The latest Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) confirms, to some extent, the fear that Covid-related school disruptions would have eroded learning levels. But, it also debunks the apprehension that the pandemic would have led to a spurt in dropout rates. Sarthak Ray takes a look at the findings and their implications
Key Aser 2022 findings on enrolment and learning
The enrolment rate has inched up, rising from 97.2% in 2018 to 98.4% in 2022. The share of government schools in enrolment — which fell between 2006 and 2014, and held steady ever since — jumped to 72.9% in 2022 from 2018’s 65.6%. In rural areas, those availing private tuitions account for 30.5% of the Class I-VIII student population, up from 26.4% in 2018. Covid-19 disrupting regular schooling could be a factor behind the rise.
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Basic reading has dropped to pre-2012 levels, washing away the gains made in the interim. Arithmetic learning, too, has suffered, though less so than basic reading. English learning for Class V remains where it was before Covid-19, but has risen marginally for Class VIII.
Did the pandemic yield a digital dividend for education?
Digitally-delivered education was thought of as a remedy for pandemic-related school closures. But, this only underscored digital inequality as several studies pointed out the lack of digital infrastructure and savvy in low-income and poor households, whose children were more likely to be in government schools.
Aser 2022 shows that a big portion of that gap has likely been bridged. Between 2018 and 2022, the proportion of rural households with smartphones doubled from 36% to 74.8%. And of the households that had a smartphone, 88% had internet connectivity on the day of the visit of the Aser surveyor. But access is a big question — per Aser 2021, 26% of the children in rural India whose households had smartphones, couldn’t access these for studies, while 47% had some access, and the rest had access whenever needed.
The happier part of the story
As Madhav Chavan, founder of Pratham, the NGO that brings out Aser, writes, those who began school education in 2020 must have missed regular classes for that entire year and would have gone to school in fits and starts, or not at all, in 2021. If learning is only possible in the classroom setting, Chavan says, no child in Class III today should have any learning. But, 30% of government-school students in Class III could read a Class I textbook in 2022, versus 37% in 2018. So, there has been some learning despite schools largely remaining shut for two years.
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Repeaters may explain some part of this, but not the entire picture. From family members teaching children to home visits by teachers, from the growing use of digital devices to an increase in private tuition-seeking, a confluence of factors has worked for some households, in some states. The need is to identify what worked and see if there is scope for replication.
Rising government school enrolment, and the state of low-cost private schools
The Aser 2022 findings are also an indicator of financial distress that the Covid-19 disruptions of the economy precipitated. Households were compelled to opt for low-cost education at government schools for both cohorts — children entering the school system and existing students. In 2018, as Suman Bhatacharjea, director of research, ASER Centre, points out, while more than a quarter of the four-year-olds covered in Aser 2018 were enrolled in private schools and pre-schools, this has fallen to just under a fifth of the age-cohort in 2022. This is also quite telling of the pain low-cost or ‘budget’ private schools underwent —many of have reportedly shut down or trimmed services. Though Aser doesn’t capture this data, the Unified District Information System for Education (UIDSE+) report last year shows how difficult the pandemic proved for schools’ survival. The number of schools in the country fell from 1.509 million in 2020-21 to 1.489 million in 2021-22. The data show, of the 20,000 schools that shut down, over 8,500 were private and “other management” schools, while the rest were government and government-aided ones.