As January 2022 rolled around, optimism about a new year and a fresh start fizzled out quickly. Most of India was swiftly engulfed by a third Covid wave. What followed was predictable. Across the country, state government after state government decided to close schools yet again. According to data from UNESCO, India holds the unfortunate global distinction of the longest pandemic-induced school closure.

Pratham, one of India’s largest non-governmental organisations focused on education, has been measuring learning outcomes for children in every state and rural district of India. The findings are made public through its Annual Status of Education Report. In its 2021 School Survey Major Findings report the ASER found that close to three quarters of all respondent teachers reported facing challenges in teaching their grade currently.

The most commonly reported challenge was that children were unable to catch up with their grade-level curriculum – a number which went up to a staggering 65.4%. In rural Karnataka for instance, the share of grade three students in government schools able to perform simple subtraction fell from 24% in 2018 to just 16% in 2020.

A learning crisis

In the face of multiple school shutdowns through a two-year period, are state governments or the Union government unaware of this learning crisis? Not at all. In August 2021, the 328th Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports published a report which had a scathing indictment of the learning gap due to school lockdowns. The committee noted that it was “not only the learning loss but also the loss of social contact and socialisation routine that were part of the daily experience of a student’s life in schools and educational institutions.”

It then went on to note the impact on the poor. “Further, loss of learning opportunities always have adverse impact on the most vulnerable sections of the society like students from economically weaker sections, rural and tribal areas and marginalised sections of society and girls,” the report explained. “Past evidence suggests that short-term disruptions in schooling often lead to permanent dropouts amongst these categories. This needs to be addressed and immediate remedial steps required to be taken.”

Learning poverty

More disturbing data. A 2021 joint UNESCO, UNICEF and World Bank report says this generation of students across the globe now risks losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value as a result of school closures. That’s 14% of today’s global GDP and far more than the $10 trillion estimated in 2020. In low-and-middle-income countries, the report notes the share of children living in “learning poverty” will rise sharply, potentially up to 70%, given the long school closures and the varying quality and effectiveness of remote learning.

There is enough evidence then to underscore the damage school shutdowns have caused by creating prolonged learning gaps for students. Those from lesser privileged backgrounds will face the especially mountainous task of reclaiming their learning when schools do reopen in earnest.

Why is reopening not a “business as normal” act? “With Covid uncertainties, schools will go through cycles of reopening and closure,” explains Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research, a public policy research think tank. “A decentralised approach will be necessary. First, states will need to evolve protocols for when to close and, crucially, reopen. Second, greater flexibility in funding resources at district and school level is needed so schools can align with SOPs [standard operating procedures] of state governments and support expenditures based on their needs.”

“This,” said Aiyar, “is a departure from the current system of spending decisions that are centred towards New Delhi and state capitals.”

India holds the unfortunate global distinction of the longest pandemic-induced school closures. Credit: UNESCO

The lost generation

The first practical problem to address is whether a significant number of children have dropped out of school. How many are they and how can they be brought back into the fold of learning.

In 2019-’20, data from the Union government’s Unified District Information System for Education database showed dropout rates for India overall were at 16.1% for secondary school. States like Arunachal Pradesh and Assam were ticking at a shocking 30% and above for the same category, followed by states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha in the 20s.

India’s Education minister Dharmendra Pradhan said in August last year that the central government wants to bring 15 crore out-of-school children into the education system.

Measuring the scale

Has there been any attempt by states to ascertain what dropout rates look like two years into the pandemic and school shutdowns? Tamil Nadu offers some answers in this regard.

“Traditionally, kids drop out at various stages from middle and high school and no one knows what the exact number is, the year passes and then we get the figure post-mortem,” K Nanthakumar, Commissioner, School Education, Tamil Nadu said, explaining how the Education Department began their search for these “lost” children. “When we wanted to bring out-of-school children back in July-August, we developed a new system called MIS [Education Management Information System] that uses technology to collate all data on government, private and public school children in one place. That’s 1.2 crore kids in total.”

Nanthakumar explained that the final figure from this exercise was significant: 2.25 lakh children had dropped out of school. “It was a big learning for us,” he said. “The conventional notion of a few thousand children dropping out was wrong, it is multiple times that figure. Perhaps it was because of Covid or maybe we didn’t understand the size of the problem.”

