Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
Released on January 17, the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2023 ‘Beyond Basics’ of the highly respected Pratham Education Foundation paints a dismal picture of the pitiable condition of school education in West Bengal (pop.91 million), a state that prides itself on its intellectual prowess. In Bengal, ASER 2023 field tested the learning outcomes of 1,361 youth in the 14-18 age group from 1,200 households in 60 villages of Cooch Behar district.
According to the survey, 79.2 percent of 14-18 year-olds can’t solve simple 3-digit by 1-digit division sums. Also, 61.3 percent of 14-18 year-old youths in the district couldn’t read simple sentences in English. Moreover, 38.38 percent of students in the 14-18 year age group couldn’t follow written instructions, and 34.4 percent can’t read basic class II textbooks in their native Bengali language.
A growing number of monitors of education in Bengal attribute the pathetic learning outcomes of the state’s youth to the prolonged lockdown of schools statewide during the Covid-19 pandemic. India’s education sector lockdown during the pandemic (2020-21) averaging 82 weeks was the longest worldwide. But the lockdown of education institutions in the state was way above the national, at 99 weeks, due to which 28 percent of pupils in government-run primaries became totally disconnected from academic activities because many families could not afford smartphone connectivity due to low household incomes.
ASER 2022 confirmed that learning outcomes plunged precipitously during the reckless pandemic lockdown of schools in West Bengal. The percentage of class V students who could read class II-level texts plunged to 47.1 percent from the already abysmal 50.5 percent in 2018.
ASER 2023 reveals the consequences of protracted lockdown of schools and neglect to undertake meaningful remedial education initiatives, bordering on indifference, of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) government — now in its third consecutive five-year term in office.
Although the ruling TMC government and chief minister are being criticised for the poor learning outcomes of children and youth of West Bengal, it’s pertinent to note that the rot started during the 34 years of uninterrupted rule (1977-2011) of the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led Left Front government when illiterate party apparatchiks captured teachers’ posts in K-12 education and massively infiltrated the academy, ruining West Bengal’s nationally admired education system. However during their past 13-year rule over Bengal, Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress government have not only failed to break the hold of powerful communist teachers associations/unions in schools and colleges, but have become embroiled neck deep in multi-crore teacher recruitment scandals prompting the Calcutta high court to halt the recruitment of teachers urgently required in the state’s 92,000 government schools.
The consensus of opinion among Bengal’s dwindling tribe of bona fide academics and influential bhadralok (refined middle class) is that chief minister Banerjee who famously routed the CPM in 2011 and has ruled over Bengal since, has failed to root out the corruption and extortion culture of CPM cadres. And with close aide and education minister Partha Chatterjee having been exposed for corruption in July 2022, her image as a simple-living high thinking messianic leader is in a shambles. Banerjee’s seeming lack of urgency about teacher recruitment and apathy about the future of children in public schools is losing her public support. Which is bad news for her at a time when General Election 2024 is round the corner.