The Annual Status of Education Report ASER 2021 was released a few days ago. Given the pandemic conditions, it is not the usual face-to-face ASER household survey focussed on reading and arithmetic. This ASER and the one in 2020 have been phone-based surveys exploring underlying trends and learning opportunities during a time of prolonged school closure.
ASER is an assessment of education status in rural areas. ASER 2021 probed the following types of questions: What decisions were taken within families about their children’s education? What opportunities were available to households in different parts of the country? What was the relationship between home and school during this period of crisis? Such questions are important at any time but even more critical today. Whether as a family or as a school system or as a country, we are looking at the next steps. Data that is systematically collected from a nationwide sample in a timely fashion is very valuable for planning the path forward.
A major finding from ASER 2021 has to do with a shift in school enrolment patterns. Whether by age or grade or state, across the board, there is a clear and substantial increase in enrolment in government schools. On the one hand, a downturn in private school enrolment can be directly linked to economic troubles in the family. Discontinuities and disruptions make families curtail or postpone expenditures. If schools are closed, why pay fees for children’s education? On the other hand, low-cost private schools in rural areas have struggled to stay afloat. At the same time, many state governments have made concerted efforts to reach out to children with learning materials and also rations instead of midday meals. Direct cash transfers from schools to families have also increased in this time. Time will tell whether this is a transitory phase or a more permanent shift. Over time, as the economy recovers and as schools settle into a continuous working cycle, we will know if government schools are actually able to hold on to and increase the proportion of children directly in their charge.
In this context, how the system helps children return to school will be critical. Unlike densely crowded urban areas where opinions can be divided, rural parents want their children to go back to school and children are eager and willing. This enthusiasm is essential fuel for “building back better”. Children in today’s Class 1 and Class 2 have never been to school. They have to be helped to get ready for schooling and learning. Today’s Class 5 was in school almost two years ago in Class 3. They are now returning to school older, perhaps more worldly-wise. But they will need help to settle in and reconnect. Will government schools demonstrate new ways to welcome children in? Will the interaction between parents and teachers help to build trust and faith? If so, the shift to government schools can be long-lasting.
As the country navigates through this stage of the pandemic, there are academic strategies to be developed and modified to face current teaching-learning challenges. The use of grade-level curriculum may not be useful immediately. Instead, meeting children at the level where they are and using the “teaching at the right level” approach is the need of the hour. Even the National Education Policy 2020 recommends that acquiring strong foundational skills needs to be the top priority. Available research from other countries shows that while school closures can lead to learning losses, what school systems do once schools reopen is even more critical. Making children deal with grade-level curriculum after almost a two-year gap or hurrying them through the syllabus are not appropriate responses. In fact, investing time and effort now in rebuilding and strengthening children’s ability to read with understanding, improving their capacity to apply problem-solving skills and enabling them to help each other in the classroom may provide the big boost needed to bring the education system to where it was in pre-Covid times and move further ahead. Will schools respond quickly to children’s current needs? Or will they return to the age-grade linear curriculum that even in pre-Covid days had left many children behind?
ASER 2021 asked households about smartphones at home. Data indicate that the availability of smartphones in households has almost doubled since 2018. This is true of families where children are enrolled in government schools and in private schools. From ASER 2020 figures, it was clear that a smartphone had been bought since the lockdown began in one out of 10 households to help children with studies. When asked the same question in ASER 2021, we found that the proportion had increased to 27.9 per cent. In 2018, 27.9 per cent families with children enrolled in government schools had smartphones. This number increased to 56.4 per cent in 2020 and to 63.7 per cent in 2021. For families with children enrolled in government schools, the equivalent figure climbed from 49.9 per cent in 2018 to 74.2 per cent in 2020 and to 79 per cent in 2021. Overall, approximately 67.6 per cent households with school-age children had smartphones in 2021.
ASER also shows that access does not automatically mean use. While there are wide variations across states, a little over one-fourth of all children with at least one smartphone can access the phone easily and another one-fourth is not able to access the phone at all.
The digital divide has been talked about widely. Assuming connectivity will continue to increase and level the playing field, having device libraries at the school or village level may be one solution. Individuals and families can borrow devices on a priority basis. Will government schools lead in this regard?
ASER 2021 enables us to get a glimpse into a period of education transition. Will schools return to their old ways? Will new methods of engaging with children and parents emerge? Will appropriate teaching-learning goals and activities be adopted for the rest of the school year? Ground-level action will indicate which way our education system will go in the near future.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 24, 2021 under the title ‘A different classroom’. The writer is CEO, Pratham Education Foundation