In the rarefied environment of Lutyen’s Delhi about to experience a landscape makeover with the hindutva-inspired Central Vista new Parliament building and in business-as-usual state capitals, there seems to be no awareness that in the vast hinterland, the country is experiencing an Education Emergency.
In early January, primary-secondaries, which had cautiously reopened last October, following an unprecedented 70-week lockdown of all 1.5 million schools countrywide during 2020-21, were peremptorily shut down again with the Omicron variant of the novel Coronavirus fuelling a surge in infections. This despite numerous authoritative studies indicating severe learning loss of 70-80 percent within India’s pre-pandemic school-going children. Of them, two-thirds have had no access to online learning over the past 18 months. As for the rest, a recent Azim Premji University study has concluded that online learning is “inadequate and ineffective”.
On the other hand, in the UK, Russia, France and China — all badly hit by the Delta and Omicron variants of the Coronavirus — schools have reopened after shutdowns of a mere 12 to 37 weeks. The prolonged lockdown of early childhood and primary schools where children are too young to grasp online learning is especially reprehensible. Because even in the pre-pandemic era, as continuously highlighted in the authoritative field-tested Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) of the Pratham Education Foundation, learning outcomes of rural and government primaries were declining.
In these exceptional circumstances, the best available option is a Central government order that all children should repeat the academic year 2021-22 i.e, declare it a zero year. The heavens won’t fall if youngest children relearn the 2021-22 syllabus to build a strong foundation for future learning. It’s certainly a better option than routinely promoting children to the next higher class where they are certain to experience severe learning difficulties and stress.
Alternatively in the event of widespread resistance to this proposition, the next best option is for the Union and state governments to make substantial provision for remedial education and learning recovery programmes in the Union and state budgets 2022-23. Under this proposition, the Centre’s outlay for public education in the Union Budget 2022- 23 must double from Rs.93,224 crore in 2021-22 to serve as a precedent for state governments.
The Education Emergency that confronts the world’s largest child and youth population needs the focused and urgent attention of government, academics and the public. It’s no exaggeration to state that contemporary acts of omission and commission will shape the future of the Republic.
Immediate collective action is imperative to ensure that 21st century India’s accidental demographic dividend doesn’t transform into a prolonged disaster.