Why had the children dropped out? The main reason was reportedly financial stress. The cluster of children ranging from 14-16 years (grade 10-12) was where the maximum dropouts had occurred. Though public schooling in the state is free, economic compulsions had compelled families to send these young adolescents into the labour market instead of finishing school.

These compulsions exist across the length and breadth of India and give us pause to think about what the total number of school dropouts for the entire country must look like.

Searching for solutions

In August 2021, the Tamil Nadu state government called for a consultation meeting regarding the reopening of schools. It recognised the learning gap that had emerged due to school shutdowns as a problem. Through the process of intense discussions and debates with education experts, civil society voices and the teaching community, the ITK programme was born. ITK or Illam Thedi Kalvi essentially means “education at your doorstep”.

Simply put, the idea was to teach and support children at their level, close to their living spaces. The aim was two-fold: circumvent periods of no learning that were cropping up every time schools were shut down and working with children to address the learning challenges frequent closures had led to. Started in Chennai in December 2021, the ITK Programme was then piloted in 12 districts. Early days yet, say most experts. But an admission of the problem seems like a good starting point.

So, is it working? “There’s genuinely a lot of interest and commitment to looking at learning – but there is some confusion on how it will happen,” Ranjani Ranganathan, Advisor, KFI-Tribal Schools and an educationist based out of Chennai said. “I think it is still a work in progress.”

Ranganathan explains that the initiative faces some practical challenges. “In as much as a vision goes, this is very progressive,” he said. “The problem is there are private schools that have decided they will continue online for the full year. There are some children who are not going to be affected at all, but we forget that this online mode impacts a large chunk of school-going children and their learning.”

Digital education debate

Has online learning then, been the booming success it is plugged to be ?

In September 2021, Prime Minister Modi told an education ministry-organised Shikshak Parv conclave attended by teachers and students, how “easily (sehejta se)” students, teachers and parents had taken to online learning amid the pandemic.

Almost a polar opposite was what a Parliamentary standing committee had to say on that parameter. “The Committee, however, observed that the ground reality is completely different,” its report read. “All parts of the country are not equipped to make digital education reach to all corners and cover all groups of the people. In higher education sector, one can understand student’s access to e-modes, but in school education availability of digital platforms and their access to students is debatable.”

A teacher is seen on a mobile phone during an online lecture, inside a digital mobile education library, initiated to provide mobile phones to children who have no access to them for their education classes amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease in Mumbai in 2020. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Curriculum is fiction

Current state versus Centre scuffles around curriculum seem to be largely centred around topics that should or shouldn’t be part of the learning material students read. Imagine this – a child for whom physical school closed shortly after entering Class II. Now she steps back into school and finds herself in Class IV. Is the child ready to face the demands of a two-year academic leap? Are we teaching children for their grade or meeting them where they are? Who is the existing curriculum built for?

Recalibration of the curriculum is not a conversation states have even begun. In its last budget, the Delhi government had announced it was preparing a new syllabus for students in nursery to class eight but no details of the new curriculum have been made public yet, nor whether the curriculum is being redesigned to accommodate the learning needs of children.

In August last year, the School Children’s Online and Offline Learning survey was conducted across 16 states and union territories. It focused on relatively deprived hamlets and slums, where children generally attend government schools. The survey was a joint effort of nearly 100 volunteers across the country and the report was prepared by a coordination team consisting of researchers Nirali Bakhla, Jean Drèze, Reetika Khera and Vipul Paikra.

Drèze, Visiting Professor in the Department of Economics at Ranchi University, explained how millions of children are at risk of being permanently left out of formal learning. “Amongst children in grade three, only 25% were able to read more than a few words – an age where they should be able to read fluently in their mother tongue,” he said. “This is way below what we would expect in normal times, based on earlier surveys.“

This gets worse when inequality is added to the mix. “All the indicators are a lot worse for Dalit and Adivasi children compared to other children, even within underprivileged areas,” Drèze said. “The lockout for these children has amplified already extreme inequalities.”

For these children, he adds, the curriculum has become a fiction.

