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Jeevan Prabhu SJ Jeevan Prabhu SJ
29 Jan 2024

The Government of India, on most platforms, makes tall claims about the rapid development in India via its economic policies. In three speeches between 9 and 15 August, the Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, claimed that India had achieved all-around development in almost all fields. Further, he predicted India to be a developed nation by 2047 and the third-largest economy in the world in the next five years. Quoting the NITI Aayog's National Multidimensional Poverty Index (NMPI), the Prime Minister has been trumpeting that about 24.82 crore people have moved out of poverty during 2022-23. However, several well-known economists have rubbished these assertions because the reality at the grassroots level is far from what he claims to be.

Notwithstanding the false claims in the health and standard of living dimensions, the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) released on 17 January 2024 paints a dismal picture of the status of our education in the country. Education is one of the multiple dimensions of evaluation in the NMPI. The data furnished in the ASER report should be an eye opener towards the gloomy state of affairs in primary and secondary education in India today. 

The ASER 2023 report titled "Beyond Basics", released by the NGO Pratham Foundation, focuses on the youth in the 14-18 age bracket. The NGO conducted an intensive survey in 28 districts of 26 states across India and interacted with 34,745 youngsters between 14 and 18. The report mainly illustrates the educational scenario of rural India. The surveyed youth were interviewed and evaluated under the following five parameters.

1. Reading, math and English abilities.

2. Application of basic skills to everyday calculations.

3. Reading and understanding written instructions.

4. Financial calculations that need to be done in real life.

5. Digital awareness and aptitude.

Some of the Findings of the Survey:

1. About 25% of this age group still cannot fluently read a standard II-level text in their regional language.

2. More than half struggle with division (3-digit by 1-digit) problems. Only 43.3% of 14-18-year-olds are able to do such problems correctly. This skill is usually expected in Std III-IV.

3. A little over half of the surveyed group can read sentences in English (57.3%). Of those who can read sentences in English, almost three-quarters can tell their meanings (73.5%).

In mathematical operations, division was selected as it includes three other operations – addition, subtraction and multiplication.

The age group was given the task of calculating time. If a person sleeps at 8.30 at night and wakes up at 4.30 in the morning, how many hours did they sleep? Surprisingly, 56% of the group could not answer this question.

In measuring the length of an object placed at zero on a scale, 85% of the candidates measured correctly. However, more than 60% of the candidates could not answer the question when the object was moved away from zero.

The Third Largest Economy of the World?

The reality laid out by ASER poses many questions to the ruling dispensation, the MHRD, the policymakers in the public instruction sector, and the educational administrators. With such an educational standard and learning, how can India achieve its goal of being the third-largest economy in the world? The age group is the country's teenagers; in five or eight years, they are expected to be the workforce of the future of India. What sort of productivity can be expected from them?

While the PM boasts about Bullet Train, Mangalyaan, Chandrayaan, and whatnot, the pathetic scenario in rural India smacks at our faces. Is the country preparing an unskilled workforce meant only for MNREGA? What do these findings say about the status of our rural schools and their teachers? Do these findings reveal the widening gap between rural and urban education standards? The governments – Central and States - must pause to reflect on these findings instead of spending their energy, personnel and the country's resources on polarising the citizens based on caste, creed and language.

COVID-19 and the Aftermath

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020, few could have foreseen the catastrophic effects the virus would have on children's education. In India, enrollment in the pre-primary sections fell by 11.5 lakh. The total number of schools in 2021-22 was 14.89 lakhs, down from 15.09 lakhs in 2020-21. More than 20,000 schools were closed all over India. The total number of teachers fell in 2021-22 to 95.07 lakh from 97.87 lakh in 2020-21.

Thanks to the pandemic, students in lower classes were promoted without examinations or evaluations. A considerable number graduated from high school to college despite dismal learning outcomes, thereby disturbing the balance between promotions and the student's conceptual understanding. There was a dramatic increase in the promotion rate among Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) students. Throughout the pandemic years, repetition rates plummeted drastically, with only about 1% of students across all areas repeating their classes across all communities. The gap between the performance of the rural schools and the urban schools was reduced almost to zero. The rural students bore a disproportionately more significant burden, as their learning outcomes suffered the most while their promotion rates increased the most among all demographics.

According to the World Economic Forum website, only 8% of rural students attended online classes regularly during the pandemic. The age group surveyed by ASER 2023 must have been either in middle or high school. Only a tiny percentage of this age group attended online classes.

The RTE and the failure of CCE

Since the enactment of the RTE Act in 2009, there has been some success in overall enrolment in schools in rural and urban India. However, the implementation of the provisions of the Act has faced severe criticism for its administrative and structural pitfalls. Due to these drawbacks, the quality of learning suffered. Lack of proper coordination and the paucity of funds or delay in their allocation have hampered the implementation of the provisions of the Act. Moreover, the Act has since undergone certain amendments contradicting the law's spirit.

