What Freedoms, Which Schools for the Millions of Abandoned ‘Offline’ Children?

All state governments need a quick appraisal of the situation of schools in districts and blocks to ensure immediate responsibility for necessary action.

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After a year and a half of closure, some states have announced plans to reopen schools in the coming weeks – though not for those who have a fundamental Right to Education. Elementary school students, aged 6-14 years, have been forgotten, while the ‘offline’ majority lies completely abandoned behind the illusionary screen of online education.

An alternative academic curriculum developed by the NCERT last year during the COVID-19 lockdown states that:

“Fortunately, almost everyone owns a mobile (italics added). Additionally, many people use it for social media such as SMS, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, Twitter as well as Google mail and Google Hangout. These tools have the advantage of providing us with the facility to connect with more than one student and parent at a time. There is, of course, the possibility that many of us may not have internet facility on the mobile or may not be able to use all the above-mentioned social media tools. In that event, the solution is that students may be guided through SMS on mobile phones or mobile call. Parents’ help can also be sought for, if needed by the learners.”

That the apex educational body can make such false assertions about the nation is worrying enough, notwithstanding its policy mandate to metamorphose it into a Vishwaguru; a ‘global knowledge superpower’. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 resolved to reconfigure its entire education system to ensure the lofty goal of “inclusive and equitable quality education for all”, adopted in 2015 as the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, to reconfigure its entire system for a year and a half, and more, with a universal solution for even high school students to be educated through SMS, helped by parents, is a cruel joke on all – the poor and the privileged. Moreover, a switch to online is now part of the imagined overall reconfiguration, through school and university education, even for future pre-service and in-service teacher education.

Also read: While Students Use Social Media to Speak to Power, Schools Tutor Them in Slavish Sycophancy

However, those who happen to be ‘offline’, as disadvantaged children without digital devices or internet connectivity are now often called, will in no way mar India’s focussed global vision. Their precarious ‘learning outcomes’ and high ‘learning losses’, as repeatedly announced by studies done during the long school closure, will place them where they belong – out of school or into the labour market – through certified standardised tests. The language of deficit of ‘outcomes’ places the onus on students even as it denies them entitlements and ‘inputs’. It labels and segregates them into sections with different syllabi or schools with stratified facilities. Public education has been going through such a reconfiguration for some years now, worryingly not legally called out as violation of children’s’ rights, against being discriminated and given dismal and unequal opportunities.

The Delhi government not only segregates and divides the young into separate sections on their ability to read or divide, but stringently tests them for admission into its better resourced schools. Its recently announced affiliation of 30 schools to the most expensive elite private Board of the International Baccalaureate (IB) (at a reported discounted price of Rs 1 crore) lays bare its blatant model of privatisation and stratification, used to showcase iniquitously forged notions of ‘excellence’.

Ironically, these few schools comprise its new Delhi Board of School Education, with a primary objective to produce “kattar deshbhakts (fanatical patriots)”. In disconcerting times when the disruption of democratic spaces for the young happens under the banner of ‘kattar deshbhakti‘, the hoisting of the ubiquitous deshbhakti (patriotism) flag in the capital, raises further questions about manipulating educational jingoism.

On this historic day, while calling for our children’s freedoms, let us recall that after a traumatic and divisive Partition, the Secondary Education Commission in 1952 had presciently warned that the “love of one’s country must not degenerate into nationalistic jingoism”. Schools must develop a critical appraisal of a nation’s realities; true patriotism involved “a readiness to recognise its weaknesses frankly and to work for their eradication”.

Where are the truly patriotic and caring education systems?

Which ‘truly patriotic’ education system today is working with a sincere desire to identify its weaknesses, to alleviate social divisiveness and inequalities, to not abandon children behind the smokescreen of online education, but honour their right to ‘inclusive and equitable quality education?

How many schools will take responsibility for the most vulnerable children impacted by life’s precarity – pushed out of school, or shifted to a government school from the private one their parents can no longer afford, or themselves forced into labour? When schools reopen, will it be business as usual? Or will schools start with empathy for the ‘real learnings’ that children went through, even in privileged environments, of life and death, and families coping with debt? Many have suddenly grown up and assumed responsibilities beyond their age, to work to support their families or pay for their own educational expenses. They have faced domestic violence, child marriage and trafficking, and learned to cope with depression, isolation and the loss of friendship and solidarity.

Also read: An Indifferent System Can’t See that Students Don’t Want to Be ‘Board Exam Warriors’

Household surveys in states such as Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand, conducted by voluntary organisations involved with the Right to Education, namely, the Tamil Nadu Science Forum and BGVS (Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti) respectively, have shown the alarming reality of large numbers of abandoned schools and underprivileged children. The two states fall on either side of the spectrum of educational provision – Tamil Nadu is among the few with high provision and performance, while Jharkhand has poorer provision, with high teacher vacancies and large numbers of underserved tribal villages.

