As the devastating second wave of the Coronavirus rips through India, the country is once again left to face a perfect storm of multiple crises. The chickens have come home to roost, as systemic underfunding of the healthcare system has left people scrambling for basic necessities like hospital beds and oxygen, in both urban and semi-urban settings.
While the healthcare crisis rightly takes centre stage during this time, with all resources and efforts being focused on reducing the death toll, something that is not being spoken about enough is the impact this is having on the education system in India.
As teachers try their absolute best to keep children engaged and involved in learning, what this pandemic has brought to light is the glaring inequality in access to education for millions of school children across India.
It will come as little surprise that India has one of the sharpest rich-poor divides in the world, with the top 1% holding over 40% of the national wealth (Oxfam, 2020). This rich-poor divide was always evident in the education system as well. While most of the middle class, so as to give their children the best start in life, try all possible routes to ensure their children attend convent schools with ICSE and CBSE syllabi and multiple extra-curricular facilities, the public schools are left to languish with minimum facilities, limited staff, and dilapidated semi-pakka buildings.
While most people in cities have been comfortably attending classes at home, often complaining about the choppy Wi-Fi that is interrupting their lessons, it is sadly the poorest population that is suffering. Their lack of access to resources, teacher-provided or online, makes them susceptible to dropping out of the education system altogether.
Due to repeated lockdowns and lack of facilities to conduct online examinations fairly, students have been promoted to the next year for the second time, which may spell disaster in a year or two when several students will have to take their board exams without being adequately capable to appear for them.
Already, over 54% of graduates in India are deemed to be unemployable, and allowing students to move onto the next academic year without examinations is sure to further precipitate this figure.
It is easy to chalk up the problem of education inequality to years of systemic underfunding and low prioritisation (which is not entirely untrue). However, there is still a way out of this problem, but it requires strategic action and serious intervention.
India has one of the lowest budgets for education, with only 3.1% of its GDP being spent on education in 2019-2020, as against the national policy’s recommended 6%. Thus, funding needs to increase to ensure that public schools have their basic needs met. This means not only improving physical school structures such as the classrooms and toilets, but also hiring more staff. Due to budget cuts, it is not uncommon to hear staff in public schools performing multiple roles, such as that of a clerk, cleaner, bookkeeper, P.T. teacher, etc.
Due to the pressure to perform all these roles competently, time spent on creating lesson plans or tending to students and quelling their doubts reduces drastically, leading to lower quality of teaching, and a disengaged and disinterested class. More funding will also ensure that students are allowed to focus on other extra-curricular activities as well such as theatre, sports, elocution, etc.
While going to school and staying in school may seem like a ‘no brainer’ to several parents in India, the fact is, in rural India, the school dropout rate is quite high. According to the MHRD report on Educational Statistics at a Glance (2018), the school dropout rate stands at 6.93% (2014-15), which may not seem like much, but translates into lakhs of students leaving school at the primary level, that is, leaving school before they can barely read and write.
This goes up dramatically to 24.68% at the secondary level, which means, nearly every one in four children in India is leaving education before entering high school.
Thus, there is a need to provide parents and children with incentives to stay in school. This includes not only making school interesting and engaging enough to ensure children won’t drop out of their own accord but also educating parents of the benefit of keeping their children in school.
While the introduction of mid-day meals is a great idea in theory, the poor execution has marred its benefits. Repeated national scandals regarding mid-day meals, whether in the form of provision of low-quality food or lack of provision of food altogether due to theft and corruption at multiple levels, has mired this venture in controversy and needs to be thoroughly investigated and resolved at the earliest.
While it may be unimaginable for most of us to survive without the internet or to stay updated with the latest news and social media trends, the fact is, a majority of the Indian population is unaware of the potential, or the effects, of the internet on our daily lives due to their complete lack of access to it. The provision of computers and internet facilities will help revolutionise education at the grassroots level, as it will improve access to more information than that provided in barely-affordable textbooks.
Computer education also equips people to easily move from rural to urban settings for job opportunities. Lack of computer literacy is a major hurdle, that needs to be addressed at the school level to ensure that when it comes to employability, rural adults are not left at a complete disadvantage.
While these suggestions may seem obvious to some, the fact is, in the hallowed halls of decision-makers in India, they seem to be falling on deaf ears. As soon as the pandemic is over and schools resume, teachers will be pressured to provide catch-up lessons, over and above covering their usual class syllabus, leading to added workload which may affect student performance.
In the meantime, it is hoped that those in the education sector heed the furiously blinking warning light now before the education crisis becomes a bigger problem than the pandemic currently precipitating it.