We are failing our children
This was the week that my household of primary school-going children in New Delhi was waiting for; 21 long months after they closed, schools were finally re-opening. India has the dubious distinction of one of the longest pandemic-induced school closures across the globe. After foot-dragging for months, several states, including Delhi, finally authorised reopening primary schools in November.
It is a measure of how little we value schooling that we found ways to prioritise festival gatherings, election campaigns and every other conceivable form of Covid-19 “inappropriate behaviour” with remarkable alacrity, but kept school gates firmly shut through most of these 21 months. Every stakeholder, from governments to schools, parents in urban digital bubbles and media-savvy “experts”, has played a role in this perfect storm, choosing to ignore science, educational needs, and the realities of India’s deep digital divide.
For residents of Delhi, the excitement was short-lived. We had barely dusted off school bags when the annual pollution season led to another bout of school closures. One has to ask why the Delhi government waited till the most predictable event on the calendar to reopen primary schools, without an action plan. Most children are breathing this foul air, regardless of whether schools are open or closed. And if the goal was to reduce traffic, then closing private offices, rather than schools that are, in any case, operating at 50% capacity, could have been considered. But then, we are not a country where government prioritises schooling.
Delhi’s trauma’s aside, as schools in many parts of the country slowly reopen, they must confront a new reality. It is well understood that school closure will have resulted in significant learning deficits. But policy solutions to bridging these first require us to confront the significant changes that Covid-19 has brought to our education landscape. It isn’t business as usual, as the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for rural India reveals. Two headline findings are worth noting.
First, there has been a dramatic change in the pattern of school enrollments as financial distress has caused a shift away from private to government schools. Private school enrollment in the age group of 6-14 dropped from 32.5% in 2018 to 24.4% in 2021. Government school enrollment increased from 64.3% to 70.3%. Importantly, the shift is sharpest among children of relatively better-off parents. ASER uses education of parents as a proxy for economic status. In 2018, a mere 44.4% children of parents who fall in the “high” education category were enrolled in government schools. This number is now 61.7%.
Increased enrollment raises the critical question of financial resources. Is there enough money and basic infrastructure for schools to respond, especially as education budgets have been slashed through the pandemic? The policy challenge is not just about increasing spending. It is likely, as ASER cautions, that there will be variation in attendance and fluctuation in enrollment. After all, parents may revisit their schooling choices, if incomes recover. In such a dynamic situation, school financial needs will best be assessed locally. At a minimum, districts, and ideally, schools, ought to be given greater spending autonomy. This is the antithesis of the current policy where financial decisions are taken remotely in New Delhi and state capitals — but is a necessary policy pivot.
Second, the pandemic has forced the teaching-learning ecosystem to innovate. The universe of who imparts education, and the modes through which children access learning material, has expanded significantly. At one level, the picture is grim. The aggregate numbers with access to online schooling and teaching-learning material such as worksheets are low. With schools out of reach, where possible, parents have sought alternative means of educating their children. The incidence of children going to private tuition, especially among poorer families, has risen significantly.
But here’s the silver lining. In these 21 months, schools, teachers and governments across the country have been forced to experiment with different ways of teaching children, albeit with limited reach. The teaching-learning universe now includes WhatsApp cues, worksheets, teaching videos, door-to-door campaigns, and private tutors with parents as mediators. Perhaps for the first time, school boundaries have been transgressed and parents, regardless of educational background, are now active participants in the teaching-learning process.
Classrooms in India have long been victim to a pedagogy that chases syllabus completion and aligns itself to curriculum expectations, rather than what children know. Two years of school closure has rendered the curriculum redundant. ASER emphasises this. Classrooms need to go back to basics (foundational literacy and numeracy) and allow children to reconnect and catch up. This is where the pandemic experience can and must be leveraged. The nascent experiments with expanding the teaching-learning universe and parental outreach show that even recalcitrant government school systems can innovate. We failed to prioritise and scale these approaches through the pandemic.
With schools reopening, there is an opportunity for governments to design policy that brings these experiences into classrooms, with parents as partners through a concerted state-to-state campaign to rebuild foundational skills. The proliferation of private tutors in some states could be leveraged as a short-term resource to support teachers for remedial classes. But this will only be possible if we make education a national priority and commit to closing schools only as a last resort. On this, judging by our record since March 2020, I remain deeply sceptical. We are, as a nation, failing our children.
Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal