Home / Opinion / Columns /  Our children should not have to pay the price for our follies today

She opened the book, tried, could not read, and burst into tears. This was early January somewhere in Bangalore. She is now supposedly in Class 3, though schools have been shut since last March, when she was in Class 2. In a couple of months, she will be promoted to Class 4, without having been inside a class for the entire academic year, or, at least for the most part—even if schools do open up in some fashion over the next few weeks. Children with similar sorrows have been met by many of my colleagues across the country.

She remembered vividly that she could read fluently in March last year. When I gave her the book, she struggled, and then gave up. The sense of loss triggered the tears. She told me that she had not held a book in her hand since her last day in school. Her teacher was with me. “She used to read slowly but well. What do I do now, in a few months she will progress to Class 4, while actually she has regressed to Class 1. And it is no fault of hers or her parents or mine; what else can you expect when a child is not inside a class in 12 months and at home everyone is labouring to survive?"

That comment summarizes the reality that Indian school education has refused to face systemically, while few, if any, even at the top levels of policymaking, deny it individually.

Indians schools have been shut since March 2020. Various efforts to sustain teaching-learning have not been effective for the vast majority of our 260 million school students. Some teachers have taken the initiative to hold community-based classes in the open and stay engaged with their students. A few states have attempted to make this happen across the system. Even where successful, all this has merely guarded against a complete break of students from education, but has not been a substitute for shut schools. One should not even expect that. In the best of such cases, contact with students is 4-6 hours a week, unlike the 6-8 hours a day when schools are open. Which too has happened mostly in the past couple of months, and only for students who are able to make it to such open classes. A significant proportion can’t.

The inherent limitations of online education and its ineffectiveness for school children have also been laid bare. Other than the gullible or those with vested commercial interests in the online world, few are claiming that online education has compensated for lack of schooling. As I have written before, this is because of the intrinsic nature of education and how children learn. Poor access to online resources only exacerbates these matters; while most children in India have no access.

Our 260 million children have lost an entire school year. But the situation is graver than that. As the teacher in Bangalore stated, the absence of serious educational engagement for such a long period has resulted in a regression of children’s learning. In simple words, they have forgotten what they had learnt earlier. So, when schools reopen, in addition to the missing year, this lost learning also has to be taken care of. Let’s call this phenomenon ‘academic regression’, which is very similar to the well-known ‘summer slide’—learning lost during summer vacations.

Across the country, in scores of districts that we work, there has been a flood of anecdotal evidence on such academic regression. In the past 4 weeks, we have conducted a research study to assess the phenomenon methodically. About 17,000 children in classes 2-6 have been rigorously assessed by 2,000 teachers along with 400 of my colleagues. The report would be released in the next few days. In brief, the data is clear—there is alarming academic regression among children; 74% have lost one or more of their ‘foundational capacities’, which they were proficient with when schools closed. Depending on the class, ‘foundational capacities’ refer to, for example, the ability to read a paragraph, read a page and convey the gist in their own words, write a few sequential sentences, and perform simple addition and subtraction, solve problems using basic multiplication and division, and more.

Covid-19 has battered India and the world. The loss of the educational year compounded by the phenomenon of academic regression is one such significant effect. This deep cumulative loss has to be confronted. Most importantly, when schools reopen, teachers have to be given time to cover for this deficit and be provided with other support. A carefully synchronized set of measures across states will be required. Including eliminating vacations, extending the academic year well into 2021 and perhaps beyond (depending on when schools open), reconfiguring the syllabus, realigning college sessions, and more.

Ignoring this reality will be devastating for our children. And, as with all effects of the pandemic, it will only widen and harden inequities, hurting the disadvantaged disproportionately more. This matter must be among the top priorities on our national agenda, particularly because it requires coordinated and cohesive actions across the country. As of now, not even adequate attention is being paid, let alone systematic action. We must gear up to tackle the crisis immediately—else, our children will continue to pay in the future for our follies today

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation

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