The 16th Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021 (Rural) was released by the Pratham Foundation on 17 November 2021. Based on an extensive survey of approximately 77,000 rural households across India it examines the schooling status of children aged 5 to 16 age and their basic reading and arithmetic abilities. The report is downloadable at http://img.asercentre.org/docs/aser2021forweb.pdf
The report says that 73.1% of school respondents have received training in Covid-19 prevention measures. It also reflects the extent of the digital divide in that digital access to education is sporadic and based on smartphone use. It reflects the increase in the availability of smartphones to students from 36.5% in 2018 to 67.6% in 2021. In 2021, 79% of the children in private schools had a smartphone at home compared to those in government schools at 63.7%.
The shift of students from private schools to government schools seen in the major Indian cities is also reflected in rural education. The reasons include financial distress and to some extent the failure of private school functioning including the inability to conduct online classes. The tuition industry in the country is also gaining ground in rural India with a 40% increase in the number of school children taking tuition during the closure of their schools in the pandemic.
There are two 3-page commentaries in the report – one on changing patterns in public and private inputs in schooling in rural India by Rukmini Banerji and Wilima Wadhwa, and the second by Suman Bhattacharjea on the need to prioritize the foundational aspects of schooling on the ground and not just in the policy.
Banerji and Wadhwa write, “Schools shut down in India in March of 2020, and have begun to reopen only in the last few months. India is one of the countries that has had among the longest school closures in the world. According to the most recent data available from UNESCO, 18 months into the pandemic, the global average for school closures (full and partial) is just under 9 months (35 weeks), with schools being closed for over a year in countries like the US (62 weeks) and India (73 weeks) (data as of Sep 30, 2021).”
Learning materials and textbooks
Further in the commentary after discussing both the fear of dropouts caused by the pandemic and the apparent reality, Banerji and Wadhwa write about learning materials including textbooks –
“On the positive side, ASER 2021 shows that families have not lost their faith in education. Despite Covid-19, school enrolments have not suffered much although enrolment patterns have shifted. Even today, only 4.6% [of] children in the age group 6-14 years are not currently enrolled. And among enrolled children, across all school grades, almost 92% of children have textbooks for their current grade. This was always a noteworthy accomplishment in a country the size of ours, but for this to be the case after a year and a half of enormous disruptions is even more remarkable. It is worth recalling that even a year ago, ASER 2020 noted that most children had textbooks. At the time, this proportion was substantially higher for children in government schools than for their counterparts in private schools. As schools reopen in 2021, the proportion of children who have textbooks for their current grade is very high across both government and private schools.
“So, most children are enrolled, and most enrolled children have textbooks at home. This is indeed good news. However, other trends suggested by the ASER 2021 data are more worrisome.
“In 2020, when schools were closed, ASER found that barely one-third of all enrolled children were receiving learning materials and activities from their schools (35.6%). A year later, among children whose schools had yet to reopen, this number had barely changed: just 39.8% had received any type of learning materials or activities from their school during the reference week; the proportion was lower in government schools (37.6%) than in private ones (46.9%). It seems that even eighteen months later, the education system has not been able to put in place effective mechanisms for reaching out systematically to children when schools are unable to hold in-person classes, which means that the vast majority of children have spent a year and a half without much engagement with educational content. While there is considerable variation in states’ ability to reach out to their students, very few states seem to have had major success in this respect. Among states where schools had not reopened at the time of the survey, across Std I-VIII, only 5 of the major states saw more than 50% of households reporting having received learning materials and activities for children (Table 1 in the original commentary, Table 2 in our article).”
We have spoken with some government textbook printers who assure us that book production has been normal in the past year, that is, equal to pre-pandemic levels. Other printers have been unwilling to discuss the level of government textbook production. While there is some skepticism about how many government textbooks have reached schools and students the ASER survey and report says, “As schools reopen in 2021, the proportion of children who have textbooks for their current grade is very high across both government and private schools.” In another place, the same commentary says that “only 37.6% of government schools in rural areas received any type of learning materials.”
In contrast, although the ASER report implies a higher percentage of private school children receiving learning materials in rural India, the private textbook publishers say the offtake has been negligible in the past year and a half. For the private textbook publishers, there is some recent uptake in exam study guides and sample papers with this limited segment returning to 70% of pre-pandemic and lockout levels. The private textbook publishers are hopeful that if there is no third wave of the pandemic, textbook production is likely to resume for the 2022 academic year starting in April.