Pandemic did not put a lot of children out of school, but education suffered
How did the pandemic affect education in India? The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) offers the first comprehensive answer to this question.
When India announced a 68-day long nation-wide lockdown on March 25, 2020 most activities came to a standstill. While economic activities have normalised with easing of restrictions, educational institutions have seen the slowest return to normalcy.
How did the pandemic affect education in India? The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) offers the first comprehensive answer to this question. The ASER survey was conducted in September and it has looked at the status of school education in rural areas. The survey was carried out through mobile phone interviews in 581 districts and it has been to gather responses from at least 76000 households. What does the report tell us about the pandemic’s impact on school education?
Enrolment levels fell marginally with the pandemic
First, the good news. The pandemic did not, as expected, lead to a sharp fall in enrolment levels. While the share of children – the ASER report looks at children in the 6-14 years age-group – out of school increased from 4% to 5.5% between the 2018 and 2020 ASER surveys, this number has come down slightly to 4.9% in the 2021 edition. To be sure, these numbers might not tell us the true picture of school enrolment in rural areas. Because the 2021 ASER survey only contacted families through mobile phones, the 2018 comparison given in the latest report has only looked at households which had a mobile phone. This limitation in data collection might have led to the exclusion of some of the poorest households in rural areas.
But the pandemic has delayed schooling for many young children
Where the pandemic might have hurt the most is when it comes to putting young children in school. A note by Suman Bhattacharya, Director of Research as ASER, given in this year’s report highlights this.
“Among 5-8-year-olds, the proportion of children not currently enrolled is 7.2%, much higher than the corresponding proportion among older children and almost the same as in 2020 (7.5%). This year too, the proportion of children not currently enrolled is highest among 5-year-olds, reaching more than 14% in both 2020 and 2021”, Bhattacharya says. “These data point to a critical task ahead – that of ensuring that young children enrol in pre-school and school. It may be that many 5- and 6- year-olds are simply awaiting admission, as is the case every year. But this year is not a normal year, and getting these young children into school is urgent: they have already missed many months of engagement during the critical period of maximum brain development, and once this period is over, the opportunity to help them build firm foundations during the vital early years will be lost”, the report adds.
The qualitative impact of the pandemic is much bigger than quantitative impact on education
The fact that enrolment levels have not suffered a big fall during the pandemic does not mean that education has not suffered. The ASER report offers more than compelling evidence on this count.
All enrolled children were not able to attend online classes
As schools shifted to online learning, students faced a multiplicity of challenges. The ASER survey confirms anecdotal accounts of students facing hurdles in terms of access – to mobile phones, connectivity, even electricity. Only 27% of students surveyed had access to a mobile phone at all times. This number was even lower for children in lower grades, suggesting that scarce resources were prioritised to facilitate learning in higher grades.
Online education is more difficult for the underprivileged
As the world shifted to remote work during the pandemic, everyone struggled to adjust themselves. The ASER survey shows that online learning has been a difficult challenge for a large number of students in rural areas. Between the 2020 and 2021 ASER surveys – they were conducted in September of respective years – only half of the students were more comfortable with online learning even after spending a year doing it. The ASER survey gives a segregation on this count by educational status of parents and the results show that the share of children who found online learning activities easier at home between 2020 and 2021 increased with an improvement in educational status of parents. According to the report, low parental education includes families where both parents have completed Class V or less (including those with no schooling). At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘high’ parental education category comprises families where both parents have completed at least Class 9. All other parents are in the ‘medium’ category. The fact that the ability to adapt to online learning differs even in these educational categories suggests that children whose parents have had higher education, say to the graduate level, would have found online classes and schooling even easier.
The pandemic’s blow to parents’ aspirations: shift from private to public schools
The biggest change which the pandemic has brought about in school education is the shift in enrolment from private to public schools. The share of children enrolled in private schools came down from 32.5% in 2018 to 24.4% in 2021. This has been accompanied by a similar increase in share of children enrolled in government schools. Almost two-thirds of these decisions was driven by pandemic related financial distress. Migration, which intuitively speaking (reverse migration after lockdown etc) could be a big reason, actually played a very small role in this change.
A 2016 Mint story by Dipti Jain, which was based on a 2014 National Sample Survey Office Survey puts this change into context. “Among 100 people who prefer private schools in rural India, more than 92 do it for three reasons. One, better learning environment in private schools; two, English being the medium of instruction in private schools; three, quality of education being unsatisfactory in government schools”, the story said.
That dream has been dented by the pandemic – if not broken altogether.