For more than 15 years now, the Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) has been an annual feature of the education landscape in India. It is the only annual source of data for basic learning outcomes that uses a nationally representative sample of children across rural India.
The pandemic, as it did with almost all other regular activities in education, disrupted the Aser cycle as well. The usual field Aser survey could not be conducted in 2020. However, in 2021, between the different Covid waves, Aser assessments were carried out in the field in three states. The Bengal data, collected in December 2021, provides the most recent estimate of schooling and learning available in India right now.
Given the long period of school closure, there has been deep concern about many aspects of education. Two major and deep worries have been around children not returning to school and the potential learning loss.
For Bengal, as far as children’s school enrolment is concerned, there are some expected and some unexpected findings. Enrolment in government schools has gone up even further, from 88.1 per cent in 2018 to 91.5 per cent in 2021. The economic difficulties faced by families and the challenges faced by low-cost rural private schools together have led to this trend, which is visible in most states across the country.
Interestingly, the worry that many children would have dropped out is not visible in the data. But the actual situation will become clearer when the schools reopen and stay open continuously. At that point, attention will have to shift from measuring enrolment to tracking daily attendance. It is only when daily attendance stabilises at a high level that it will be possible to say whether every child is indeed in school regularly.
India is among countries where schools have remained closed the longest. Within India, Bengal is one of the states where school closures have been the longest. It is commonly believed that children have missed out on important opportunities because of their inability to attend school.
Especially at a young age, school provides an essential context to learning social skills and how to interact with others. On the academic side, not only are the children likely to have forgotten what they knew but they have also forgone new learning opportunities. Given these facts, it is imperative to have access to current estimates of children’s learning so that plans moving forward can be made on the basis of ground realities.
Let’s look at the situation with basic learning in Bengal and, as an example, focus on Std III.
Three points are worth highlighting: First, learning levels (basic reading and arithmetic) were not satisfactory even in pre-Covid times. In 2018, only about a third of all children enrolled in Std III in Bengal were at “grade level”. (Aser measures these children’s ability to read a simple text at Std II level of difficulty. In maths, to ensure that a child is at least at Std II level, s/he is asked to recognise numbers up to 100 and do simple operations like two-digit subtractions with borrowing. Even before Covid, data over time indicated that two-thirds of all enrolled children were getting “left behind” within the first two years of coming to school.)
Second, although the proportion of children at “grade level” in Std III had risen slowly between 2012 and 2018, there has been a significant decline in basic learning levels during the pandemic. The percentage of children enrolled in Std III at government schools who are able to read a simple “story” at Std II level of difficulty has declined from 36.6 per cent in 2018 to 27.7 per cent in 2021. A sharp drop is visible in arithmetic skills in the same period. Similar drops in basic learning levels are clearly visible in other primary grades as well.
To help the children regain lost ground, two key challenges have to be understood well. These points are relevant to the restarting of classes in formal schools, and also to any educational efforts being undertaken until then, like the new Paray Shikshalaya initiative by the government.
First, the youngest children — those going to Std I or II classes — who have had no previous exposure to pre-school (anganwadi) or school need several months of “warm-up”. They need to have time and support to get ready for school, for class and for learning. Launching them directly into grade-wise instruction is likely to put them at a major disadvantage, not only now but possibly for their entire educational career.
Second, the older children (Std III, IV or V) need urgent and immediate help to “catch up”.
Within each grade, there is wide variation in reading levels. The Std III data shows that less than 30 per cent of children are at “grade level”, 33 per cent are not even able to read words and another 17 per cent can read words but not sentences in Std I textbooks.
Therefore, teaching children at grade level will not help most children. In Std V, 50 per cent of all children will not benefit at all from grade-level textbooks and teaching. In Std III, grade-level instruction will continue to leave behind 70 per cent children. In fact, grade-level teaching or “business as usual” is the primary reason that there was a “learning crisis” even before Covid times.
The pandemic and its consequences were beyond our control. Now we need to look ahead and plan effective strategies that are indeed within our power to carry out. It is really what we do with our children once the schools reopen, or even before they reopen, that will make a difference to their future pathways.
The immediate goals for primary schools are very clear. These need to be urgently and single-mindedly pursued. Getting the youngest children “ready for schooling and learning” and helping the older children to “catch up” should be the only two priorities for education in Bengal in 2022.
⚫ The author is with the Pratham Education Foundation