A step towards solving India’s learning crisis - Hindustan Times
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A step towards solving India’s learning crisis

ByAshish Dhawan
Aug 03, 2021 06:45 PM IST

Many of us assume that higher classes and board examinations are the only critical parts of a child’s education journey. However, this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. It is the early school years, between the ages 3-8 years, which are the most important

The former education minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, recently launched the National Initiative for Proficiency in reading with Understanding and Numeracy (NIPUN) Bharat. A nationwide initiative on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN), NIPUN Bharat, aims to ensure all Class 3 children read with meaning and perform basic math problems by 2026-27.

Representational image. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
Representational image. (HT Archive)

This was followed by a string of initiatives launched by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and the education ministry under Dharmendra Pradhan, the newly appointed education minister, to mark the first anniversary of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.

Some of the key initiatives include SAFAL, a competency-based assessment in Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools for grades 3, 5 and 8; NDEAR, a national digital infrastructure to support teaching-learning; and NISHTHA 2.0, an integrated teacher training programme. These initiatives are all steps in the right direction and will add much needed momentum to improving learning outcomes.

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Many of us assume that higher classes and board examinations are the only critical parts of a child’s education journey. However, this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. It is the early school years, between the ages 3-8 years, which are the most important. This is when children pick up foundational, and extremely crucial, skills of language and mathematical operations. These basic skills form the bedrock of learning and skill acquisition as children progress academically. If children fail to acquire FLN skills by Class 3, they tend to fall behind as they find it difficult to read which renders them unable to engage with the curriculum.

According to the World Bank’s 2017 learning poverty index, 55% of India’s children cannot read and understand a short, age-appropriate text by Class 5. This was before the pandemic-induced school closures disrupted traditional teaching and learning for as many as 250 million children across the country, and aggravated the learning crisis. In addition to missing out on classroom learning, children also seem to have forgotten what they learnt in the previous year. According to a study conducted by the Azim Premji University, about 92% of children, on an average, lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year across all classes, while 82% lost at least one specific mathematical ability.

Given the worrying statistics, the government’s quest to prioritise FLN by launching a timebound national mission is reassuring. The launch of NIPUN Bharat comes close on the heels of the approval of NEP 2020. The policy accords the highest priority to FLN and mentions that it will become redundant if we don’t achieve universal FLN.

NIPUN Bharat gives us direction on how we can help children bounce back stronger as we navigate a second consecutive academic year through the pandemic. I believe the education system needs to adopt the PARI approach — Prioritise, Assess, Remediate, and Innovate. We must prioritise and help children regain and build their FLN skills.

There is no straitjacket solution to this; every child’s learning level and needs will vary significantly. A good starting point would be to assess the learning levels of children and then help them catch up with FLN skills and grade-level outcomes. Regular assessments, even if dipstick, should be held to measure progress against the FLN goals set by the national mission. After assessing, we must accordingly provide appropriate remediation support to make up for the Covid-induced learning loss and help children learn at par with the mission goals.

However, it is important to note here that we must be sensitive to the needs of children and help them regain and sharpen their skills instead of racing to meet the goals or complete the syllabus. Schools and governments can continue to innovate with “at-home learning programmes” and engage parents and communities to ensure that children stay engaged and learn more meaningfully. This is important to build on, since it is likely that we are looking at some sort of a system where schools open and shut frequently with children not attending at full strength on a regular basis.

We must also be aware of children’s social-emotional needs, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, as the ongoing pandemic continues to challenge lives and livelihoods. Children who are struggling with stress, food security, and homelessness are likely to require much more support.

Any national effort that aims for the universal acquisition of FLN skills must also be extended to private schools as nearly 50% of India’s schoolgoing children study in these. We will truly become NIPUN Bharat when the children studying in affordable private schools are also included in the FLN mission.

This has been a year of unprecedented adversity, but now is the time to build back better. While health care has taken precedence over all else, and rightly so, we must not overlook the intangible learning loss that threatens the future of our children and country. NIPUN Bharat is a milestone for India’s education system, and the new education minister can carry the baton forward to ensure we provide our children with what is rightfully theirs — a strong educational foundation on which to build their future as they return to school.

Ashish Dhawan is the founder-chairperson of Central Square Foundation

The views expressed are personal

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