Our education institutions will require financial boosting and credible leadership to create and sustain a climate for institutional recovery without false pride over trivial achievements
India’s Educational Recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic will require considerable imagination, planning and patience. These resources have been in short supply over the past decade or so. Few state governments have sufficient resources to build the institutional infrastructure and expertise required for dealing with crises. And as for patience, neither the Central nor state governments show any inclination to appreciate initiatives taken by an earlier regime. Typically, when a new political dispensation takes over, it has little interest in sustaining efforts invested by its predecessor. The Covid crisis adds one more layer to old lists of neglected crises. For this reason, a situation of compounded neglect prevails in Indian education across the spectrum.
Let’s start with early childhood. Mid-day meals and the nutrition given at anganwadis stopped when the Coronavirus struck India in early 2020. Governments knew that disruption of food distribution programmes in anganwadis and primary schools would cause widespread malnutrition in a highly vulnerable age group. But little effort was made to find a safe way to continue to provide meals to youngest children while regular classes were suspended. When the pandemic relents, compensating in full measure for the loss of nutrition will be difficult, but every effort will have to be made to assess the extent of loss and mitigate its long-term impact.
The use of smart phones for online instruction to children who didn’t have access to laptops will also have consequences, particularly for the eyesight of primary school children. Assessment of this impact should be a high priority, so that remedial measures can be taken as quickly as possible. The type of emergency schooling that was prescribed for primary grades is itself questionable, but the time for questioning is perhaps already behind us. How best our teachers can be equipped to resume regular classes in the post-Covid future is the more relevant question.
Teacher training has been the weakest link in our education system. Both pre-service teacher education and inservice professional development programmes have remained academically weak all these years. It’s hard to realistically imagine any improvement in this sector unless radical changes take place in the administrative and political climate. For guiding us along the path of improvement in teacher education, the Justice J.S. Verma Commission report is still available as a highly relevant document. Central and state governments, as well as private institutions can profit from close study of this report.
The pandemic has forced a vast number of low-fee charging private schools to a halt in many regions of the country. These schools were dependent on the fees that children paid. The loss of parental income on account of the first serious lockdown in the summer of 2020 and subsequent lockdowns of different lengths made it impossible for budget private schools to function. In the post-Covid era, large-scale surveys will have to be conducted to estimate the number of children whose schools stopped functioning. Many among them tried to shift to government schools in some states. But to accommodate these children in government schools in any meaningful way, will require significant augmentation of their infrastructure. In the event that some budget schools manage to resume their services, they too will require government financial support to make it possible for their low-paid teachers to improve classroom conditions.
In the higher primary and secondary grades, vast numbers of children have reportedly dropped out of school altogether. Nobody has any reliable idea regarding their whereabouts and the contribution they might be making to the income of their families. Bringing them back to school will be a monumental task, compounded by the need to provide remedial education to children compromised by online teaching.
There are no easy answers to how best these academically damaged children can be competently served. The policy document issued during the pandemic provides no clues or insights into this matter. A fresh effort to formulate a policy relevant to the prevalent circumstances will have to be made, and each state will have to make this effort to
respond to its unique circumstances. Over recent years, it has become clear that it is pointless to look for serious guidance or support from the Centre. Our education institutions will require financial boosting and credible leadership to create and sustain a climate in which institutional recovery happens without false pride over trivial achievements. India has a history of taking education lightly. Now that a full-scale systemic crisis is upon us, this history needs a break.
Latterly, higher secondary school-leaving board examinations have dominated the public discourse. Initiatives taken to reduce the syllabus for these examinations will surely impact undergraduate education. A recent reprint of a brilliant book by the late Muriel Wasi titled Bricks and Mortar (2021), offers many insights for developing a new vision for secondary and post-secondary education. Her insights re-invoke the hopes and confidence of the early decades of independence.
Dr. Krishna Kumar is former director of NCERT and former professor of education at Delhi University.