Finding my eyes

Again, Tamil Nadu’s version of an education reboot plan deserves some attention. While presenting the revised budget for 2021-’22 for the state in August, Tamil Nadu Minister for Finance and Human Resources Management PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan announced an allocation of Rs 32,599.54 crore for school education, of which Rs 66.7 crore was given to the “Ennum Ezhuthum Mission” or the Tamil Nadu State Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Mission.

Ennum Ezhuthum riffs on a Tamil proverb “ennum ezhuthum kannena thagum”, loosely meaning “learning numbers and words are equal to two eyes”. The focus is on building a strong foundation of level-based learning instead of grade-based learning. Once children return to school, the emphasis will be on building foundational literacy and numeracy. Learning material is being reworked accordingly.

Professor Ramanujam, who chairs the Tamil Nadu State Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Mission, is candid about the uphill task the next few years will present. “I know it sounds like tall claims, but my hope is that we can achieve it because we have time,” he said. “The process is on, defining the benchmark is on, there is clarity on what to do. The ‘how to do’ will take some time. But this is what gives me hope. It is not that teachers are unaware of the situation but systemic changes require time and patience. We need to be prepared for slower solutions.”

Is this curriculum rethink necessary? In November last year teachers from every district in Tamil Nadu were invited in batches of 100 and intense deliberations were held with them. Of the 92,000 participating teachers, an overwhelming 86% agreed that less than a quarter of the children in their classroom are anywhere near satisfactory levels, in terms of grade-appropriate learning.

There was universal agreement on the need to change pedagogy. There were a lot of ideas (and differences) on the how, but the fact that a change is needed, emerged loud and clear. Bear in mind, Tamil Nadu currently ranks 2nd in NITI Ayog’s Education Index. If these are the numbers for India’s second best state, what might the learning levels be for children from Jharkhand, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, that rank in the bottom five by NITI’s own parameters.

Students wearing facemasks maintain social distance while attending class at a government girls high school amid the ongoing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Hyderabad in 2021. Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP

Time, money, attention

For states – and the Centre (since education is a concurrent subject), the pandemic presents the opportunity to make dramatic and potentially path breaking changes. That India’s schooling system is broken is an open secret. Will rethinking how we choose to reopen schools give us pause to reimagine how education in India works?

Clearly, the process will require thought – and money. India needs to spend more on education, especially primary school learning. This is not rocket science. The National Education Policy has said it and every Economic Survey has reiterated it. What is different is the urgency of the crisis we have at hand, with children being locked out of their schools for almost two years now.

In the Union Budget for 2020-’21, the total education budget was slashed by 6% from Rs 99,311 crore in 2020-’21 to Rs 93,224 crore – a three year low. School education saw the biggest reduction of almost Rs 5,000 crore. The allocation for higher education was decreased by roughly Rs 1,000 crore to Rs 38,350 crore.

The finance minister made no mention of the learning crisis across the country, no word on how children from disadvantaged societies would be supported, nor any plan towards spending on reenrolment campaigns.

Going the opposite way

Yamini Aiyar points out how misdirected this is. “Central government education budgets have been slashed – they are down by 20% in FY2021 over the budgeted estimate of FY2020,” she explained. “Releases are even lower and only 27% of the budget has been utilised. So once schools open there is going to be huge spending pressure.”

This when the Centre needs to do the opposite and spend more.“We know that given learning losses we will now need to invest hugely in remedial teaching,” Aiyar said. “Given how stressed state budgets are, fiscal support will be needed from the Centre. Enhanced budgetary allocation and speedy releases will be critical. Especially in April when the new school year begins.”

It is equal parts ironic and tragic that from January 2020 and well into 2021, India has seen money gushing into EdTech start-ups. For a country bursting with entrepreneurial success with the likes of Byju’s, UpGrad and LEAD to name a few, this will also be a time in our history where an enormous swathe of school going children struggle to read two words in succession.

Gandhiji said, “Education should be so revolutionised as to answer the wants of the poorest villager, instead of answering those of an imperial exploiter.”

Ask yourself, who stands to gain when the children lose?

Mitali Mukherjee is a journalist, TEDx speaker and Chevening Fellow who lives in Delhi.