Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
With all schools in the state reopening from February 16 after a 23-month lockdown, classrooms across Bengal are coming to life. But judging by the reports published in local vernacular dailies, a large number of benches in the state’s 50,000 government primary schools are empty. During the pandemic lockdown, with a great majority of children in government schools having no internet access and/or digital devices such as computers, tablets, or even smartphones, an estimated 4.8 million have dropped out of the school system and are working as under-paid domestic, farm and factory labour.
In December 2021, seven government-run junior high schools in East Midnapore district were shut down after district officials conducted reopening surveys which found that attendance had plummeted to zero. It is pertinent to note that if India’s education sector pandemic lockdown was the world’s longest (82 weeks), within India, West Bengal’s was the longest among all states (99 weeks).
Educationists and educators across the state are dismayed by the sheer scale of the challenge confronting them. The consensus of opinion among bona fide educators in the state is that assessment of the extent of learning loss is the first step that needs to be taken.
It is important to note that learning outcomes (basic reading and arithmetic) of primary school children in Bengal were not satisfactory even in pre-Covid times. A 2018 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey conducted by the Pratham Education Foundation revealed that only a third of all children enrolled in class III in Bengal were at “grade level,” i.e, capable of reading a simple text of equivalent level of difficulty and could recognise numbers up to 100 and solve simple two-digit subtraction sums. A subsequent December 2021 ASER survey shows that three years later, there was a steep decline in learning outcomes during the pandemic. Currently, class III children in government schools able to read a simple class II textbook story has declined from 36.6 percent in 2018 to 27.7 percent. A sharp drop in math skills is discernible as well.
The consequences of the world’s longest schools lockdown are likely to be dire. A 2020 World Bank research paper says South Asian children will be poorer by an average $5,813 (Rs.4.4 lakh) by the time they wrap up work life. They will earn $319 less per year, costing children in the region over $800 billion (Rs.60 lakh crore) in a generation. India will bear more than half of that loss.
According to Prof. Pabitra Sarkar, a renowned academic, former vice chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University and former vice-chairman of the West Bengal State Council of Higher Education, the immediate priority of the state government should be to initiate a back-to-basics revision programme in all schools. “This implies liberating teachers from the burden of syllabus completion, allowing them the autonomy to focus on remedial education. The government will also need to mobilise resources to tackle this crisis and invest in digital technologies to make good the learning loss of children. If not, the current education crisis can escalate into one of equity, widening the fault line between haves and have-nots, with disturbing consequences for the future,” warns Sarkar.
Perhaps to make up for the TMC government’s exaggerated caution in mandating the longest education lockdown of all states of the Indian Union during the pandemic, in the state budget for 2022-23 presented to the legislative assembly on March 11, finance minister Chandrima Bhattacharya made an allocation of Rs.43,466 crore, equivalent to 16.8 percent of the state’s total expenditure for education (13 percent higher than in 2021-22). This percentage allocation is higher than of all states of the Indian Union. Yet this larger allocation for education is unlikely to make sufficient impact to make good the learning loss of children — especially in early childhood and primary education — in West Bengal, where teacher vacancies are estimated at 84,000 and teacher-pupil ratio in K-12 education is assessed at 1:59.
Decades of neglect of education under Communist rule (1977-2011) is proving impossible to repair in this state, which through the 18th to the early 20th centuries rightly prided itself on high academic standards and intellectual attainments.
Also Read: West Bengal: Sceptical jubilation