Past calamities show shutting schools for long can reduce children’s earnings throughout their life. India’s pre-existing disparities in resources and learning outcomes mean that some will bear the brunt much more than others
The tragic suicides of college students because of their inability to take part in online classes have grabbed headlines across the country. An equally profound but silent tragedy has befallen India’s school-children.
Eight months have passed since most Indian children last went to school, and their loss isn’t just restricted to learning outcomes. Research suggests that for most children, learning less will also mean earning less for an entire lifetime.
A World Bank research paper published earlier this year suggests that with schools shut, South Asian children of 2020 will be poorer by an average $5,813 by the time they wrap up work life. They will earn $319 less per year, costing the region over $800 billion over time. India will bear more than half of that loss.
Another estimate, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) pegs India’s loss in this century at $12.5 trillion because of students’ lost learning time.
This is not without precedent. If not for the impact of World War II on students’ learning, Austria and Germany could have a 0.8% extra GDP during the 1980s, according to a 2004 research paper.
A study from teacher strikes in Argentina in the 1980s found that three months of missed classes reduced students’ annual earnings by up to 3% when they were in their 30s.
When students miss school, they not only stop learning new things, but also forget what they had already learnt. So, when school resumes, they will have very little time to catch up. Even before the pandemic, the quality of education in South Asia was so poor that 12 years of school meant effective learning of just 6.2 years. This will further drop to 5.5 years, according to the World Bank estimates.
Given that the returns to education have been rising over time in India, lower learning will impact future earnings of school-children. The impact will be unequal. Wealthy parents and well-funded schools have helped many children see off the lockdown to a great extent. Those who already lacked the resources, and those who face biases, such as girls, have been thrown further behind.
Just 37% rural children had a smartphone at home when education nonprofit Pratham held its annual survey in 2018. This proportion jumped to 62% during the pandemic, shows Pratham’s latest survey of 52,227 rural households held in September.
But others still lacked access to what has now become a basic need.
Other factors also impact learning at home. Parental support, for one, makes a great difference. Among the children with well-educated parents, 89% got help in studies at home as schools remained closed. 55% of children with less educated parents received such help. Much of that help came from older siblings.
Some of this gap could be narrowed if teachers were proactive, or had the resources. But in the week of the survey, only 34% children got a visit or a call from their teacher. The share was lower for less-educated families (25%), even though such families need greater teacher interventions.
Teachers themselves have been struggling. Of the 488 government teachers surveyed in five states by Oxfam India in May and June, 80% said they did not receive any training or orientation on digital delivery.
States already behind in learning levels have fared worse in supporting schools and school-children. Just 20% of the oldest schoolchildren—Class 9 and above—in government schools in West Bengal received any learning material in the week before the ASER survey. This is a state where 71% of children in standard VIII could not divide numbers in the 2018 survey.
Of all government school students who did not receive any learning material in Bihar, 82% said the school hadn’t sent any. When ‘online classes’ were the buzzword, only 10% of the children in the state watched a video or a recorded class in the week prior to the survey. This figure was over 50% in Punjab and Gujarat.
The government’s attempt at broadcasting virtual classes on TV and radio had a limited impact. Just 20% children used TV for learning activities in the week before the survey even though 61% had one at home.
When schools reopen, India’s most disadvantaged kids will get back to playing catch-up, this time from much further behind. Unless remedial steps are taken, they will spend their entire adult life paying for it, as past calamities have shown.
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