Urban India has witnessed a boom in online education this year. In sharp contrast, students in Bharat are suffering
Experts are suggesting a country-wide post-pandemic survey. Additionally, public schools need to be strengthened as more students are likely to join govt schools due to financial duress.
BADAUN/NEW DELHI :
Koi lakey mujhe de… ek chutti wala din; ek achhi-si kitab; ek mitha-sa sawal; ek nanha-sa jawab. Koi laakey mujhe de (Won’t somebody bring me… a fun-filled holiday; a good book to read; a sweet question; an adorable answer. Won’t somebody bring me).
The voice of 12-year-old Sapna trembles as she reads this poem by Damodar Agrawal from her fourth standard textbook. Her big eyes are fixed on the page. Her fingers trace each word with attention. A motley crowd gathers around as she reads softly… the chatter drowning her voice, as her grandmother prods her to read louder. A journalist from Delhi visiting her home in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district is the reason behind the sudden shower of attention, which makes Sapna nervous.
The severely underweight girl, the grandmother informs, is an excellent cook. She feeds the buffaloes with ease and takes over kitchen duties whenever her mother is sick. Her household responsibilities have increased manifold after the school that she used to attend shut down in late-March, as the Indian government announced a stringent lockdown to control the spread of the covid-19 pandemic.
“She is the brightest in my class," Sapna’s teacher Pooja Rani, from the government primary school in Mirapur village, said proudly. But like most of Rani’s students, the learning curve for Sapna is on a slide. Out of school and with no access to online lessons, children in India’s unnoticed rural corners are forgetting what they learnt. Many are at risk of dropping out.
The ongoing pandemic and the closure of her school has suddenly pushed Sapna into premature adulthood—the ‘chutti wala din’ (fun-filled holidays) and ‘achhi-si kitab’ (a good book) have all but disappeared from her universe. These days, she can be spotted working at a farm near her home. Her nimble fingers are deft at plucking chillies for which she is paid a measly ₹2 per kg. The day before I met Sapna, she had plucked 30kg—a feat of sorts which made her mother proud—earning a precious ₹60 for the family which is dependent on daily wages.
“We tried creating a WhatsApp group to share lessons online, but of the 152 enrolled students, only 10 joined. They too dropped out of the group within a few days," Pooja Rani said, expressing her helplessness. “We are now coming to the school daily and we ask children to visit in small groups. Some come, most don’t."
In a situation where many families are scrambling for even one square meal, purchasing a smartphone and internet packs are luxuries that only the well-off can afford. As the conversation continues in the vicinity of the local school, a non-profit worker quips: “ghar me atta nahi, ab data kahan se layenge." There is no atta (wheat flour) at home, how can they afford internet data packs.
There was a sharp increase in the number of children in the 6-10 age group who were not enrolled in a school—from 1.8% in 2018 to 5.3% in 2020—found the Annual Status Of Education Report, released by the non-profit Pratham in October. The survey recorded a spike in smartphone ownership among rural households, from 37% in 2018 to 62% in 2020. But in poorer states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar, where digital access is anyway poor, it found that less than a quarter of the enrolled children received any learning material.
The report warned that evidence is limited on the extent to which digital content is reaching children; whether they are engaging with it; and the impact it is having on their participation and learning.
“From the findings, it is clear that the poorest, the ones with the least number of smartphones… and government school children with poor access to digital technology are having a tough time," said Madhav Chavan, co-founder of Pratham, while releasing the report.
Another survey of over 1,500 public school teachers spread across five states by the Azim Premji Foundation (released in September, titled Myths Of Online Education) revealed the “ineffectiveness of online learning solutions in providing meaningful learning opportunities, the exclusion of a majority of children due to poor access, and the professional frustration of teachers".
Almost 60% of children were unable to access online learning methods, and 70% of the parents found online classes to be ineffective for learning. The teachers’ survey also revealed that in at least 80% of the cases, only an hour or less per day was spent by teachers per grade on online classes.
The study recommended the urgent reopening of schools in a phased manner with adequate provisions for health and safety and flagged that “parents are both dissatisfied with online learning solutions and eager to have their children back in school."
Inequities in education along class, caste and gender lines have always existed, but the pandemic has worsened it tremendously, said Sandeep Chachra, executive director at the not-for-profit ActionAid India. “Across India, children are at risk of discontinuing studies, child marriages are up, and more children are being pushed to work. The impact of the digital divide would have been limited if the decision to shut schools was not a centralised one. If that decision was left to local authorities, many schools in remote regions would be running now," Chachra added.
Over the past few months, ActionAid identified about 122,000 children in 17 districts of Uttar Pradesh who are not enrolled in schools—including those belonging to families of return migrants and recent drop-outs. About 1,200, it found, were pushed into child labour.
The public health emergency seems to have exacerbated the silent pandemic of inequalities which forced poor families to resort to negative coping mechanisms like child marriages and child labour, said Soledad Herrero, chief of child protection at Unicef India. “In a situation where families have to decide which child to send to school, girls are at risk of being pushed into (unpaid) domestic work. There have been reports of cases of violence against children as well."
