possible for all children to receive a decent education till Class 10. In that respect, India has dramatically failed. Some states have fared better than others, for example, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh where the value of elementary education was recognised early on. They are now reaping the benefits of that in many ways, if you look at their social indicators, they are way ahead. We must realise that a big mistake has been made all this time and we have a lot to do to make up for it.”

No one’s children, no one’s problem

The decision to shut schools was certainly in response to the fear of a pandemic and how it could affect children. However, the radio silence in the last 18 months on how to reopen and how to support children who need learning the most has been inexplicable. It is also a clear reflection of the choices and privileges of those families that could seamlessly move into the online learning mode, with both access to devices and school infrastructure that supported learning in the virtual mode.

However, the ‘othering’ of children who do not have the same luxuries is not something that has gone unnoticed by parents from these marginalised communities.

Also read: COVID-19 Has Undone Years of Progress for Adolescent Girls

“Parents across rural India were often puzzled when asked about reopening schools. Why are you asking us this question, they said; obviously we want to see our children back to school and learning. Some of them feel there is a plot against them, to keep their children uneducated. There is an extreme manifestation today of a long-standing lack of state commitment to children in general and school education in particular.

“The Union government’s lack of commitment to children has been quite dramatic in the last seven years. For example, there have been two rounds of budget cuts for child-related programmes, one in 2015 and one in 2021. The cumulative impact of these cuts has been really drastic, about 40% reduction in real terms for both ICDS and school meals. So the abdication is extreme now, but it goes back many years. I think this is an important clue to what is happening today in underprivileged areas because the situation cannot be explained purely on health concerns.”

India has had a top-down approach to education for decades. The thrust has remained on skill-building via IITs and ITIs, and primary education has largely remained barren land for policymakers and private investors. But school education counts for so much – learning, social interaction, decision making, building the ability to problem-solving, and in many cases, access to a nutritious and hot meal.

If governments, both states and Union do not acknowledge the scale of the crisis and work to address it, the damage may be unalterable.

As Drèze warns, “There is more than a risk of resurgence of mass illiteracy unless something is done urgently, and this is just one aspect of the education emergency. What is happening affects the all-round development of children, their learning, health, nutrition and psychological wellbeing. Reopening schools and pretending that things are back to normal would be a recipe for disaster.”