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The recently released Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2022 – the first full-fledged report since the pandemic struck – saw a substantial rise in school enrolment for the first time in 16 years. But it also showed the widening learning gap for foundational skills in reading and arithmetic, undoing several years of improvement.
The growing learning gap can also be attributed to schools remaining closed across the country during the pandemic. India was among the few countries where schools remained closed the longest. For several small private schools, the restrictions became unsustainable and many shut down for good. Meanwhile, enrolment in government schools rose (from 65.6 per cent in 2018 to 72.9 per cent in 2022).
Experts continue to call for increasing the education outlay in the Union Budget to make up for the losses.
“The loss of learning is a stark reality and transcends the rural-urban divide in government schools,” says Ratna Viswanathan, CEO, Reach to Teach, a Gurugram-headquartered social impact institution. “The most visible change is the obvious loss of learning for children, and the need to address this is critical. The Budget this year must provide outlays on government schools to prioritise key areas like training of teachers, development of material focusing on the hard spots in core subjects and [addressing the problem of] intermittent power supply to schools.”
According to the Economic Survey (2021-22), India’s share of public investment in education has largely remained constant at 3 per cent – lower than a number of countries like the US, UK and Germany (which have a public investment level in the range of 5-6 per cent of their GDP in education).
Funding has remained a substantial problem for educational institutes across the country. According to data from the Ministry of Education, the central government’s share of the education budget allocated to states has shrunk from 22.9 per cent in 2016-17 to 18.8 per cent in 2020-21.
Some departments face similar situations. In 2022-23, the Department of School Education (DSE) was allocated Rs 63,449 crore. The Parliamentary Standing Committee has noted that the DSE gets far less funds than its proposals. The department got only 76 per cent, 72 per cent and 56 per cent of the sought funding in 2018-19, 2020-21, and 2021-22, respectively.
The poorer learning standards are also a result of falling outlays.
According to the ASER 2022 report, basic reading levels have fallen to pre-2012 levels.
And, fundamental mathematics skills are down to the level of the previous year (They had gone up till 2018 before they slipped).
A similar survey, conducted by the government through the NCERT in 2022, mirrors some of the trends seen in the ASER report. The NCERT survey found that as many as 37 per cent of the children enrolled in Class 3 have limited foundational numeracy skills, and 11 per cent don’t even have basic knowledge.
“The ASER report clearly indicates that there is a serious loss of learning, which has turned an already grim situation into a dire one,” says Rishikesh BS, who heads the Hub for Education, Law and Policy at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. “Online learning and such are presented as silver bullets. In fact, the limitations of online education were evident during the pandemic,” he adds.
The government allotted Rs 1.04 trillion to the education Budget for 2022-23. This was 11 per cent more than the previous year’s Budget. However, at Rs 93,233 crore, the education Budget in 2021-22 was 6 per cent lower than the previous year.
“The 11 per cent increase in the FY23 Budget should be seen in the light of the 6 per cent decrease in 2021-22, with no increase during the pandemic years either,” says Rishikesh, adding, “It is important to look at what the actual increase in the money allotted is (considering the inflation-adjusted increases for various recurring expenditures), which finally does not leave much in spite of the 11 per cent increase.”
Meanwhile, last year, the government introduced a number of initiatives to aid digital education. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also proposed expanding the ‘One Class, One TV Channel’ programme under the PM e-Vidya scheme. And she proposed to set up a digital university to provide education on a hub-and-spoke model. The “hub” would be India’s top public universities and institutions. And the “spoke” would be the student getting the education from these institutes through digital media in whatever distant corner of the country he or she was.
“Any digital education or ‘one class-one channel’ kind of programme can only be an additional aid to teachers and students,” Rishikesh says. “Neither should one expect much to happen through it nor does one need to focus on it as it takes away the required focus and resources from other more crucial educational aspects.”
Viswanathan of Reach to Teach adds, “During Covid, many states partnered with Doordarshan and private broadcasters to telecast educational content through TV channels. There is a need to spread the availability and reach of education-focused TV channels, particularly to smaller states with digital connectivity issues.”
Experts feel that an increase in funding – and scholarships for those in need – is critical.
Rishikesh says schemes such as NIPUN Bharat have been launched to meet the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 goal of ensuring that all children have acquired foundational skills by the time they are in Class 3. However, this requires reforms in areas including curriculum, pedagogy, material and teacher development, which calls for well-thought-out funding.
“The Budget needs to prioritise and focus on creating the relevant infrastructure to support learning and learning recovery, particularly in low-resource schools,” says Vishwanathan. “School infrastructure, such as an adequate number of classrooms and digital classrooms, will bridge the digital divide that was visible these past three years.”
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First Published: Mon, January 23 2023. 15:44 IST