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The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) brought out by Pratham, a voluntary organization, has gained the status of being the most representative assessment of school education in India. The 2022 report is the first full-fledged, countrywide report after 2018, and it shows that only 20.2% of Class III students can read a Class II text. In 2018, that figure had been 27.7%. Nationally, the proportion of children enrolled in Class 5 in government or private schools who can at least read a Class 2-level text fell from 50.5% in 2018 to 42.8% in 2022. A lot of discussion has centred on the drop in reading ability, but the achievement level from which the decline has been registered is itself a source of serious concern. This calls for urgent remedial action to bring literacy and numeracy to fully functional levels at all levels of schooling, particularly the primary level, with the government partnering voluntary agencies, corporate social responsibility arms, youth and student wings of political parties, the army of retired civil servants and schoolteachers, as well as ex-servicemen, who can be found in rural areas.

It is quite remarkable that students in Class III can read at the level of Class II or any level this year. These children enrolled during the first year of the pandemic, when schools shut down and later moved online. It is striking that, even without functional schools, a fifth of the children still managed to learn to read. This probably indicates that a fifth of children come from families where adults are not just literate but also have the time and the inclination to teach young children. That still leaves 80% of young children set back for life: without elementary language skills, what hope do they have of learning to learn, the chief quality they need to acquire at school, to equip them to deal with ever-changing, and probably ever-more-demanding skill sets during the course of their future work life?

Thanks to the spread of smartphones across the population, and the sheer diversity of educational content available online, India now has novel opportunities to educate its young. While it is ridiculous to think that digital technologies can substitute for committed teachers, digital technologies can serve as force multipliers in the hands of dedicated teachers, and even in the hands of parents who are committed to getting their children educated. Central institutions such as National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) should come out with pedagogical training modules that incorporate digital technologies and online resources, in a supplementary role, in educating the young.

The National Education Policy (NEP) says that education should be imparted in the mother tongue. This is eminently sensible. But this bit of sense is often buried in thick layers of hostility towards English and a penchant to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speakers.

Scandinavian countries with populations as large as those of the suburbs of Indian metropolises teach their children in their distinct mother tongues. As schooling proceeds, most children also learn English and German. India has 22 languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Each language, with its associated grammar, linguistic subtlety and literature is a precious legacy of human evolutionary success, and a window to the past of the region where the language is spoken and of the nation as a whole. Instead of recognizing and celebrating this wealth, a large number of Indians are bent on sending their children to so-called English-medium schools, where the learning that young minds should absorb is, instead, mangled by being rendered in a language that most do not hear spoken at home.

The yearning of aspirational parents for their children to acquire proficiency in English is perfectly sensible. What is not sensible is the axiomatic assumption that the only way to gain proficiency in English is for children to learn history, geography, science and mathematics in English. This only serves to set a premium on rote learning, as children, for the most part, lack the requisite command over English to articulate ideas in that language on their own. The pursuit of English, in other words, warps the learning of all subjects at school.

A fundamental imperative is to vastly improve the teaching of English in schools, whatever the medium of instruction. The online resources now available for this purpose make it altogether possible for a determined effort to meet with success, so that children acquire a reasonable command of English, besides of their own mother tongue. Hindi, the natural link language for India, should be encouraged, not imposed, in states where Hindi is not spoken. Economic interdependence among regions, migration, the impact of Hindi movies and songs — all these work to spread Hindi, in any case.

It is vital for children to learn rudimentary arithmetic in its entirety. Those who do not understand addition cannot understand subtraction, leave alone multiplication or division. To teach trigonometry to a child who cannot tell an isosceles triangle from a right-angled one is to shut the door on any possible science or technology future for that child. The fault is not the child’s but of the pedagogy that deems 30% comprehension to be sufficient for the child to move on to the next grade. Basic language and math skills call for cent per cent comprehension.

Remedial education cannot be confined to the classroom either. Libraries and reading rooms, in the public domain, and consistent engagement with remedial learning, at home are called for. Those who seek to build the nation can do no better than to volunteer their energies to this cause, facilitated by broad public-private partnership.

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