Lessons in the pandemic | Business Standard Editorials

Clipped from: https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/lessons-in-the-pandemic-121111701493_1.html

Addressing school learning losses should be a priority

The Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) for 2021, conducted by the non-governmental organisation Pratham, offers some critical pointers for policymakers on the direction of rural school education in a post-pandemic world. Unlike Aser’s previous reports, which focused on learning outcomes, the 2020 and 2021 editions have sought to capture the state of rural education during the longest duration of school closures in the world. In a country where the quality of basic education remains a major challenge, this 16th report captures trends during the early phases of partial school reopening. Among the standout findings, and one that has implications for public education budgets of the Centre and states, is the rise in enrolment in government schools over the past two years, halting the rapid rise in the private schooling industry. In 2018, 64 per cent of children aged 6 to 14 years were enrolled in government schools. By 2020, this percentage rose to 66 per cent and then to 70.3 per cent in 2021.

Private school enrolment, which had risen strongly over the past decade, plateaued at about 30 per cent and then actually fell during the pandemic years. Anecdotal evidence from surveyors suggests that this 6-percentage point shift over 2018 could have been the result of parents’ financial difficulties, access to free facilities, increased closure of private schools and, of course, labour migration. Interestingly, the state that saw the biggest change in government school enrolment between 2018 and 2021 was Uttar Pradesh (UP) with a 13.2-percentage points jump — highly literate Kerala, with the highest Covid-19 infection numbers recorded the second highest rise at 12 percentage points. In the two years that saw massive increases in paid tuition, too, the percentage of children accessing such services did not differ significantly across government and private schools. Given the equality implicit in state schooling, this jump in government school enrolment is undoubtedly a trend that should be leveraged by policymakers in education budget allocations.

The pandemic highlighted like nothing else the criticality of distance learning and access, a fact that made unicorns out of e-education players. But the digital divide — or deficiency — was clearly accentuated in the survey’s findings on children’s access to smartphones. As it noted, smartphone penetration in rural India had grown from 36.5 per cent in 2018 to 62 per cent in 2020. Some 68 per cent of enrolled children had at least one smartphone at home, though the percentage varied sharply between households of children attending government schools (63.7 per cent) and private ones (79 per cent). But having a smartphone at home did not automatically translate into children having access to the device—some 26 per cent of them had no access to it at all. In states such as Bihar, UP and West Bengal, the lack of access varied from 54 to 34 per cent. The pointer to the need for collective digital education infrastructure is obvious, more so in those remote areas where disruptions to school attendance can be frequent. Aser’s latest report points to the greater challenges that lie ahead in bridging the huge learning losses that India’s children, especially in the formative years, have suffered. In a future where skill development will be critical to employment, this should be an urgent priority.

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