How badly have the Covid-19 lockdowns affected school education in India? According to the latest Annual Status of Education Report, there has been a shift from private to government schools between 2018 and 2020. The reasons include financial distress in households due to loss of income and shutdown of private schools. There has been an unregulated mushrooming of private schools all over the country in the past decades.
Alarmingly, however, India is among the few countries in the world where the ratio of private to public schooling is the highest. That’s because the coverage of the government school network is patchy at best and the quality of learning dispensed there abysmal. The ASER study showed, for instance, that during the survey week, only one in three rural children had engaged in a learning activity. And only 36 per cent of schools provided them with textbooks.
In urban centres, there has been a boom in the edutech industry in pandemic times. However, exposing the criminally negligent logic behind the government’s great e-education push is a well-anticipated outcome. Although smartphone ownership almost doubled from 2018, a third of children with smartphone access still did not receive any learning materials, the study reported. Significantly, less than 15 per cent of rural Indian households have Internet. The poorest homes cannot afford a smartphone or a computer. Some of them were found selling their only assets during the pandemic merely so their children could continue learning in a Covid year. In such a scenario, the academic divide between private and government schools is set to widen further, with potentially disastrous social and economic consequences.
Though it is highly iniquitous, the much-vaunted National Education Policy is silent on this yawning gap. The government, in its unseemly haste to pacify the influential middle classes, was loath to drop the JEE and restarted lessons for older students. But it paid scant regard to the increase in dropouts at the elementary and secondary levels countrywide, which reflects in the report.
It is a scientific fact that 90 per cent of brain growth occurs by age five, meaning that the quality of early childhood schooling has a crucial impact on the potential of the citizen. The ASER report shows that a large number of factors determine the quality of education received at this stage, including the mother’s education and the type of school, government or private. There is, therefore, a need to strengthen the government school system in India urgently.
India is going through an education emergency, which has only been exacerbated by Covid.