Madhav Chavan*

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education systems around the world including in India. Extended school closures coupled with unequal access to technology and other disruptions have led to fears regarding the reversal of progress made by the country’s education sector. While it may be too early to gauge the true extent of the virus’s impact on the Indian education system, this unprecedented crisis has given us a unique opportunity to act, reflect, and build upon existing policies and strengthen our educational system.

Impact

Schools are partially re-opening in India but concerns remain about the immediate and long-term implications of prolonged school closures on students’ learning levels and outcomes. Although we do not have definitive evidence, fears regarding an exacerbation of the existing learning crisis are not unfounded.

For instance, a World Bank simulation reports that COVID-19 could bring down the effective years of basic schooling received by children from 7.9 to 7.3 years. Extrapolations from previous experiences such as the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and other natural disasters have also led to predictions on certain kinds of impacts like higher rates of school dropouts, an increase in learning loss, and the deepening of the digital divide.

While we lack sufficient data to build a comprehensive understanding of the pandemic’s impact on children’s learning levels, attempts to study them are underway. In September 2020, the first wave of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2020 collected data on several areas of interest including school enrollment, household support, and access to learning material.

However, learning loss could not be measured due to restrictions. A comparative analysis of ASER data from September 2020 and ASER 2018 showed that a slightly higher number of children were not enrolled in schools. However, this may have been caused by parents of younger children waiting for schools to reopen fully before enrolling them.

Does this mean that students are dropping out at higher rates or that private schools are shutting down? While the pandemic might increase economic distress for families and may widen existing gaps in access to quality education, the demand for education is unlikely to diminish. Much like with learning loss, we might not have definitive answers to these questions until schools start running again.

Policy Recommendations

Just because there is no strong evidence of higher dropout rates and learning loss, does not mean that we can ignore these potential impacts. In fact, we should allow for a high possibility of these losses and take some preventive measures:

  • Reopen elementary schools:  Educational institutions and schools are slowly opening with modified schedules for higher classes. Elementary schools should also be opened by taking the parents into confidence and with proper precautions. There is also a need to decentralize decision-making regarding school-reopenings. For instance, the village panchayat should be able to decide when to re-open local schools based on certain safety criteria.
  • Initiate catch-up activities: The New Education Policy has already underscored that a crisis of learning of foundational skills exists in India. This crisis existed before COVID and, if anything, will be worse as a result of school shutdown. Thus there is a need for a focused intervention to acquire or regain foundational skills such as catch-up activities. Schools or communities can start catch-up activities even before their formal re-opening. A period of catch-up activities once schools start running can help to overcome learning loss and potentially improve learning levels beyond what they used to be prior to the pandemic.
  • Implement the Foundational Literacy Numeracy mission: All aspects of this mission must be implemented properly to ensure that primary school students attain foundational literacy and numeracy skills by 2025.

Way forward: New India @ 2047

The pandemic gave rise to terms like the ‘new normal’ and reiterated the importance of technology. While the new normal is fast disappearing and is likely to vanish, especially in rural India,  excepting where practices like virtual meeting and working from home offer particular advantages, greater use of technology is here to stay.  Hence there is a lot of enthusiasm for so-called ed-tech among the elite of education.

While it is true that access to mobile devices  and internet is increasing rapidly in India, there is no evidence to suggest that this technology can actually help general education in the current schooling model.  Additionally, educational technology continues to be teacher-centric rather than learner-centric. Therefore, simply replacing or supplementing current textbooks, curricula and examination systems with hardware and software will not be enough. Digital technology has the power to make learning non-linear and decentralized in every aspect of education at every level. We are at that point in history where education can and will be redefined.

The current educational system is a product of an era with a relatively small proportion of literate and educated people in society, and a maturing industrial revolution. However, today, India (and most of the world) is on the brink of 90 percent literacy as defined in the middle of the last century. The country has also achieved universal schooling to a large extent. A new educational revolution is needed. We need to recognize that there are three basics of education—learning the foundations of learning, learning to live, and learning to work. 

As we look forward, we need to recognize that learning anything, anytime and anywhere is not only possible but necessary. Institutions of learning have created several barriers including overambitious curricula, stringent admission criteria for higher educational institutes, and a centralized certifying authority. These barriers have to go. We need to allow learning processes to develop freely and certification should facilitate free learning. Barrier-free lifelong learning is where the future is and the best part is, it is already here.

The above the short note of the IMPRI Distinguished Lecture by Dr Madhav Chavan on The State of Education Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impact, Policy Suggestions, and the Way Forward towards New India@2047.


References

Azevedo et al,. 2020. Simulating the Potential Impacts of the COVID-19 School Closures on Schooling and Learning Outcomes: A set of Global Estimates. World Bank Group. June. 2020. The link can be accessed at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/education/publication/simulating-potential-impacts-of-covid-19-school-closures-learning-outcomes-a-set-of-global-estimates
Andrabi, T., Daniels, B., Das, J. 2020. Human Capital Accumulation and Disasters: Evidence from the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005. RISE Working Paper Series. 20/039. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISEWP_2020/039
Pratham. Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Wave 1. October 2020. Retrieved from: http://img.asercentre.org/docs/ASER%202020/ASER%202020%20REPORT/aser2020fullreport.pdf
Banerji, R. 2018. Learning “Loss” and Learning “Gain” in Primary School Years: What Do We Know from India That Can Help Us Think Forward in the COVID-19 Crisis?World Development Report 2018. The report can be accessed at: https://riseprogramme.org/publications/learning-loss-and-learning-gain-primary-school-years-what-do-we-know-india-can-help-us#_ftn1

*Dr Chavan is Co-Founder, Board Member and Former CEO, Pratham; Social Activist and Entrepreneur.

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