Pandemic & Education

Exclusion is the norm in school education

Print edition : October 08, 2021

An employee of Kolkata Police’s South West Traffic Guard teaching slum children, near a railway station in Kolkata on August 24. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

The ‘culling’ that has taken place due to school closure during the pandemic fits in well with the New Education Policy in a context where the education system has been designed to exclude the oppressed and marginalised majority of students.

The prolonged closure of schools after the sudden and totally unplanned lockdown in March 2020 to a possible re-opening at the end of September 2021 (a period of 18 months) has grabbed some media attention at last. Following the release of the Emergency Report of School Education (ERSE) based on the School Children’s Online Offline Learning (SCHOOL) Survey, conducted in August 2021, news coverage has gone beyond reproducing political handouts extolling the virtues of the New Education Policy (NEP 2020).

The key findings of the first round of the survey covered 1,362 households, and 1,362 students studying in Classes 1 to 8. The focus was on “relatively deprived hamlets and bastis where children generally attend government schools”. It is worth noting that about one-fifth of the sampled students were studying in private schools at the time of the March lockdown. However, many private schools tried to continue with the same fees by turning to online classes. Most parents, already suffering reduced incomes, were reluctant to pay the fees when students were staying at home and they were also required to meet additional charges under the heads of smartphones and recharges. Further, online education did “not work well for their children” possibly because of poor connectivity (65 per cent for rural areas and 57 per cent for urban areas), an absence of a conducive environment at home and lack of unrestricted use of the family smartphone. As a result, 26 per cent of the sampled children left private schools for government schools, and many parents claimed they were waiting for private schools to give them transfer certificates for shifting their children to government schools as well.

A teacher in a government school in Delhi reveals the impact on the already ill-equipped and totally neglected system of public education. “Previously we used to have 45-50 students,” he said, “but financial distress among the aspirational working classes has resulted in massive admissions in our school. We have come to a situation where we have enrolled 175 students (50 in nursery and 125 in K.G.) in the pre-primary grades but we do not have a single teacher to engage them or even an ayah to mind them. This example can be multiplied across the country.”

Almost 60 per cent of the sampled families are rural and about 60 per cent are Dalit and Adivasi. So the survey focusses on the most underprivileged and consequently its findings have turned out to be not merely “bleak” but indeed “catastrophic”. Only 8 per cent of rural children were studying online and only 28 per cent were studying “regularly” both online and offline. Thirty-seven per cent were not studying at all during the period of the survey. The comparable figures for urban areas were 47 per cent studying “regularly” and 19 per cent not studying at all. Almost half the children, 42 per cent urban and 48 per cent rural, were unable to read more than a few words.

Also read: Out-of-school generation

For a country proclaiming 98 per cent enrolment with governments taking credit for this achievement, these are indeed shocking figures. This educational emergency is particularly severe given the huge numbers involved. A recent UNICEF report, Rapid Assessment of Learning During School Closures in the Context of Covid-19, (2021), states that school closures have impacted approximately 286 million children from pre-primary to upper (senior) secondary and this has added to the 6 million who were out of school even before the pandemic struck.

The disruption has been marked by the effect of sharp inequalities already entrenched in the system. Among the underprivileged, Dalit and Adivasi families are much worse off. Only 4 per cent of rural Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes students study online on a regular basis, compared with 15 per cent of other rural children. Forty-three per cent of S.C./S.T. students are not able to study at all, as opposed to only 25 per cent of dominant caste students. Eighty-three per cent of S.C./S.T. parents feel that their child’s ability to read and write has declined, as opposed to 66 per cent dominant caste parents.

The example provided in the survey of Kutmu village of Latehar district (Jharkhand), records discrimination in education. Although most of the households are of Dalits and Adivasis, the teacher belongs to one of the few dominant caste families in the village. None of the Dalit and Adivasi children interviewed in Kutmu were able to read fluently and parents spoke bitterly about the irresponsible attitude of the teacher. However, they felt unable to do anything about it. Some members of the dominant caste families openly asked the survey team, “If these [S.C./S.T.] children get educated, who will work in our fields?”

