Neelam Makhijani is the Country Director of ChildFund in India.
Children's development cannot wait, yet concerns related to their development have taken a back seat in the past year and a half as the country tries to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. With the future of 320 million learners at stake, the pandemic has played havoc with the educational progress made so far and pushed us back by at least a decade. The education sector is suffering as much as the economy and healthcare, yet it stays abandoned. However, while lamenting over progress lost, let us not forget that much progress was yet to be achieved, even before the pandemic hit.
The Right to Education (RTE) Act was poorly implemented with just a 12.7 percent compliance rate. The long-standing recommendation to invest at least 6 percent of GDP in education is still a dream. Last year’s Union Budget allocated around 3.5 percent towards education. This year, it has come down to 0.42 percent, of which spending on school education is merely 0.25 percent. However, around 97 percent of these allocations come from the education cess, which is even lesser than the actual amount from the gross allocation.
The evolution of education to match future needs is missing. Research points that apart from technological know-how, the coming generation will need to learn soft skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, lifelong learning, and so on. On the academic side, while there is a focus on improving (though barely achieving) reading and mathematical literacy, how are we ensuring that children learn these much-needed skills of the 21st century? Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE)—a salient feature under RTE—can be a powerful instrument to ensure the learning of children. The 'assessment for learning' providing for necessary and timely corrective measures. CCE enshrines the idea to discard annual or biannual evaluations, rather making the process of evaluation 'continuous' on a day-to-day basis. This proactively helps teachers to hone lesson plans for students and bridge their learning gaps. Further, evaluations need to be 'comprehensive' under CCE—evaluating the child beyond academics. Now is the time to ensure that the system is tweaked to make CCE effective.
Since the past few decades—under the guise of education—generations have condoned to an educational rat-race. Increasingly, students are struggling to deal with the stress of performance and achievements. Every one hour, a student commits suicide in India.
Amidst the pandemic, after the new National Education Policy (NEP) was introduced, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said, "as the child progresses, it is very necessary to develop a greater learning spirit, scientific and logical thinking, mathematical thinking and scientific temperament." One and a half years later, it seems that we are moving away from these agendas mentioned in the NEP. The shift to online learning has been catastrophic as only 8.5 percent of students in India have computers and internet facilities. The suicide of a bright 15-year-old Dalit student in Kerala—because she couldn't access online classes—exposes the reality of how marginalised children are systematically left out from education due to this shift.
Rather than relying heavily on the digital modes of education, the central and state governments need to focus on providing blended educational models such as neighbourhood learning sessions, peer classes, mobile schools and bridge classes to overcome the learning gap. More importantly, they need to strengthen digital infrastructure across rural and marginalised regions to ensure that students there have equal access to education. Further, existing teachers need to be trained effectively to deliver online classes—in social and emotional learning modules—to bring comfort and stability in anxious times for students.
Amid the pandemic, infrastructural challenges such as lack of teachers and upgrading of school infrastructure could have used the investment. Instead, the closure and mergers of government schools have continued despite a huge number of children coming back to government schools as budget private schools close down and parents face livelihood challenges.
But not all is lost. It is now time to reimagine education. The government needs to make significant investments and adjustments to the public education system to ensure that no child is left behind. If we really wish to bring in a long-lasting positive impact for children, it is only apt to act now on these major issues and focus on reimagining education, rather than automatically returning to what we did before the pandemic; the effectiveness of which is already a concern.
But first, we need to start seeing children as future agents of change with immense potential and capabilities, education as a force to transform them into compassionate, responsible and engaged citizens. Education needs to cultivate them to understand that they can impact the future of other people and the planet—especially in pertinence to challenges such as climate change, ecological sustainability and global peace, which will decide the future of our race.
The author is the Country Director of ChildFund in India.