India’s Schooling Crisis

September 21, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Beyond excited to host a development hero, Jean Drèze, on the blog. He introduces some new research showing that in India, the prolonged closure of schools has taken a heavy toll. A sound strategy to deal with this crisis is nowhere in sight.

Indian children have been “locked out” of school for almost a year and a half. This lockout, one of the longest in the world, has played havoc with their lives and the country’s fragile schooling system. As primary and upper-primary schools finally begin to reopen, it is important to wake up to the damage and think about how to repair it.

Last month, dozens of volunteers (mainly university students) fanned out to underprivileged neighbourhoods around the country to meet school children and their families. They interviewed nearly 1,400 households with at least one child enrolled at the primary or upper-primary level. The findings, released last week, are more than alarming.

The School Children’s Online and Offline Learning (SCHOOL) survey, as we call it, found that online education had a very limited reach: the proportion of sample children who were studying online regularly was just 24% in urban areas and 8% in rural areas. This is all the more striking as three-fourths of urban households and half of rural households in the sample had a smartphone. Aside from smartphone ownership, the multiple challenges of online study include smartphone access, adequate connectivity, recharge money, intelligible material and a conducive environment. Among parents of “online children” (those who were studying online, regularly or occasionally), only a small minority were satisfied with their child’s study material. More than two thirds felt that their child’s reading and writing abilities were higher before the lockout than they are today – a severe indictment of online education.

If online children had a hard time staying afloat, the rest (“offline children”) were mostly left to drift away or sink. In rural areas, nearly half of offline children were not studying at all at the time of the survey. Except for a small minority who could afford private tuition, those who were studying were mainly doing so at home on their own. The figures do not change much when the reference period is extended to the preceding three months. Access to education during the lockout has been particularly restricted for Dalit and Adivasi children, who needed it the most.

Efforts were certainly made in some states to support offline children (say, by giving them homework), and many individual teachers also went out of their way to help them. Judging from the SCHOOL survey, however, these efforts were not very effective. In both rural and urban areas, about 80% of the parents of offline children felt that their child’s ability to read and write had declined during the lockout. Most of them (97% in rural areas) wanted schools to reopen as soon as possible.

A simple reading test confirmed that child literacy rates have sunk well below ordinary levels. In the age group of 8-12 years, for instance, only half of rural children were able read a simple sentence. Among those currently enrolled in Grade 3, only one fourth could read more than a few words. Comparisons with the last population census, the National Family Health Surveys, and the ASER surveys, all suggest that child literacy is in freefall.

Literacy is a basic tool of self-defence in modern society. Without it, children are exposed not only to economic hardship but also to lifelong powerlessness and exploitation. Literacy is also a springboard of further study. A resurgence of mass illiteracy among children, if it is allowed to happen, could have dire and lasting consequences.

Instead of helping disadvantaged children, however, the schooling system is simply catapulting them two grades ahead of the class they were enrolled in before the lockout. Children who have forgotten the Hindi alphabet are now saddled with thick English textbooks! The disconnect between the school curriculum and the learning levels of disadvantaged children is a chronic problem in India’s stratified education system, but it is now reaching absurd proportions. Without radical changes in curriculum and pedagogy, these children have no chance.

Alienation from the curriculum is just one part of the price children are likely to pay for this extended lockout. For almost a year and a half, they have been deprived of the wide-ranging benefits of school participation – peer learning, new ideas, a safe environment and nutritional support, among others. Parents interviewed in the SCHOOL survey shared many concerns related to their children’s whereabouts, attitudes, activities and associations during the lockout. It will take months if not years of patient work to restore children’s intellectual, psychological, social and nutritional wellbeing. For some, like those who have dropped out or become child labourers, it is already too late – or perhaps not.

The central government, alas, seems to be in denial about the schooling crisis. This year, when extra resources were urgently needed to renovate schools, train teachers, prepare new learning material and initiate health-related precautions, the Finance Minister blissfully reduced the budget of the Department of School Education by 10% or so, even as the Union Budget as a whole increased by more than 15%. To this day, the central government persists with its delusional faith in online education. In the Prime Minister’s own words last week: “The challenges [of education] were many, but all of you found solutions to those challenges swiftly. Online classes, group video calls, online projects, online exams, etc. were not even heard before. But our teachers, parents and our youth have easily made them a part of their daily life!” Really?

An enlightened strategy to deal with the schooling crisis is nowhere in sight. All eyes are on the country’s educationalists – thinkers and practitioners – for a way forward. As things stand, the system seems to be heading for business as usual (with the odd “bridge course” thrown in) as and when schools reopen. This is a recipe for disaster.

Incidentally, the closure of anganwadis (child care centres) in the last 17 months raises similar issues. Like schools, they should reopen as soon as possible, with due safeguards: anganwadis provide many essential services to women and children. In anganwadis at least, the transition is likely to be easier – there is no case for hesitation.

The author is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University (the SCHOOL survey report is available here).

September 21, 2021
Duncan Green