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In the great study of contrasts that India presents, one of the starkest is our success with higher education for a few versus a failure at basic levels among our multitudes. Corrective gains in school enrolment, thanks in part to the lure of midday meals, had led to an uneven uptrend in actual learning outcomes on key counts, but covid has disrupted education-for-all in a way that has no parallel. If ignored, it could even place a tripwire for economic expansion beyond a point. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) of 2021 put out by Pratham, a non-profit, the past year saw a dramatic shift of students aged 5-16 from private to government schools across rural India. A decline of those enrolled in the former last year had marked the end of a long pre-covid trend, but while 2020 was mostly about dropouts, this is about switchovers. A large number of private set-ups could not survive the pandemic, even as millions of household budgets got stretched too thin to cover private fee bills and some families moved to their ancestral villages. As reported, state-run schools ran online classes more reliably than private ones in rural areas. In all, the experience of the past 18 months has underscored the importance of education as a state provision.

Children are slowly going back to their old classrooms after a prolonged hiatus, during which access to the internet was a bare minimum for any formal instruction. On this, ASER identifies mixed gains. Its survey, conducted this September and October across more than 75,000 homes with the help of phone calls, found that two-thirds of all rural school-goers this year had at least one smartphone at home, up from about 62% last year and just 36.5% back in 2018. About a quarter of them, however, still had no access at all. In homes short of digital devices, students in higher classes typically got usage precedence over the younger lot, so the facility’s benefits were not evenly spread. Also identified by ASER was a jump in the use of paid tuition classes to supplement regular schooling. In all, the report offers the portrait of a countryside where parents are keen on getting their kids educated against a veritable maze of constraints. While online modules did get deployed for study-from-home, anecdotal evidence suggests that the back-up study material needed was either missing or of poor quality.

Qualitatively, the academic jolt delivered by the covid pandemic has been severe. Almost uniquely, the process of learning in formative years is prone to slide-backs. This worsens the deficiencies caused by an extended break and makes remedial action both necessary and difficult. Pupils have suffered in varying degrees, with teachers struggling now to get them up to speed, but those on the other side of our digital divide have borne the brunt of it. Junior school kids are found to have lost elementary skills. As an upshot, we are staring at a big divergence in the abilities of a generation yet to come of age. We must invest heavily in public education to address this, institute an all-India recovery plan for lost learnings, and forestall its potential fallout over the next decade and thereafter. For too long have the Centre and states had paltry allocations for education. We need to amplify public outlays hugely and upgrade our schools. This is a matter of urgency. If we don’t broadbase our ability to generate value, our economy would risk slipping into a ‘middle-income trap’ at some stage once markets that serve the upper slabs of our pyramid hit saturation and stagnate. Let’s not risk this. Let no child be left behind.

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