Without remedial action, the pandemic will cause a terrible learning deficit in tomorrow’s workforce

The parliamentary education committee must be congratulated. She has produced an open report on the impact of Covid-19 on a fragile and unjustified education system. There are some home truths too:

  • About 24 million children have missed school in over a year.
  • 77% of children do not have access to online lessons.
  • In any case, ‘online education is not real education’.
  • Early school leavers have increased in secondary education.

In fact, the drop-out figures refer to the year before the 2019-20 pandemic. Like the economy, our education system was in decline even before Covid-19. The two sectors are related: reversing all precedents, there are more early school leavers among boys than among girls. Boys drop out of school to earn a living – sometimes, after Covid, as the main breadwinner for their family.

The report acknowledges the yawning digital divide that stole classes from most children during the lockdown and refutes the government’s claim that they have 85% of online access. India’s school system has subdivisions across the public-private divide. 62% of the children attend state or state-sponsored schools. The other 38% are distributed among well-equipped, private elite institutions and a wide range of modest or questionable ones.

Illustration: Uday Deb

The benefits of online teaching mainly come to an undefined section of the former “cream layer”, mainly due to the massive spread of online coaching during the pandemic. The corporate lobby that provides this service has gained such visibility that it is seriously skewing our educational prospects. Their ardent rhetoric is reflected in the absorption of the government with their own online portals, regardless of how many students they reach or what teaching functions they may cover. This comfort zone is as relevant to the reality of Indian education after the pandemic as the optimistic Sensex is to the 97% of Indians affected by income loss.

Around 2.4 million Indian children enroll in Grade 1 each year. Apart from a small fraction of the privileged, the 2020 and 2021 groups have effectively not yet taken the first step towards literacy and numeracy. A large proportion of those previously enrolled have not acquired the skills or have forgotten what they have acquired. It is estimated that 8 to 10 million children in elementary school are currently unable to read or count. Unless extraordinary measures are taken, they will remain in this state. In the coming decades they will make up 9-10% of the Indian workforce.

Imagine an educationless demographic bubble of this size entrenched in our economy – a process resembling a physical embolism, the consequences of which every doctor knows. Add two more factors. This completely “uneducated” core will merge into a broad penumbra of the drastically uneducated. The Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) consistently show a serious learning deficit among primary school children. The pandemic will increase this incalculably. Further up the age ladder, the curricula are shortened and the assessment watered down. All in all, we are promoting a horrific learning deficit in the workforce of tomorrow.

The other factor inextricably linked to education in the general Indian context is health and nutrition. To the shame of the nation, physical growth and nutrition have been declining among Indian children for several years. The plight of the poor after the pandemic will multiply the damage. The Center for Science and the Environment estimates that 37.5 million children could experience weight and growth loss. Even 25% of that number seems worrying enough – and is in line with my estimate of the loss of nucleation.

A human and economic catastrophe can only be averted by major nationwide measures, of which there is no trace. At most, there is talk, still largely unfocused, of preventing dropouts. But this can only be the beginning of a long-term, intensive program to restore learning and nutritional deficits. In an important Bengali article, Abhijit Binayak Banerjee recommends the output-oriented methodology used by Pratham in his ASER. Indeed, this could be a model that will be adapted and extended to an action-oriented redevelopment agenda.

Such hopes seem misplaced when the Union budget for schooling has been cut by Rs.5,000 billion and for Anganwadi and related programs by Rs.4,500 billion from the original allocations for 2020-21. These were revised downwards when schools were closed, so that this year’s budget shows an inconspicuous increase.

But even though the schools were closed, the children were there: the budget cut last year missed both their nutritional and educational needs. The lunch budget this year is 13% less than 2013-14. The Ministry of Education had developed a program called Nipun Bharat to address the learning deficit in elementary schools. Paradoxically, the prolonged closure of schools was cited in order to extend the regulation and thus effectively suspend it. The Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, which it would fund, is facing a 38% budget cut.

And what about the national education policy? The Prime Minister launched ten new programs on his first anniversary. Only two concern school education. Neither does it remotely indicate the radical plans for early childhood care and education, according to which Anganwadis would merge with elementary schools to form integrated children’s centers.

Such a scheme, imaginatively adapted to the post-Covid situation, could address the extent of the problem; nothing less will serve. We missed the chance for detailed planning and infrastructure creation during the pandemic before schools reopen. It’s almost too late, but not quite. Failure on this front will deplete our economy for at least a generation of its already depleted human resources.

My arguments should be unnecessary. Millions of malnourished and school-age children should be argument enough. But the Indian psyche does not respond to mere human deprivation. The prospect of economic disaster could potentially make our thinking classes pause for thought.

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The views expressed above are the author’s own.

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