A critical challenge in boosting children’s foundational skills will be state capacity.
Sometime in 2023, India will officially overtake China as the most populous country in the world. It will also be the most populous young country in the world. How India fares in the future, and how most children in this country cope with looming challenges, will depend a lot on their access to, and participation in quality learning offered by India’s school and pre-school ecosystem. Foundational literacy and numeracy are pivotal to this education story, and the country’s future.
This makes the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022, the first field-based “basic” nationwide ASER after a gap of four years, so important. It comes at a critical juncture when children are back in school after an extended period of lockdowns and school closures. The 340-page report provides valuable insights into the extent of learning loss suffered by children in rural India, the pathways to recovery, and the context in which all this is happening. The nationwide citizen-led rural household survey, led by the Pratham Foundation, reached almost 700,000 children in the three to 16 age group in over 19,000 villages across 616 districts in India.
First, the good news — there are many more children in school now than before the onset of Covid-19. Despite schools being shut, overall enrolment figures in the 6-14 age group have jumped from 97.2 per cent in 2018 to 98.4 per cent in 2022. Less than two per cent of children in this age group are currently not enrolled in school. Many more girls are now going to school. More three-year-olds are now getting some sort of early childhood education, critical for cognitive development. More children are being enrolled in anganwadi centres (AWC) — in 2022, 68.8 per cent of three-year-olds were enrolled in AWCs, up from 57.1 per cent in 2018.
Two of the most significant findings of the latest ASER is the huge spurt in children shifting to government schools during the pandemic, possibly due to squeezed family budgets. Alongside, there has been a steep rise in children opting for paid private tuitions. In 2018, 65.8 per cent of children in the 6-14 age group were in government schools. In 2022, that figure shot up to 72.9 per cent. This is happening in almost every state. Alongside, we find soaring figures of children going for private tuition. Nationally, 30.5 per cent of children in standards 1-8 are now going for private tuition, up from 26.4 per cent in 2018.
The worrying news is the dip in foundational skills. Children’s basic reading ability has dipped sharply to pre-2012 levels. Both in government and private schools. The percentage of children in Class 3 in government or private schools who can read at Class 2 level is down from 27.3 per cent in 2018 to 20.5 per cent in 2022. Children’s basic skills in arithmetic has also declined from 2018 for most classes but not as sharply as basic reading. Many say this could be because children were going for private coaching, typically for maths and science.
What leaps out is the unexpected nature of the learning loss. There is a lot that we do not still know about the reasons behind the change in learning levels.
The data shows that the impact has been severe even in states with impressive human development records. Poorer states and those which have traditionally trailed in human development have done relatively better in some areas. Uttar Pradesh is an interesting case. In 2012, only a quarter of all children in government schools in UP could do division. In 2022, this number is close to Himachal Pradesh, an outlier among north Indian states with poor human development scores.
Another example. “In Std III, for instance, while the proportion of children who could read at Std II level fell in all states, the extent of the fall varied from about four percentage points in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand to 19 percentage points in Himachal Pradesh, 15 percentage points in Maharashtra and 13 percentage points in Kerala. In Std III maths, we see a similar pattern: Bihar and Jharkhand show no change while UP shows an improvement over 2018 levels; on the other hand, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra show drops of about eight percentage points and Kerala, a drop of 10 percentage points…” says Dr Wilima Wadhwa, director of the ASER Centre.
The ASER 2022 data must be seen in the backdrop of key developments in the country’s education sector. India came out with a National Education Policy in 2020. An important feature of the NEP is its emphasis on the importance of the early years and foundational competencies. Arguably, after the schools reopened, all states have made efforts to push Foundational Literacy and Numeracy. Many steps have been taken. There is new learning material, training for teachers, etc.
The emphasis on early childhood education and foundational literacy and numeracy is very welcome. However, one must also recognise the challenges on the ground. Pandemic-induced closures affected children across India, from pre-primary through secondary levels of schooling. But not equally. There is a huge digital divide in India; it worsened during the time of the pandemic-induced school closures.
ASER 2022 appendices offer interesting data about other bits of the backdrop against which one can situate the learning loss and recovery. Nationally, households which have a smartphone jumped from 36 per cent in 2018 to 74.8 per cent in 2022; households with at least one person who knows how to operate a computer plummeted from 22.9 per cent to 16 per cent nationally in the same period. Nationally, mothers with no schooling made up 33 per cent of the sampled population in ASER 2022, better than 42 per cent in 2018, but still over a quarter.
A critical challenge in boosting children’s foundational skills will be state capacity. If there are more children enrolled in government schools and anganwadis, the state capacity must be strengthened. The ASER 2022 data makes clear that state governments and the Centre have stepped up their inputs in many areas in the education space. School infrastructure has improved — the proportion of schools with usable girls’ toilets has gone up from 66.4 per cent in 2018 to 68.4 per cent in 2022; 76 per cent of schools now have drinking water, up from 74.8 per cent. And so on. What is needed now is overall strengthening of the education system. Alongside infrastructure and technology, human resources need a booster shot. Each district and state would have to do its own in-depth analysis of gaps that need to be plugged. Here is hoping that will happen. At stake is India’s future.