The pandemic has once again sledgehammered the fact that in digital India, everyone is not equal
As we continue to navigate the multiple uncertainties thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic, there is a heartening finding from the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2020 Wave 1) that deserves special attention. The report, released online late last month, reaffirms a positive trend: households in India, both rich and poor, are pinning their hopes on education as a passport to upward mobility, even in the times of Covid-19.
The release of an ASER report is an eagerly-awaited event for everyone not just in the education sector or civil society but also for others who are concerned about India’s development trajectory and the country’s future. The reason is simple: it provides deep insights into the state of learning of India’s children.
This year’s survey is the first-ever phone-based ASER survey. Conducted in September 2020, the sixth month of the nationwide school closures, it looks at how distance education was provided and accessed, the kind of materials and activities given to rural children and the way they dealt with these remote learning approaches, along with their families, from their homes. The learnings are collated from 26 states and four Union territories -- a total of 52,227 households and 59,251 children in the age group of 5-16 years, as well as teachers or head teachers from 8,963 government schools offering primary grades.
That schoolgoing children have suffered hugely is obvious. Covid-19 severely disrupted lives across India, as elsewhere. Millions of people lost sources of livelihood during the lockdown; those in the informal sector did not get paid for several months; even during the “unlock” phase, earnings have dipped. Household savings have evaporated. Many people are in deep debt.
But what leaps out from the flood of depressing news is that even while negotiating this catastrophic turn of events, families, rich and poor, have tried their best to support their children’s education when classroom teaching went virtual.
The latest ASER data tells us that at the household level, about 11 per cent of all families bought a new phone since the lockdown kicked off. Over 80 per cent of these new phone purchases were smartphones. Of the lot who didn’t have a smartphone at home, around 13 per cent said their children could access someone else’s smartphone.
With time, we will know more about the choices poor households made in their crisis hour, what they gave up, what they postponed in order to buy smartphones which the children used to access learning material in recent months.
The pandemic has once again sledgehammered the fact that in digital India, everyone is not equal. Over 500 million Indians are now using smartphones, a 15 per cent jump from 2018, but there is a big gap between city dwellers and those living in villages, high-income and low-income, high-education and low-education households, as well as between men and women. A recent study by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government estimated that, today in India, 71 per cent of men use mobile phones, as against 38 per cent of women.
Needless to say, we don’t know yet how time was divided between boys and girls in households with one smartphone and whether there was any distinction made by gender and age-group.
ASER 2020 tells us that WhatsApp was the most commonly used way by which children received learning materials. Children in private schools were at an advantage compared to their government school counterparts over use of this platform. Interestingly, children in government schools were much more likely to have got learning materials through personal contact with a teacher than those in private schools. This happened when the teacher visited the family or when someone from the family went to the school.
Clearly, families with low incomes and low education who couldn’t buy smartphones tried to support their children in other ways, as did many schools.
Despite the challenges and contradictions inherent in the Indian milieu, families across the board are trying their level best to make sure their children have a fighting chance in the emerging, highly competitive world of work.
A smartphone is an aspiration marker. But buying one isn’t the only way parents have helped children deal with the pandemic’s new normal.
The latest ASER survey offers insights about the support at home for learning — 74.9 per cent families reported being able to provide some learning support at home to their children. Apart from parents, older children also pitched in.
There are promising signs from many states.
West Bengal, for example, tops the list in reduction in school dropouts, going by the latest ASER data. The school dropout rate there is 1.5 per cent this year, from 3.3 per cent in 2018. ASER 2020 also tells us West Bengal is on top in the country for giving textbooks for school students.
Several state governments are working on school fees to help families in financial distress and with schoolgoing children. Andhra Pradesh, for example, has decided to slash 30 per cent of tuition fees for the 2020-21 academic year for private unaided educational institutions. Even city governments are doing their bit. The Pune Municipal Corporation has formed a committee to look into the issue of school fee payments.
But while lower school fees, support at home and smartphones definitely help, they aren’t going to be enough to compensate for the possibly severe learning loss suffered by many children.
We know schoolgoing children learnt something during all the months they have been at home. We also know that when schools reopen, not everyone is likely to be equally positioned to cope with classroom teaching.
Two key issues must be given top priority. Along with strengthening family support in children’s learning, working on more impactful digital content, etc, there needs to be special, targeted incentives for children at risk of dropping out of school in the coming days. They must stay on.
Second, there is an urgent need for free remedial classes for all those who didn’t have optimal access to learning sources when there was no physical classroom teaching or who have not been able to absorb what they received remotely.
The pandemic has affected every child in India, but not equally. When schools reopen, it is vital to continue to track who goes back to school, and to understand whether there is a learning loss compared to previous years. Children who have fallen behind and who need more help than others should be policy priorities.