Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
According to the recently released Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022 of the highly respected Pratham Education Foundation, which assessed the learning outcomes of 11,994 children in rural primaries in 18 districts of West Bengal, although classroom attendance has risen to 92.2 percent from a low of 72.9 percent in 2021, learning outcomes plunged precipitously during the prolonged Covid-19 pandemic lockdown of schools statewide. Alarmingly, younger children have been worst hit with only 33 percent of class III children — down from 40 percent pre-pandemic — able to read class II-level texts. Among class V students who can read class II-level texts, the percentage is down to 47.1 from 50.5 percent in 2018.
ASER 2022 paints a dismal picture of the pitiable condition of youngest children in West Bengal, a state that prides itself on its intellectual prowess. Only 7.8 percent of rural primaries in the state have a separate teacher for pre-primary classes; a mere 13.6 percent of schools have received notification to implement Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) activities for classes I-III, and only 9 percent have trained FLN teachers, the lowest percentage countrywide. Unsurprisingly, the report ranks West Bengal high for primary children availing private tuition — 74.2 percent cf. the national average of 30.5 percent. Moreover, ASER 2022 says that only 15 percent of children received learning materials during the pandemic and a mere 33 percent had access to smartphones to learn online.
It’s pertinent to note that India’s pandemic lockdown of the education sector averaging 82 weeks, was the most prolonged worldwide. But the lockdown of education institutions in the state was above the national average at 99 weeks. According to a local study — Learning Together, conducted in September 2021 and written after testing a representative sample of 7,204 primary school (classes I-V) students statewide — 28 percent of pupils in government-run primary schools in West Bengal have become “totally disconnected from academic activities” and balanced nutrition has become “a distant dream” for a significant proportion of children because of diminished household incomes.
The lackadaisical attitude, bordering on indifference, of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) government — now in its third consecutive five-year term in office — has provoked a groundswell of indignation within West Bengal’s bhadralok (refined middle class) which is the standard bearer of the state’s once highly respected culture and academic tradition.
“Children now in primary school have learnt nothing in the past two years and have forgotten what they had learnt. This is why learning deficit is more acute in relatively younger children who have not had the chance to strengthen the foundations of their learning. Children enrolled in class I in 2020 have learnt nothing during the past two years. In effect, they started school in 2022 but have been promoted to class III while still illiterate. This will trouble them throughout their lives,” warned Dr. Sukanta Chaudhuri, emeritus professor at Jadavpur University, at a January 19 panel discussion on ASER 2022 convened by the West Bengal Liver Foundation and Pratham Foundation.
Abhijit Chowdhury, a medical practitioner and secretary of the West Bengal Liver Foundation, warned that the education system is “sinking gradually, like Joshimath”, and that “educational goals should not be seen through the prism of political colours”.
Against this dismal backdrop, a growing number of academics and public intellectuals are calling for a massive, concerted remedial education drive statewide, especially for children in early childhood and primary education. For this, they have called for special dedicated provision in the state’s annual budget scheduled to be tabled in the legislative assembly on February 15.
During 34 years of uninterrupted rule of the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led Left Front government (1977-2011), barely literate party apparatchiks captured teachers’ posts in K-12 education and massively infiltrated the academy, ruining West Bengal’s nationally admired education system. Since then despite being in power for 12 years, the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC government hasn’t been successful in breaking the hold of powerful communist teachers associations/unions in schools and colleges. Instead, the TMC government has carried on from where the previous CPM government left off, and is embroiled neck-deep in teacher recruitment scandals with Calcutta high court orders having stymied the recruitment of 84,000 primary teachers urgently required by government schools.
Following 34 years of uninterrupted Marxist rule and another 12 years of quasi-Marxist misgovernance, the light of the Bengal cultural and education renaissance of the 19th century has been almost extinguished.