Jharkhand. Photo: Provided by author

In over 200 villages across 35 districts of Tamil Nadu, among the 2,100 students spoken to, only half had been able to access the government educational television channel or online education. Moreover, 13% are involved in labour and, more worryingly, 11% have not enrolled in the next class this year, indicating that these groups together amounting to 24% of the sample are potential ‘push outs’. About two third children had met teachers on some occasions, to get their textbooks or food rations in place of the mid day meal. In these villages enrolment in government schools had increased by 5% while it dropped by 7% in private schools. An overwhelming response from 95% children said they eagerly awaited schools to reopen.

In Jharkhand, the experiences of children and parents were much more alarming. The first phase of the Jharkhand BGVS survey was initially supported by Prof. Jean Dreze. It covered almost 2,000 underprivileged households (in 330 villages across 15 districts). About 80% children spoken to were from government schools and the others in private schools.  Only about 10% managed to access online classes, over 30% said the teacher had never met them, while half said they had met a teacher only a couple of times since March 2020. Over 90% parents were very keen for schools to reopen; they could see that children were forgetting what they had known earlier and were losing interest and confidence in their abilities to learn at school.

Many schools were in an uncared and dismal condition owing to the long closure and lack of maintenance and it was not clear how long it would take to get them functional. The Jharkhand survey is continuing, while BGVS is preparing to conduct similar household surveys in other states, with the objectives to understand the realities of vulnerable children, to dialogue with parents, teachers and local representatives, and ensure that schools take responsibility and safely reopen at the earliest.

A caring model of Vataare Shalas (community schools)

Perhaps the most significant public initiative to support children’s education through the pandemic period was conducted in the Kalaburagi Division of Karnataka. It began with  some government teachers, a few also part of BGVS, who decided to meet small groups of 15-20 children in safe open spaces, and helped them with learning activities. They planned integrated activities for a mixed age group of 6-16 years, and also supervised the use of the education channel.

“Parents were excited to see children actively engaged in learning, and the challenge was for us to find ways to train 60,000 teachers online to plan assignments, write the profile of each child, to make their own blogs…” is how Nalini Atul, Additional Commissioner of Public Instruction (ADCPI) of Kalaburagi Division, enthusiastically describes the process. They managed to keep education running in over 33,000 Vataare Shalas across seven districts of the Division.

Vataare Shalas

The regular primary teacher stayed at one place, while a subject teacher for the upper primary classes rotated once a week. The ADCPI himself participated in special orientation sessions on learning to learn, assessment of integrated learning, enhancing children’s use of the library for the ‘Fire of Reading’ programme (in which over ten lakh children registered). He also made personal visits to motivate teachers in the block level trainings and community schools.

Teachers collectively planned  to conduct engaging activities and experiments, provided reading materials and worksheets and also regularly monitored children’s health and recorded their temperature. Around October-November 2020, after the MLC elections, some primary teachers managed to stall the programme, but it continued till end January 2021. However, there is still a commitment to monitor the disease and restart activities appropriately where the infection is low. Significantly, teachers and administrators including the ADCPI feel this model of integrated learning through activities and projects must be strengthened and taken forward even when schools reopen.

Also read: Delhi Govt, Students Appeal in HC Against Order Allowing Private Schools to Charge Annual Fees

Learning from such government initiatives, all state governments need a quick appraisal of the situation of schools in districts and blocks to ensure immediate responsibility for necessary action. Special care and support through a network of persons and agencies is urgently required to bring back those forced into child labour. In Tamil Nadu, there is a demand that those who have lost their parents during the pandemic need a special monthly scholarship and support. The priority of providing cooked food must be maintained instead of giving dry rations, even during periods of school closure. The learning schedule needs to be seriously reworked so that teachers are not forced to ‘cover the syllabus’ but have time to ‘discover the child’, what she has been through, learned and lost, and give her a chance to regain her confidence. Those who have come from private schools will need special emotional support and attention to offset their experience of loss of friends and family income.

Children at the ‘Fire of Reading’ library programme. Photo: By arrangement

Most importantly, vaccinations of teachers and school staff must be completed as part of the priority accorded to essential workers. There is no question of having to wait till the time all children are vaccinated, which is not a public health priority and can take much longer for vaccines to be developed and tested for the young ones. Advisories from public health experts have stated that younger children, even though capable of carrying the same viral load, are less susceptible to severe disease.

Depending on the number of children and the safe spaces in classrooms and schools, the decision could be taken to call them on alternate days, to avoid crowding. However, it must not be business as usual, through what is called ‘remedial teaching’ – which is demeaning as it assumes a deficit or malady in the child that is being remedied. Moreover, it has to be worked out with teachers, since they cannot continue to conduct physical along with online classes as is being suggested in some quarters. In any case, online classes at best provide some coaching, and cannot substitute for education.

Keeping children engaged in collective activities, not individual tasks, will bring back their interest and help restore their dreams. Only such caring schools can create a motivating environment of learning and belonging, and can help children aspire for their freedoms, even to wage battles on their own to resist being married early, or pulled out for work or pushed out of school.

Anita Rampal was Professor and former Dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University.