Budget Expectation: Need of the hour is for Government to focus on providing universal access to quality education
(Ratna Viswanathan, CEO, Reach to Teach)
Several reports and studies in the recent past including the latest Annual State of Education Report (ASER 2022) have drawn attention to the fact that post Covid, while admissions to schools have improved significantly, the levels of basic literacy seem to have been visibly impacted and shown a decline.
The overall percentage of children going to Government schools is about 51 percent (UDISE) in the country, but the number of children in rural geographies going to Government schools is over 80 percent. Although previous studies have shown that learning loss and below grade appropriate learning issues predate the pandemic, the problem has been acerbated by children being out of brick-and-mortar schools and the digital divide that came to the fore when classes went online.
This is more evident in Government schools and budget private schools where a larger part of the population comes from low-income households. According to a study by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), the learning loss in India during the pandemic could be as high as 50 percent to 80 percent for students in low-income households.
Learning loss is not a new phenomenon and there is enough data to corroborate children in higher grades not being able to read and solve mathematical problems of much lower classes. What the pandemic has done is brought the issue into sharp focus and given an opportunity to reset and address this gap once again. This is not an opportunity to be missed and government schools need to focus on providing targeted support and interventions to students who have been most affected by the pandemic, especially those from low-income households and students from marginalised communities. To do so, Government must provide all necessary resources and support for remedial classes, to help students catch up on lost learning, and by providing professional development for teachers to strengthen their ability to teach foundational literacy and numeracy skills.
The need of the hour is for Government to focus on providing universal access to quality education, by addressing the issues of inadequate infrastructure, lack of trained teachers, and inadequate educational resources. There is a need to invest in the education sector as we have something we had not expected: a second chance. Implementing policies and programs that promote inclusive education and ensuring that children from marginalized communities have access to the same opportunities as their non-marginalised peers will bring in an element of equity.
The Education Outlay for the 2023 Central Budget needs to prioritise creation of basic infrastructure in terms of buildings, labs, equipment, digital tools, teaching and learning aids and uninterrupted supply of electricity and internet access. It is a great wish list but may not be really possible. The formulation of outlays should look at leveraging resources through cleverly crafted partnerships by providing seed money through the Budget and attracting investment from the private sector to support upgrading of Government school infrastructure and manpower.
Intermittent availability of electricity in schools is a real problem and more acute in rural areas due to either unavailable or non- commissioned infrastructure. The Ministry of Power’s Annual Report for 2021 states, that the country has been transformed from a power deficit country to a power surplus one. And on account of more efficient generation, availability of power in rural areas which was about 12:30 hours in 2015 has gone up to 21:09 hours and in the urban areas it has gone up to 23:41 hours. This definitely is good news for electrification of schools. But despite this, remoter parts of the country still have intermittent supply. We live in a country with ample sunlight available for most parts of the year. Providing funds for the solarisation of schools especially in rural and remote areas will improve access greatly. This will enable far greater reach of education-focused TV channels (Swayam Prabha TV through Bhaskaracharya Institute of Space Applications and Geo-Informatics(BISAG)), particularly in smaller states with significant road network and digital connectivity issues.
Digital infrastructure for creating smart classrooms and providing teachers with the wherewithal to use their time smartly can be an efficiency multiplier. Even if the internet is not available, digital blackboards, Tablets and pre-loaded Apps can allow for building smart classrooms and remove the drudgery from tasks like assessments, attendance and lesson planning. With so much emphasis and chatter around Edtech, the true enabler and platform is through creation of multi – modal ways of disseminating and collecting information. If the net exists, use WhatsApp. If it does not, the telephone is always there to establish a two-way flow of information. There is a need for such infrastructure to support contextually appropriate digital teaching and learning materials and digital training modules. This brings us back to our previous point of consistent power supply as a core aspect of infrastructure support and solarisation is definitely an option.
The National Education Policy 2020 and the National Curriculum Framework 2022 put a lot of emphasis on early years and foundational learning. Core to basic learning is Foundational Literacy and Numeracy. To achieve the target set by NEP 2020 for universal achievement of FLN skills by 2025, learning continuity in early learning and foundational years must be strengthened. It is common knowledge that early years education is critical for establishing a child’s overall well-being. Between the ages of 3 – 5 (pre-Primary) and 6 – 11 (Primary) the foundation for life long growth takes place. Children who fall behind in these early years often never catch up with their peers. The NEP 2020 envisages strengthening of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). This has to be implemented through Bal Vatikas and through Anganwadi workers. While some states have co-located Bal Vatikas with regular Government schools, in others infrastructure is yet to be built. Co-location of Bal Vatikas and training of Anganwadi workers is critical to early learning. Anganwadi workers are more conversant with pre -natal and post-natal care and do not have the required skills to roll out early learning in very critical years. Funds for upgrading/creating and co-locating Bal Vatikas is absolutely necessary as is training of Anganwadi workers to support early learning. Focusing on training of FLN Grade teachers from primary classes is necessary for the success of the NIPUN Bharat Mission.
This brings us to teachers. A critical factor to the learning process are teachers. Today, increasingly, teachers are vested with less and less agency. They are not a part of core consultation processes. Curriculum and syllabi are pre-decided at the Departmental level and teachers are tasked with teaching provided content. Sometimes, they do not have the flexibility to make their own lesson plans. This robbing teachers off agency creates apathy and fatigue and the job of teaching becomes mechanical. In order to reap the demographic dividend we keep referring to, we need children to reach a certain competency in learning. To do this, we need interested teachers. Teachers who WANT to teach as opposed to HAVE to teach. To ensure teacher engagement, it is imperative to provide adequate resource outlays for targeted training with an annual training plan. Building teacher capacity is core. Teacher shortages/proxy teachers are real issues, particularly in rural and remote areas. Building incentives for teachers to work in underserved areas, investing in well-structured teacher training and professional development, creating virtual common rooms to ensure peer to peer support are key.
Teachers need to constantly talk and engage with each other to manage children at different learning levels. They play a pivotal role in the rollout and achievement of all learning milestones. As a start point, there is a need to build up teacher Communities of Practice. With a large number of teachers having become conversant with digital platforms, virtual common rooms for peer-to-peer interaction can strengthen teacher communities and create much needed peer support groups. With so much emphasis on socioemotional support, teachers need to be supported to have the wherewithal and the emotional strength to handle their wards effectively and with sensitivity. These platforms can also capture and disseminate local and frugal innovation. Otherwise, these innovations remain specific to the school where an enterprising teacher has come up with them. Funding for setting up state-wide portals to enable these Communities of Practice are a onetime endeavour and do not cost very much.
While there has been considerable improvement in enrolment, attendance and transition, adequate funding for creating digital infrastructure is needed for the integration school students’ databases with the Civil Registration System (CRS) and e-Mamta Database. This will ensure accurate identification of all eligible children for universal enrolment by creating a unique ID for each child. This unique ID for every child will enable systemic tracking of students in case of migrations and dropouts.
The underlying good news is that children in rural areas are migrating from private schools to government schools as per recent reports. As confidence in the public-school education system continues to grow, it is a huge opportunity for the Government to invest in, to take forward its vision and plans for one of the largest school education systems in the world, that impacts children.
(Ratna Viswanathan, CEO, Reach to Teach)
The article was first published on – www.livemint.com/education/budget-expectations-government-schools-need-focus-important-for-india-s-future-11675071019727.html