As the pandemic recedes, so do our memories of the devastating impact of the two long years that we lived with the spectre of COVID-19. But have we made up for the losses that the pandemic caused? The economy definitely doesn’t seem to suggest so, as we brace ourselves for what the future holds, and a similar story emerges from school education in India. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022 paints a grim picture and to a certain extent shows what was already predicted by a multitude of surveys on the impact of the COVID-19-induced school closures on children’s learning.
Our own research, based on a survey of 3,176 households across five states in India, had showed that not only was access to phones and online learning extremely limited for children belonging to socio-economically deprived sections like Dalits and Adivasis, but the condition was worse for girls due to various structural constraints at play. The data also pointed to the possibility of loss of learning due to the low penetration and usage of education offered through either phone or TV programmes.
Studies that tried to capture learning loss confirmed the possibility. An Azim Premji University study covering more than 16,000 children studying in classes 2-6 in five states had clearly established that children in all these grades were losing their language and mathematical abilities that they had learnt the previous year. Yet another study conducted on the learning loss during the pandemic, by the SCHOOL team led by Jean Drèze, showed that not even 50% children from a household sample of about 1,400 could read more than a few words. All these studies were conducted between August 2020 and August 2021. In the light of these, can we really consider the findings of the ASER report to be a story of recovery? We are not so sure.
The ASER report clearly shows low learning levels in language, where only about 20% children in class three, 43% children in class five and 70% children in class eight can read a standard two-level text. In basic arithmetic too, only about 26% children in class three could do subtraction, about the same number of children in class five could do basic division and about only 45% children in class eight do the same. The history of ASER surveys tells us that it is not new for children to underperform in comparison to their respective age/class-appropriate learning levels, especially in such surveys. But this report also compares these numbers with an earlier survey done in 2018, and there is a drop in almost all parameters of learning for children – an obvious sign of loss in learning.
The data from ASER also shows that the loss is most acute in the younger age group of children, who are now in class three, and this is not at all surprising. One needs to remember that most of these children have started going to school only last year, and have probably lost two foundational years of learning in class one and two to the school closures. The quick fix online education that was offered was no match. Also, when the test – reading grade two text – remains the same for classes three, five and eight, it is bound to render better outcomes for the higher grades.
Nevertheless, what we all need to worry about is that learning loss is a compounding variable. When one is forgetting previously learnt concepts, it is going to create further gaps in future learning. And this is far more disturbing for the foundational years, as their ability to learn in the later years will be severely compromised. This needs attention; if we look at these results as signs of recovery, we will perhaps not take appropriate measures. Moreover, since the ASER report presents only the aggregate picture in rural areas, it perhaps hides the fact that these losses could be far worse for Dalit and Adivasi children, or for those coming from economically poor sections, as the studies conducted during the times of COVID-19 had highlighted.
The ASER report shows that even when schools were closed, some children continued to learn because of the help they received from their family members and tuition classes. This obviously means that children who are first generation learners with no literate members at home with the time or the resources to help them with their learning would have perhaps faced the worst level of learning losses. Affordability would have played a role in accessing tuition classes, and that would again mean the poorest would have been excluded. It is also important to consider, especially for policy planners at the state and national levels, why schools in rural areas were disallowed to function while tuition centres, with much worse infrastructure and often with no space to maintain any kind of physical distancing, were overflowing with children.
So, when we look at the glass which is half full but has holes in it, it is important that we see it as a leaking glass, and take measures that would help us repair those. The problem is not only the pandemic-related losses, but also structural lapses, especially if we are serious about making our schools more resilient and inclusive for students from the socio-economic margins of our society.
Neha Ghatak and Jyotsna Jha work at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies in Bangalore.
Edited by Jahnavi Sen.