Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2021

The Covid-19 effect, enrolment patterns and educational materials

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The 16th Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021 (Rural) was released by the Pratham Foundation on 17 November 2021

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%.

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Table 1: % Enrolled children with access to smartphones. By grade 2021.

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 –

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Table 2: Schools yet to reopen: % Enrolled children who received learning materials/activities to do at home in the reference week. By grade and school type. 2020 and 2021.

“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.

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Table 3: Schools reopened: % Enrolled children who received learning materials/activities to do at home in the reference week. By grade and school type. 2021

“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. 

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

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– Naresh Khanna

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