Updated: Jun 13, 2021
One does not need to look at India’s Union Budget to know that education has been a long-neglected sector in the country. Yet, when Budget 2021 has shown that exact fact while simultaneously hoping for post-pandemic economic development, it poses quite a puzzle.
The COVID-induced disruption in the sector has been staggering. Schools have been shut since the first lockdown in March 2020. Only now have they been slowly opening up, in what might be considered the last of the un-lockdowns. On one hand, the hesitance around returning to in-person classes still looms, while on the other, remote learning has shown its limitations. At home, parents have tried to offer time and support to their children’s education but most have been constrained by the modest levels of their own education. Some parents have also had to find new and extra work to support their families.
Nonetheless, the experiences from the field in a recent CPR report (Centre for Policy Research) and the new ASER 2020 (Annual Status of Education Report) show that the learning support on other fronts - from the government and the schools - has been better. The government has provided various offerings under the PM eVidya initiative including SWAYAM Prabha - a package of 32 Direct-to-Home TV channels, SWAYAM - the flagship online education platform for students from grades 9 to 12 and Diksha and e-Pathshala for online learning materials.
Most schools, especially in rural areas, have shifted to Whatsapp where they have shared lesson videos and exercises. ASER’s rural survey notes that 87% of the families whose children attend a private school have received learning materials through Whatsapp. For government schools, this figure has been at 67%. Even so, 32% of the families whose children go to government schools have also received materials via teacher visits to the child’s home. Such visits have helped the children with homework corrections and clarifications as well.
However, before moving on, one might want to note that this year, the ASER surveys have followed a different methodology of data collection, i.e. they have collected data through phone surveys. For this process, based on the ASER 2018, the team has sampled 120,000 households, only 58% of which have been reached. Out of these households, 76% have completed the survey, offering data on 60,000 children. Having been given this information, lessons from Statistics-101 would have rung a bell that suggests that the process of data collection and the corresponding findings might have suffered from survivorship bias i.e. the error of basing inferences on data sources that have made it past a selection process. The households that have been able to participate in the phone survey, by the virtue of having owned a phone, are likely to have been different from those that have been unable to participate due to their lack of access to a phone, on multiple economic and social dimensions. Additionally, the sample from the rural survey of 2018 is likely to have missed out on the children of migrant families.
While the Budget has laid out several education initiatives, it has not seemed to target disadvantaged sections of society or reduce the digital divide.
The government has planned to qualitatively strengthen over 15,000 schools in line with all the NEP (National Education Policy) reforms. It has neither elaborated on the implementation process that would bring this transformation about nor on the reforms it would prioritize, considering that NEP has a wide range of them. Moreover, one of the most applauded aspects of the NEP is that it has put early education at the centre of the education process. Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the government’s integrated scheme for pre-school to senior-secondary education would have been an important first step in achieving this. However, the budget allocation for the SSA in the coming year has been brought down by around 19% from that of the previous year.
Additionally, as much as the system needs new reforms, efforts might also have to be made towards helping the children ‘catch up’ with the possible learning loss in the pandemic year. According to a study by Rukmini Banerjee in UP, this would have to require simple techniques and tools like ‘Teaching at the Right Level approach’ (rather than teaching at the assigned grade), along with a strong focus on the child and continuous on-site support. This experiment has seen significant improvements in the reading and arithmetic skills of children from grades 3 to 5, within 40-45 days.
The Budget has also aimed to build 100 new Sainik Schools in partnership with private schools and NGOs. While the decision has been welcomed by the veterans, the preference for these schools over regular middle or secondary schools does not seem to be clear. At the same time, this move has hinted towards the government’s inclination to extensively focus on inputs to education, as it had done with regards to RTE (Right to Education Act). Under the Act, the government schools had been mandated to have infrastructure facilities such as concrete walls, playgrounds and drinking water facilities. While these are crucial inputs for education, they had raised the cost per child in these schools dramatically, especially in schools with very few children. Instead of this, as Rukmini Banerjee has suggested, what might be more effective is to deploy the existing resources and build on them through alternate models such as the ones described above to improve the students’ learning outcomes.
Overall, the budget seems to have paid little attention to the education sector. Even in the absence of undue obsession over expenditure numbers, the education policy framework of the budget has seemed to be deeply unpromising in terms of aligning its goals and expenditure allocations with the lessons learned from extensive research and past policy failures. It has done little for the groups most affected by the pandemic, which would only widen the already existing inequalities in Indian society.
(Written by Mansi Ramani and Edited by Sagara Ann Johny)