School closures are hurting less privileged students disproportionately

Differences in educational attainments can in turn widen job market inequalities, with ‘meritorious’ children from privileged castes and social backgrounds gaining better paying jobs. (MINT_PRINT)
Differences in educational attainments can in turn widen job market inequalities, with ‘meritorious’ children from privileged castes and social backgrounds gaining better paying jobs. (MINT_PRINT)


India has had the seventh-longest school closure in the world, affecting over 300 million school-children. Underprivileged students without access to smartphones and computers have been hit hardest

For most people across the world, how much they earn is determined by how wealthy and well-educated their parents were. But the degree of ‘persistence’ in incomes across generations is much higher in India than in other developing countries, a team of World Bank researchers found in a 2018 study. In other words, children of under-educated parents in India find it much more difficult to rise up the educational and income ladder than in other large developing countries (China, Brazil, Indonesia, Egypt, and Nigeria) the researchers studied.

The pandemic-induced school lockdown threatens to widen these fault lines even further, with children in poorer and under-educated families falling far behind peers. Already, the length of school closures in the country are among the highest in the world. While this has affected over 300 million children across India, those without access to smartphones or a family member to help them with their lessons have been hit the hardest. The temptation to drop out of school to boost sagging family incomes is also the highest among this group. And yet, these children are least likely to receive attention from teachers and schools, survey data from the non-profit Pratham shows.

The impact of such learning losses could last a lifetime. Those who drop out may find it difficult to get back to school. But some of those who stay back may find peers far ahead. This could discourage first generation learners from pursuing higher education, and impact lifetime earnings in an unequal labour market where the education premium has only grown over time.

Privileged Learners

Even in normal years without any school closures, children from affluent and better-educated families learn much more than those from poorer families, an earlier Plain Facts analysis of Pratham’s 2016 rural education survey data showed. More than the type of school children attend (government or private), it is the household the child belongs to that determines how much he or she ends up learning. The reading abilities of privileged children are far higher than others, the analysis showed. The advantage of privileged children in mastering mathematics is similar. Among under-privileged families, children with relatively better-educated parents tend to do better.

The data suggest that the circumstances of birth determine which child ends up being considered as ‘meritorious’ by the school system, and by society at large. For the underprivileged, the pandemic has only added to the historical disadvantages of birth.

Caste Gap

In a socially stratified society such as India, differences in class tend to reflect differences in caste, and educational outcomes reflect this reality. Most college-educated Indians belong to privileged castes, and tend to be the sons or daughters of college-educated parents.

This also means that many students from marginalized caste groups tend to be first-generation learners who struggle even in a physical classroom environment.

With limited access to computers, their struggle is much greater in the current digitized learning environment. While smartphones can bridge the gap to some extent, for many professional courses, there is simply no alternative to working on computers to complete learning tasks. Also as the Pratham survey showed, students in under-educated families are the ones least likely to have even a smartphone.

This suggests that unless remedial steps are taken by educational institutions, underprivileged students, often from historically disadvantaged caste groups, are most likely to fail assessments or drop out of college in frustration.

Job Segregation

Differences in educational attainments can in turn widen job market inequalities, with ‘meritorious’ children from privileged castes and social backgrounds gaining better paying jobs. Decent salaried jobs are anyway rare for scheduled castes (SCs) and tribes (STs). Despite much angst about how government job quotas shrink the pool of ‘good jobs’ for forward castes, they still dominate white-collar employment in the country. Only a miniscule minority of SC/STs are able to land a white-collar job in the country, as an earlier Plain Facts analysis showed.

There is a similar divide across occupational groups, with the son of a white-collar worker 10 times more likely to get a white-collar job than one born to a farmer.

The pandemic’s role in widening wealth inequality has received a fair amount of attention, thanks to the soaring stock prices of a few multi-billionaires' firms. Its role in widening inequality of opportunity hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

(This is the concluding part of a four-part series on how the pandemic has widened economic inequalities. The first part looked at growing inter-country inequality, the second part examined regional inequalities, and the third part looked at job market inequalities)

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