Over the medium-term, the economic distress which has followed the pandemic could also impact learning outcomes as children get deprived of nutritious diets. On Sunday, the government released the latest report of the national family health survey (NFHS), which shows a spike in child (under 5) malnutrition even before the pandemic. The status in some large states like Uttar Pradesh, where the survey was interrupted by the lockdown, will be revealed soon. But private surveys indicate the situation has only worsened.
Without urgent attention from the highest levels of government, these issues may fester and never get resolved. And the after-effects of the pandemic will ripple through some communities for years to come.
An hour’s drive from Sapna’s home is the bare-bones Kumari Swati Memorial school, a private primary school run by Bresh Pal Singh in Mujahidpur village. The school had 165 students before the lockdown, but now bears a deserted look. The room where the five teachers used to sit, all of them jobless now, is filled with sacks of grains and fertilizers. The iron bell on the first floor is rusted after months of lack of use. On the green board is a fading lesson in math.
“Even if we are allowed to re-open, many students will not come back," fears Singh. Most families cannot afford the ₹165 monthly fees and some have already enrolled their kids in government schools to save on expenses.
Families who have very little land and depend on wage earnings are the most impacted, Singh said. With schools shut and day jobs scarce, the importance of education has taken a back seat in the priority list of barely-literate parents. At a time when urban India has witnessed a boom in online education and is debating whether to enroll children in coding classes, in rural India, the year has been a great leap backward of sorts.
For instance, the family of Dhanvir Yadav, 10, is unsure if or when he will return to school. “Pet bhare tab na padhaye (we can think of education when our stomachs are full)," said his mother Savera Yadav. When I asked Dhanvir to get his books, he climbed up on to a window ledge and swung his lean body to reach a concrete rack close to the roof where a tattered school bag was gathering dust. Yadav then opened a book to read his favourite English poem—a paean to India—loud and clear.
It is not just children whose education and future are in jeopardy. For teenagers like Pooja, a class XI student from Mirapur village, not having a smartphone or the money to buy textbooks in the coming months could cut short her dream of attending college and, instead, push her into marriage. Her father, a daily wage earner is scrounging to find work after the pandemic struck. “He could not afford the books which cost ₹2,500. I want to study, but how long can I go on like this?"
In the grimness around Mirapur, the face of 18-year-old Jaiveer Singh stood out for its steely determination. He is enrolled as a first-year student in a government college some 20km from the village. Since the journey costs over ₹70 a day, Jaiveer attends classes only once or twice a week. The rest of his time is spent on preparing for competitive exams—pursuing a position in a public bank or the railways, whichever comes his way, that would help him break out of the poverty trap.
But Jaiveer understands the value of education and wants children in the Dalit hamlet of Mirapur to study, to secure their future, and not depend on the precarity of daily wages. “I think many of these kids will eventually drop out," Singh said, sitting in a room lined with naked red bricks, with a large poster of Ambedkar and Buddha adorning the walls.
For some months now, he teaches children who are out-of-school for about two hours every day. Some families pay him ₹100 a month, many do not. Singh does not mind. At least the money helped him buy a smartphone, which allows him to access online lessons, a privilege of sorts in a village like his.
The pandemic has impacted children in varying degrees across the country but nothing compares with the severity faced by students in remote places in Jammu and Kashmir. “For us, the closure of schools began much earlier (in August 2019, with the abrogation of Article 370)," said Irfan Bashir Mir, who teaches in a government school in Baramulla district. “Post-pandemic, we tried audio classes on conference calls since most families did not have a smartphone. Then, we moved to community classes in open areas. Most of these students will pass their exams (as marks are awarded on a compassionate basis), but they will likely end up as unemployable graduates later."
What steps can governments and civil society take to salvage the situation? Chachra from ActionAid suggests that India needs a country-wide survey to identify children from vulnerable families who have dropped out of school in order to bring them back. Additionally, it needs to strengthen public education facilities as more students are likely to join government schools due to financial duress.
According to Uma Mahadevan, principal secretary at the panchayat raj department in Karnataka, a convergence among departments was helpful to limit the pandemic’s impact on rural children. Importantly, the state is also undertaking a survey of all children up to 18 years of age to identify those who are out of school.
“Teachers went to villages directly to set up neighbourhood learning centres in open areas. Task forces at the local level helped prevent child marriages. We also took an initiative to revitalize rural libraries as learning centres for children," Mahadevan said.
More such efforts might be needed in the days ahead and governments across the country would be put to the test. The price of failure could be steep. Already, between May and June this year, the government’s Childline emergency assistance number witnessed a 100% spike in calls, with requests pouring in for help in rescuing child workers, said Herrero of Unicef India. A fifth of those complaints were about employment in hazardous work, and 40% of the rescued children were under 11 years of age. If rural education doesn’t get a fix, those calls will keep coming.