Increase in child labour

There is a rising incidence of child labour in the 10-14 age group and a majority of the girls are doing some household work. In rural areas about one-fourth of the girls had also done unpaid work in family fields in the preceding three months, and a substantial 8 per cent had done some paid work. Boys also laboured, but S.C./S.T. children were often made to work in the fields for others and faced discrimination from dominant caste members of the village.

The survey shows that an overwhelming majority of parents, including 65 per cent urban parents with “online children”, felt their child’s reading and writing abilities declined during the lockdown. Although 44 per cent parents in urban areas felt their children had adequate online access as compared with 25 per cent in rural areas, it is significant that 46 per cent children in urban areas found online classes/videos difficult to follow, which was close to the 43 per cent rural children who felt the same. So, besides the massive digital divide in India, the myth being propagated by the Prime Minister and Ministers in the Union and State governments alike that online learning is the ultimate panacea for India’s failure to universalise elementary education through formal, interactive classroom learning is exposed. Distance learning through TV, Doordarshan and feature phones found a dismal ‘response’ of less than 3 to 5 per cent (urban) and less than 1 per cent (rural) on an occasional basis.

Also read: Children as victims of the pandemic

Education demands much more than mere technology. It requires imagination, socialisation and sensitivity, as well as a deep respect for the constitutional principles of equality and social justice.

How the “offline children” fared

What were the conditions prevailing among the “offline children”? In the rural areas, almost half of the children who were not studying online were not studying at all during the survey. Irregularity was also a feature of their attempts at self-study, and home study with help, as well as study with classmates.

Part of the reason for this appears to be a lack of planning for providing support and engaging with students. In some States, such as Punjab, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, an effort was made to provide for some classes in schools or mohallas, give worksheets as homework to students, and to have teachers visiting homes to advise students and parents on how to occupy students not just sometimes but regularly at home. However, this appears not to have sustained itself too well. Only 5 per cent urban children had the teacher come home to inquire and advise; the figure was 12 per cent for rural children. A phone call outreach was made to 36 per cent urban children but only to 12 per cent rural children. Three per cent urban children and 2 per cent rural children had a teacher come home to help. But 39 per cent urban children and 25 per cent rural children did receive homework.

Most other States, including Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, were unable to do even this much and pretty much left families and children to cope on their own. Fifty-one per cent students in urban areas and 58 per cent in rural areas had not even met their teacher(s) in the 30 days before the survey, which generated further problems. Particularly, but not only in urban areas with confined homes, it was a “burden for children to be home” all day, and yet their wandering out-of-doors also caused anxiety. For working mothers, the closure of schools was a source of deep concern. For the students who struggled with the need to labour on the one hand and on the other to cope with the boredom of idleness with restricted resources, phone addiction and aggression were reported by parents who were worried about growing violent reactions.

However, the survey also “uncovered an impressive range of initiatives by caring teachers”. They convened small group classes in the open or even in their homes, recharged phones or shared their own phones with students who could not afford the expenses, and even helped them with their studies through home visits. These valuable inputs were a drop in the ocean in the face of the systemic lack of concern, planning and resources.

Also read: Locked out: Emergency report on school education

A final blow for students and their families during the pandemic was not just the school closures but the immediate discontinuation of midday meals and the nutritional loss suffered as a result. About 80 per cent of parents with children studying in government schools received some rice or wheat (often with complaints that the quantities distributed were less than the entitlement of 100 grammes daily per child) during the previous three months. A small minority received some cash. Others received nothing as the provisions made were both “sporadic and haphazard”.

The SCHOOL survey showed that the pandemic to a great extent exacerbated the consequences of what was already a crisis-ridden system of school education. It certainly did not create these conditions. The government school system in general has failed to provide anything like learning because the students and teachers alike are victims of a prolonged neglect. Denied adequate investments by governments for providing infrastructure, permanent trained faculty, and support for a student population drawn from increasingly deprived and marginalised sections of society, one can only hope that the results of the SCHOOL survey will act as a major “wake-up call” to those who have either been sleeping over the system’s calamitous descent into disastrous inefficiency, or have in fact contributed to this for the benefit of just about everyone but the children of this country.

