Opinion Columnists 18 Nov 2021 Suman Bhattacharjea ...

Suman Bhattacharjea | Worrisome trends over kids’ education, future

Published Nov 19, 2021, 1:29 am IST
Updated Nov 19, 2021, 1:29 am IST
Data from the recently released ASER 2021 report suggests that we have an uphill battle ahead
Among children whose schools had reopened, a higher proportion had received materials and/or activities to do at home. Representational Image. (PTI)
 Among children whose schools had reopened, a higher proportion had received materials and/or activities to do at home. Representational Image. (PTI)

There has been extensive discussion in India about how best to address the likely impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children’s enrolment and learning due to the 18 months of school closures. But any large scale,
representative data measuring such impact has been scarce. Data from the recently released ASER 2021 report suggests that we have an uphill battle ahead.

On the positive side, ASER 2021 shows that families have not lost their faith in education. Despite Covid-19, enrolments have not suffered much although the enrolment patterns have shifted.


Even today, only 4.6 per cent of children in the 6-14 age group are not currently enrolled. And almost 92 per cent of enrolled children have textbooks for their current grade. This was always a noteworthy accomplishment in a country the size of ours; but for this to be achieved after a year and a half of enormous disruptions is even more remarkable.

However, other trends suggested by the ASER 2021 data are more worrisome. In 2020, when the schools were closed, ASER found that barely one-third of enrolled children were receiving learning materials and activities from their schools (35.6%). A year later, among children whose schools had yet to reopen, this number had barely changed (39.8%). It seems that the education system has still not been able to put effective mechanisms into place for reaching out to children when the schools are closed.


Among children whose schools had reopened, a higher proportion had received materials and/or activities to do at home. This difference is primarily because students who are back in school were often given homework by their teachers -- a mechanism that does not rely on a technology interface and therefore removes a major barrier for the many students without any access to smartphones.

As schools reopen, the situation with the youngest learners in the early primary classes requires urgent thought and attention. Even without a measurement of learning outcomes, their situation should set off loud alarm bells.
First, the relatively high proportion of children currently not in school is driven mainly by this age group, as was the case in 2020. Among 5-8-year-olds, the proportion of children not currently enrolled is 7.2 per cent, which is much higher than the corresponding proportion among older children. As in 2020, the proportion of children not currently enrolled is highest among five-year-olds, at over 14 per cent. These data point to a critical task ahead -- of ensuring that young children enrol in pre-school and school. They have already missed many months of engagement in this critical period of rapid brain development. Once this period is over, the opportunity to help them build firm foundations early on will be lost.


What about the young children currently enrolled in school? ASER 2021 data shows that among the five- and six-year-olds, there is an increase of about 12 percentage points over 2018 levels in the proportion enrolled in government schools. In 2018, 22.4 per cent of five-year-olds were enrolled in government schools; that proportion is 34.2 per cent today. Among six-year-olds, 47.7 per cent were enrolled in government schools in 2018, versus 59.6 per cent today. These data suggest a major expansion in government school enrolments in the early grades.


At the same time, about one in every three children in Classes 1 and 2 has never attended in-person school before. Entry to the world of formal education can be a difficult adjustment at the best of times, but the challenges these young children face as learners are likely to be far more complex than in pre-pandemic times.
The ASER 2021 data suggests schools must pay close attention to these issues.

While smartphone ownership has risen dramatically over the last few years, children’s access is often quite limited, especially among the youngest learners who have the least access to technology. Almost a third of all children in Classes 1 and 2 did not have a smartphone available at home. Not surprisingly, therefore, among children in these classes whose schools had yet to reopen, just a third of surveyed households reported receiving materials and activities from school. Even fewer had had some form of contact with teachers to discuss children’s learning (28.5%), mostly comprising better-off families, as proxied by parental education levels.


The consequences of not designing mechanisms to address the situation of the youngest learners will be extremely grave, not only for individual children but for school systems as a whole. ASER has been reporting inadequate foundational skills among school-going children for over 15 years now. Although ASER 2021 was unable to do a learning assessment of sampled children, a state-wide assessment was conducted earlier this year in Karnataka -- the only state where it has been possible to conduct a field-based ASER, including a learning assessment, since the pandemic began. The fieldwork was done in March 2021, just ahead of the second wave of Covid-related shutdowns. The data on children’s foundational reading and arithmetic abilities was alarming even then, and it would be another six months before the schools finally began to reopen across the country.


Covering almost 20,000 children aged 5-16 across 24 of Karnataka’s 30 districts, the learning data shows steep drops in children’s foundational skills, particularly in lower primary classes when these foundations are often shaky. In reading, for example, the proportion of children in Class 2 in government schools who were as yet unable to read even letters (“beginner” level) increased by 13 percentage points over 2018 levels. The proportion of children in Class 3 who could read at least Class 1 level text had fallen sharply, from 41.8 per cent to 24.2 per cent over the same period. Similar drops are visible in arithmetic.


There are ways in which schools can act to ensure that going forward, these dreadful outcomes are mitigated for children across the country. The first is to speed up mechanisms for finding and enrolling children who are not enrolled, so that young children can avail of critical inputs during this vital phase in their development. The second is to leverage the substantial learning support provided by families. ASER 2020 had reported enormous engagement from families in trying to ensure that children continued to learn. Although overall this proportion has dropped, it is worth noting that even in 2021, almost three quarters of children in Classes 1 and 2 continue to receive learning support from family members. Failing immediate measures to address the needs of our youngest learners, the ASER data on learning outcomes may be even worse in future years than it has been over the last decade and a half.