Budget expectations: Public schools need attention, important for the future of India

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Several reports and studies in the recent past, including the latest Annual State of Education Report (ASER 2022), have drawn attention to the fact that post-Covid, while school admissions have improved significantly, basic literacy levels seem to have been visibly affected and shown a decline.

The overall percentage of children attending public schools is around 51 percent (UDISE) in the country, but the number of children in rural geographies attending public schools exceeds 80 percent. While previous studies have shown that learning loss and sub-learning disabilities predate the pandemic, the problem has been compounded by children not attending physical schools and the digital divide that emerged when classes started online.

This is most evident in public schools and private budget schools where a greater part of the population comes from low-income households. According to a study by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), learning loss in India during the pandemic could be as high as 50 percent to 80 percent for students in low-income households.

Learning loss is not a new phenomenon, and there is enough data to substantiate that children in upper grades cannot read and solve math problems in much lower grades. What the pandemic has done is bring the problem into focus and provide an opportunity to reset and address this gap once again. This is an opportunity not to be missed, and public schools should focus on providing targeted support and interventions to students who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, especially those from low-income households and students from underserved communities. To do so, the government must provide all the necessary resources and support for remedial classes, help students catch up on lost learning, and provide professional development for teachers to strengthen their ability to teach foundational literacy and numeracy skills.

The need of the hour is for the government to focus on providing universal access to quality education, addressing the problems of inadequate infrastructure, lack of trained teachers, and inadequate educational resources. There is a need to invest in the education sector since we have something we did not expect: a second chance. Implementing policies and programs that promote inclusive education and ensuring that children from marginalized communities have access to the same opportunities as their non-marginalized peers will bring an element of equity.

Education spending for the 2023 central budget should prioritize the creation of basic infrastructure in terms of buildings, laboratories, equipment, digital tools, teaching and learning aids, and uninterrupted supply of electricity and Internet access. It’s a big wish list, but it may not really be possible. The formulation of disbursements must contemplate the leveraging of resources through cleverly designed partnerships providing seed capital through the Budget and attracting private sector investment to support the improvement of the infrastructure and workforce of Government schools.

The intermittent availability of electricity in schools is a real and more serious problem in rural areas because the infrastructure is not available or not in service. The Annual Report of the Ministry of Energy for 2021 states that the country has been transformed from a country with an energy deficit to one with an energy surplus. And thanks to more efficient generation, the availability of energy in rural areas, which was around 12:30 p.m. in 2015, has gone to 9:09 p.m. and in urban areas to 11:41 p.m. This is definitely good news for the electrification of schools. But despite this, the most remote parts of the country still have an intermittent supply. We live in a country with abundant sunlight available for most of the year. Providing funding for school solarization, especially in rural and remote areas, will greatly improve access. This will enable much greater reach of education-focused TV channels (Swayam Prabha TV through Bhaskaracharya Institute of Geoinformatics and Space Applications (BISAG)), particularly in smaller states with significant road network and digital connectivity issues.

The digital infrastructure to create smart classrooms and give teachers the means to use their time wisely can be an efficiency multiplier. Even if the internet isn’t available, digital whiteboards, tablets, and preloaded apps can enable building smart classrooms and take the drudgery out of tasks like assessments, attendance, and lesson planning. With so much emphasis and talk around Edtech, the true enabler and platform is through creating multi-modal ways to disseminate and collect information. If the network exists, use WhatsApp. If not, the phone is always there to establish a two-way flow of information. There is a need for such an infrastructure to support contextually appropriate digital teaching and learning materials and digital training modules. This brings us back to our earlier point of constant power supply being a core aspect of infrastructure support, and solarization is definitely an option.

The National Education Policy 2020 and the National Curriculum Framework 2022 put a lot of emphasis on the early years and fundamental learning. The core of basic learning is fundamental literacy and numeracy. To achieve the goal set by NEP 2020 for universal attainment of FLN skills by 2025, the continuity of learning in early learning and foundation years must be strengthened. It is well known that early education is critical to establishing a child’s overall well-being. Between the ages of 3 to 5 (preschool) and 6 to 11 (primary) the foundations for lifelong growth are laid. Children who fall behind in these early years often never catch up with their peers. The NEP 2020 provides for the strengthening of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). This should be implemented through Bal Vatikas and Anganwadi workers. While some states have shared Bal Vatikas with regular public schools, in others the infrastructure has yet to be built. The co-location of Bal Vatikas and the training of Anganwadi workers is critical for early learning. Anganwadi workers are more familiar with prenatal and postnatal care and do not have the necessary skills to implement early learning in very critical years. Funding to upgrade/create and co-locate Bal Vatikas is absolutely necessary, as is training for Anganwadi workers to support early learning. Focusing on the training of the FLN grade teachers of the primary classes is necessary for the success of the NIPUN Bharat Mission.

This brings us to the teachers. A critical factor in the learning process are the teachers. Today, increasingly, teachers have less and less agency. They are not part of the core consultation processes. The curriculum and syllabi are pre-decided at the departmental level and teachers are tasked with teaching the content provided. Sometimes they don’t have the flexibility to make their own lesson plans. This robbery of the agency’s teachers creates apathy and fatigue and the teaching job becomes mechanical. To reap the demographic dividend we’re talking about, we need children to reach a certain level of learning proficiency. To do this, we need interested teachers. Teachers who WANT to teach rather than HAVE to teach. To ensure teacher participation, it is imperative to provide adequate resource outlays for targeted training with an annual training plan. Building the capacity of teachers is essential. The shortage of teachers/substitute teachers is a real problem, particularly in rural and remote areas. Creating incentives for teachers to work in underserved areas, investing in well-structured teacher training and professional development, creating virtual common rooms to ensure peer support are key.

Teachers need to constantly talk and interact to manage children at different levels of learning. They play a critical role in the implementation and achievement of all learning milestones. As a starting point, there is a need to build Teacher Communities of Practice. With large numbers of teachers familiar with digital platforms, virtual common rooms for peer interaction can strengthen teacher communities and create much-needed peer support groups. With so much emphasis on social-emotional support, teachers need support to have the emotional strength and wherewithal to manage their mentees effectively and sensitively. These platforms can also capture and spread frugal, local innovation. Otherwise, these innovations remain specific to the school where an enterprising teacher has devised them. Funding for the creation of statewide portals to enable these Communities of Practice is a one-time effort and does not cost much.

While there has been considerable improvement in enrollment, attendance and transition, adequate funding is needed to create a digital infrastructure for the integration of school student databases with the Civil Registry System (CRS) and the e-Mamta database. This will ensure accurate identification of all children eligible for universal enrollment by creating a unique ID for each child. This unique identification for each child will allow the systemic monitoring of students in case of migrations and dropouts.

The underlying good news is that children in rural areas are migrating from private schools to public schools, according to recent reports. As confidence in the public school education system continues to grow, it is a great opportunity for the Government to invest, to carry out its vision and plans for one of the largest school education systems in the world, which impacts children. .

(Ratna Viswanathan, Executive Director, Reach to Teach)

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