A primary school teacher in rural Bengal regularly phones “her children” during confinement. The other day she was greeted with a moan: “Didimoni, I forgot what you look like!” (The child does not have a videophone.) Another child comes to attention each morning and sings the national anthem, as they did back to school.
Like amputees caring for phantom limbs, these children cling to imaginary relics of school life they have lost. For many, the loss is irreversible. A forecast last year predicted that 20% of girls would drop out of school for good. The second wave of Covid will have increased the rate. Boys are perhaps doing a little better: today, they are often the sole or main breadwinner in their families.
We know the digital divide had grotesque consequences for education during the pandemic. The dubious cutoff for digital empowerment is a smartphone. Insufficient at all levels, to what extent can it benefit the youngest? The daily miracle of teaching them the three Rs involves a group experience combining hearing, expression and physical activity. Can they read, write and count, or sing, draw and play, sitting alone or with a parent stretched out in front of a four inch screen?
Well-educated parents could provide an oppressive but reasonably effective digital diet for their offspring. For those who do not have such means, all the teachers I know think that online education brings little or nothing at the primary level.
NCERT guidelines for locking take children without digital devices into account. This concession is marred by the unreal nature of the council, requiring additional training for teachers; individual attention to each student and parent regardless of time, number of students or movement restrictions during confinement; and an aired assumption of resources in each household, such as “newspapers, packets of food [and] Television programs ”, where a class I pupil“ can be easily taught… It will suffice to guide the parents ”. Teachers in slums and remote villages, with parents poorly educated and impoverished by confinement, may react with skepticism.
Among the children of migrant workers, 46.2 percent were out of school as of July 2020. The education ministry has a three-page guide to their rehabilitation – sensible in abstract terms but, again, oblivious to the realities. ground. He enjoins a database of children who have left the state. It circumvents the practical problems of their enlistment in other states, involving a change of environment and, perhaps, of language. Such pious injunctions mean nothing without detailed planning, transfer of funds, and active coordination with states – all with a one-year wait.
States, necessarily closer to the ground, have adopted two main strategies for offline education. By one, the teaching materials are distributed and the worksheets collected for review. Parents can play a role, but success depends on the teacher’s follow-up. Hence the second recourse: so-called “closed” schools, where small groups of children meet their teacher, hopefully respecting the Covid protocols, generally elsewhere than at school. Karnataka formalized the arrangement. States like West Bengal have bestowed their blessings, but not their formal Imprimatur. Such initiatives work best in villages, which have more open spaces and better community support; but they only affect a minority of children.
Two other agendas seem crucial. First, every time the schools reopen, to bring back dropouts. The government of Uttar Pradesh proposes to follow all the missing students between classes VIII and IX. As intimidating as it is, the exercise must be extended to all classes in all states, especially the very young, who would otherwise be doomed to lifelong illiteracy.
The second task is to close the enormous learning gap – an unprecedented educational exercise, light years away from usual remedial education. This requires detailed but open planning, adjustable to the unfolding Covid scenario. This planning needs to start now, not as an afterthought on reopening.
This panoply of current and future measures requires much more manpower than the regular teaching staff can provide. Given the scale and urgency of the need, it could be undertaken in mission mode. This is often interpreted as an authorization to reduce funds and dilute liability. In this case, we do so at the peril of the nation.
The government has remained oddly silent on the much-vaunted New National Education Policy (NEP). Its most significant innovation was to merge anganwadis and primary schools into an integrated program of “early childhood care and education”. However, the school education budget has been cut this year by Rs 5,000 crore and the Saksham program which includes anganwadis by nearly Rs 4,500 crore. Increased spending under the latter head is desperately needed to halt the decline in nutrition and child growth that has been evident for years and grossly exacerbated by the pandemic. The urgency is obvious. The five-year-old child deprived of complementary food is weakened for life. If she doesn’t learn her letters today, she is unlikely to do so by age 10.
The containment could have been positive if, during the shutdown, the infrastructure of anganwadis and primary schools had been upgraded as required by the NEP. We are talking about improvements so modest that a few lakhs per center would produce a transformation. The process would have created jobs across the country and encouraged the manufacture of materials.
The Central Vista project is being pushed around for the same reasons of urgency, basic need, job creation and national pride. It can be argued that a minimum education for all Indian children is essential at the most basic level of national self-respect. The enlarged Parliament will not sit until 2026. By then my hypothetical five-year-old will be 10 years old, probably beyond the reach of a cure.
We betrayed our founding fathers by not providing free and compulsory education in 1960. Our literacy rate soared to 78%, and we were on the verge of reaching full schooling in Class I, regardless of or the subsequent dropout rate. In the hundredth year of Independence, we may have succeeded in achieving almost total literacy.
A spike in dropouts and illiteracy today would put even that pitiful goal in jeopardy. Let our children not remember the 75th anniversary of independence as a year of shame.
This column first appeared in the paper edition on June 30, 2021 under the title “A four-inch screen, work and play”. The author is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Jadavpur University