What will it mean if schools are not merely to re-open by the end of September but to actually embark on a process of renewal? Firstly, the re-opening of lakhs of neighbourhood schools that have been “rationalised” and closed over the past three or four years. They will be needed, and there is an opportunity to revive them given the big shift to government schools seen during the pandemic. Secondly, urgently upgrading infrastructure to come up to the prescribed norms and quality. The failure to invest in our future generations for decades must be corrected and policies aimed at depriving the education system must be immediately reversed. Thirdly, a full complement of the trained faculty required for establishing a completely free and compulsory education system from ECCE upwards to Class XII needs to be put in place. Fourthly, an adequate nutritional programme requires to be implemented by a trained cadre maintained specially for this task. And finally, devising and engaging in a learning process involving faculty and students in all schools to determine how they will recognise and overcome the problems posed by the long lockout from school. This is crucial as children who are not going to school are being promoted to the next year and confronted with a higher programme of study.

A turning point?

This is an important moment and a chance for breaking out of the dysfunctional pre-pandemic mode and beginning anew. Not merely remedial but rejuvenating. Now is the time for making a sustained and serious effort at developing the long overdue process of continuous and constant evaluation. This would aid the learning process during the extended transition period and also allow for a more sensitive and holistic assessment of what counts as real achievement when children are encouraged to process and overcome the obstacles and oppressions that inevitably confront them in a highly diverse but unequal and hierarchical society. However, this means that State governments, teachers and students will have to critically take stock of the NEP 2020 and firmly resist the administrative fiats with which it is being presently imposed. Taking full advantage of the school closures and restrictions during the pandemic, these policies and strategies will take education towards an ideological and bureaucratic centralisation of the structure and content of education. This will empower officialdom and downgrade students, faculties and communities as there is no space created for their involvement in decision-making in their schools.

Also read: Digital divide deprives have-nots of proper online education

The ‘culling’ that has taken place because of school closure during the pandemic fits in well with the NEP’s policies. Structurally, the education system is being designed to exclude the oppressed and marginalised majority of students. For them the first five years of numeracy and literacy at the “anganwadi” level will, if they clear a proposed all-India exam, be followed by a curriculum which specifically in remote areas and for the weaker sections will provide vocational “skills”. If they fail to pass the test, their education will end at this level itself, depriving them of even the eight years’ schooling assured by the Right to Education Act (RTE), 2009. Formal education will be “reserved” for the elite who can afford it. The new Minister of Education has talked of seeing students as distributed across these “three categories”.

Financially, the NEP 2020 again aims at exclusion for it places the burden of education squarely on the shoulders of the student and her parents. Reliance on private investments, public-private partnership (PPP) schemes, and school complexes with twinning of government-run with private schools will allow resources to be “shared”, but the fee-charging “best practices” of the latter are equally likely to be seamlessly introduced in the former. The policy of “blended learning”, the mix of offline and online learning, which is being enthusiastically promoted from the Prime Minister downwards as the highway to universal access, involves further privately borne costs.

And if some students from the Bahujan and marginalised sections still overcome these obstacles, NEP places before them its ‘trump card’, the National Testing Agency’s imposition of uniform eligibility, entrance and evaluation tests for almost all professional education. In the name of privileging ‘merit’, these tests in India’s crisis-ridden and starkly unequal educational landscape privilege only those who can pay lakhs for being taught how to ‘crack’ the exam by hook or by crook. Thriving coaching centres, impersonation and paper leakage scams are witness to this cynical undermining of the entire system of school education to benefit the elite. Suicides of young members of Dalit, Adivasi and other marginalised sections like minorities, women and the disabled are tragedies scripted in the corridors of power by the Union government’s policy-makers and the Ministry of Education’s diktats.

Madhu Prasad is with the All India Forum for the Right to Education.

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