The pandemic-induced school closures have resulted in “catastrophic consequences” for students, especially for those in rural areas, with a mere 8% studying regularly online and 37% not studying at all, according to a new survey.
Plus, the financial stress caused by the pandemic has resulted in an exodus from private schools. Over a quarter of those enrolled in private schools switched to government schools during the 17-month-long school lockdown either due to depressed family earnings or because online education did not work well for their children.
The survey, supervised by economists Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera and researcher Vipul Paikra, covers 1,400 students enrolled in Classes 1 to 8 across 15 states and Union Territories, namely Assam, Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Delhi, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh account for more than half the sample.
The results of the survey, conducted in August this year, are based on interviews of 1,400 households in rural hamlets and urban bastis “inhabited by underprivileged families – the sort of families that send their children to government schools”.
“About 60% of the sample households reside in rural areas, and close to 60% belong to Dalit or Adivasi communities,” the report states.
The survey makes it clear that the reach of online education is “very limited”. The urban-rural divide is stark, with 24% of urban students studying regularly online while this figure for rural students was a mere 8%.
The biggest reason behind the limited reach of online education is that many sample households (about half in rural areas) have no smartphones. Even among households with a smartphone, the proportion of children accessing online learning resources is just 31% in urban areas and 15% in rural areas. This is mainly because “smartphones are often used by working adults, and may or may not be available to school children, especially the younger siblings”. Another problem, especially in villages, was that schools were not sending online study material or parents were not aware of it.
Of the 1,400 children surveyed, about one-fifth were studying in private schools when schools started closing in March last year. A quarter in this sample, among those initially enrolled in private schools, had migrated to government schools by August 2021, the survey report states. This number could have been much higher since several parents are currently struggling to meet private schools’ condition to clear all dues before taking a “transfer certificate”.
Though the Union government had ordered states to provide midday meal substitutes in the form of foodgrain and money, a ground assessment by the surveyors showed that the distribution was “quite sporadic and haphazard”. Twenty per cent of urban students and 14% of rural students in government schools had received neither.
As learning outcomes surveys in the past have already shown, only half the students in Class 5 are able to read texts meant for Class 2. The report says “most parents feel their child’s reading and writing abilities have gone down during the lockdown”. The pre-lockout learning gap, coupled with a decline in reading and writing abilities and mass promotions, are a “recipe for disaster”, the report states.
“For instance, a child who was enrolled in Grade 3 before the lockout, but actually did not master the curriculum beyond Grade 2 because of her disadvantaged position, and now finds herself closer to Grade 1 in that respect, is enrolled in Grade 5 today, and will be promoted to the upper-primary level in a few months’ time! Dealing with this massive disconnect requires major changes in curriculum and pedagogy over an extended transition period – years rather than months,” according to the report.