One of the most egregious of our many errors in this pandemic is how we have dealt with education
Schools in India have been shut since March 2020. None of the substitute measures—online classes, mohalla classes, home-based work, etc.—has been able to compensate for even a fraction of this lost year of schooling for the overwhelming majority of India’s children. So, children have not learnt what they should have learnt this entire year. Many have also forgotten a lot of what they knew in March 2020—the commonly observed phenomenon of ‘academic regression’ during long breaks from schooling.
The gravity of this problem is clearer when we imagine the reality of a school. A class five of a school in a small town or a big village which has 20 students. None of them has learnt anything from the class five syllabus. Most have forgotten what they knew in class four; some more, some less. And each class is in the same situation. The school has now received a government order to promote all children to the next class. Those 20 children in class five will now be in class six. With teachers expected to teach them the class-six syllabus, ignoring the reality of their not having learnt anything of class five and having forgotten a lot of their earlier learning. This will be done with all classes.
This preposterous scenario is already unfolding in some states; such orders having been issued. Many others are on the verge of doing the same, with only a few states thoughtfully planning how to tackle this educational nightmare. When the history of this pandemic is written, one of the most egregious of our many errors listed will be how we dealt with education.
What should actually be done, and why are most states not doing much of it? Before considering that, let’s look at some nuances of this unfolding disaster.
First, while classes one to five have been shut for this entire period, higher classes have opened up in the past few months. Beginning December, classes ten and twelve were opened in many states, then nine and eleven, and in February many states opened classes six to eight. But this has not helped recover much ground. The operational restrictions placed because of the pandemic, the unfamiliarity with such operations, and poor attendance in this climate of apprehension curtailed their usefulness, and then the second wave struck.
Second, online classes have been disastrous, as could have been foreseen. This is both because of lack of access to the net and devices for the vast majority of India’s children, and because of the inherent nature of learning by children, for which online education is not suitable. After their misplaced enthusiasm till May-June, most state governments started accepting, even if tacitly, that they need to try other methods, since online classes are ineffective.
Third, a large number of government (public) school-teachers of their own volition, and in some states because of a systematic approach taken by the administration, conducted mohalla classes and other community-based interventions. These were all laudable efforts. However, given the operational challenges of such efforts, these have at best resulted in a continuing social engagement with children, with very little actual curricular learning. Most private schools have not attempted any of this; thus, the situation of students of private schools is worse, overall, than that of those in public schools.
How can state governments issue orders to promote children to the next classes in these circumstances?
It is a combination of factors working at the highest levels of the political and administrative leadership of states. Almost every school-teacher is horrified by such decisions, while the state leadership seems deliberately disconnected from reality. Partly because they feel defensive about their inaction in the past 12 months, and partly because they don’t have the courage to act decisively. Only a few states, with strong and thoughtful leadership, are attempting to tackle the situation realistically.
Four things need to be done. First, all classes across all schools need to be started at the first sign of the tsunami-like second wave abating. Teachers will have to be treated like frontline health workers, and related measures taken. Opening schools that serve local communities does not increase the risks of infection—because those children are anyhow intermingling. Second, the syllabus across all classes needs to be reconfigured, reducing content load and paring it such that each next class, which will be next year, can take some burden of the previous. Third, and most importantly, at least six months should be given for all children to remain in the current class, which would give teachers time to cover the reconfigured syllabus for that class. There is no substitute for the allocation of more time; ideally, it should be a full year. Fourth, teachers must be provided with tools, teaching-learning material and other support to be able to deal with the syllabus in that short a time frame and also compensate for academic regression.
This unprecedented education crisis requires both competence and courage of our state-level leadership, along with honesty to face reality as it is, and the sensitivity to recognize that their actions affect the future of millions of children. A few do seem to have all this in adequate measure, but most others are likely to be judged by history as epochal failures.
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