The RTE Act mandated the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) assessment method in lieu of annual examinations. The CCE is a school-based system of evaluation that covers all the learning domains, including cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. The CCE is to happen throughout the year. It is a pedagogical tool to ensure learning with measurable outcomes. Comprised of a series of tests, with little or no feedback to learners – a critical element for facilitating learning- this turned into a record-keeping exercise focused on measuring and not improving learning, leading to a backlash against CCE. Hence, the implementation of CCE fell short of expectations. Nationally, only 58.46 per cent of secondary schools have implemented the CCE (cf. School Education in India - UDISE flash statistics, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, September 2018). As a result, in the last decade, both exams and assessments were eliminated, contrary to the intentions of the RTE Act.

Moreover, those supposed to implement the programme on the ground needed a clearer understanding of CCE, and there needed to be system preparedness to roll out a policy shift of this magnitude. The stakeholders at the official level were not aware of the theoretical and practical facets of CCE. Unsurprisingly, teachers could not implement this programme as envisaged because they did not have the capability and necessary skills. The result was confusion and chaos. As per the RTE Act, no exams were to be conducted. Teachers who could not adopt CCE-based teaching processes stopped assessing children's learning outcomes, although they were supposed to adopt CCE as an alternative strategy. Thus, the examination-based system collapsed, and CCE failed to take off.

Moreover, poor infrastructural facilities also contributed to the failure of CCE. The meagre budget allocated for this purpose was insufficient. Most rural schools had a single assistant teacher and one para teacher. The overall shortage of teachers meant a high workload on teachers, which wasn't conducive to quality teaching. The poor skills of underqualified teachers made implementing the progressive vision of CCE more difficult.

The Child Right laws and their implementation

In today's educational environment, with the popularisation of Child Rights laws and awareness of POCSO laws, more and more students have developed awareness of their rights. While the concept of school discipline has significantly changed in urban schools, the scenario in rural schools is different. For many teachers, indiscipline incidents and significant problems faced by schools increasingly put their careers at risk. According to some experts, the incidents of school indiscipline have increased dramatically in the post-COVID-19 period. The children in the rural areas, predominantly the teenagers who could not attend their schools, spent considerable time outdoors with their peers away from their parents' gaze. This free rambling erased their previous learning and developed 'gangster behaviour' among the teens. Besides, in the guise of attending online classes, many of the youth found free access to pornography, violence and destructive activities on their smartphones. The cumulative effect of this newly gained freedom was felt in the post-COVID-19 classrooms. When the students were unable to adjust to the classroom discipline and academic rigour, they took the route of rebellion and agitation, even taking recourse to physical and verbal violence and aggression among themselves as well as against their teachers. The immediate threat of being victimised by the students and, at times, by their parents in support of their wards, both verbally and even physically, combined with the apprehension of abuse of the Child Rights laws in case any action was taken on the erring students, a climate of fear and concern for safety encased the teachers. The stringent application of POCSO and Child Rights laws, although utterly propitious to the students' safety, when misused to settle scores with strict teachers, projects well-meant teachers as rogues and criminals. The legal consequences degrade, deface and demean them publicly before they are pronounced not guilty. Their reputation is damaged beyond repair. As a result, some education professionals left the field of education, and those who decided to remain due to compulsions took recourse to inaction in the classrooms and left the students to their fate. This passive but stressful classroom environment affected the quality of our schools and the nation's next generation of learners, educators, and leaders. The ASER findings could be the outcome of such a situation.

Measures recommended before it's too late

Most of the youth of the age group 14-18 are still in schools or colleges. Therefore, some remedial measures should be taken on a war footing to empower them before they leave their institutions.

Some of the measures that the educators can take are as follows:

1. The CCE should be implemented in earnest from the elementary classes with all its implications.

2. The three 'R' s – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic- are to be strengthened from the lower classes both in the student's mother tongue and in English.

3. The teachers must adopt and adapt their teaching to the learning level of pupils while teaching mathematics and standard calculations. Building fundamental math skills generates significant dividends.

4. The schools need to use enhanced technology, such as smartphones, as most families have them. Most young people use smartphones for entertainment purposes. The teachers can specify the educational apps and websites and give home assignments and projects based on them.

5. The NEP emphasises experiential learning and conceptual understanding rather than rote learning and learning-for-exams. Further, it advocates creativity and critical thinking to encourage logical decision-making and innovation. But these prodigious terms need to be converted into performable activities. Many teachers at elementary and middle school levels, especially in the government schools in rural areas, are lost in these lofty words but have no idea how to actualise them in a concrete classroom situation. Most teachers need training.

6. Finally, the ASER findings should open the eyes of the respective governments of the states and the Centre. Instead of poisoning the youth with communal narratives and preparing them into a band of religious fanatics, the country's resources should be channelled and invested in their education, skill development and empowerment. The governments must stop meddling with our children's textbooks and take proactive measures to revitalise our education system in the nation's greater interest.

Serious and immediate rethinking about this age group is urgently needed in terms of their "learning for school", "learning for work", and "learning for life" (ASER2023).

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