By Kavita Sahay Kerawalla
India has identified child education as a key thrust area and has made many strides in improving access to quality education for children. To ensure quality and inclusive education to children, various policies and programmes such as Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009, the National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy 2013 and the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 have been introduced. Through these programmes, the government has aimed to strengthen the education system, increase school enrolment and reduce the number of out-of-school children. It has also launched schemes such as mid-day meals through which students who could not afford two square meals per day would continue their education to ensure that they get at least one balanced meal per day. However, gaps remain.
While gaps between access to quality education for rural and urban populations as well as the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ have always existed, the unprecedented pandemic has further widened them. The onset of COVID-19 displaced millions, led to the loss of livelihoods and locked children out of schools.
Amid lockdowns, education continued through virtual sessions that require a student to possess at least a smartphone, if not a computer or a laptop. Many students in cities were able to continue their education and meet their educational milestones digitally. However, students in city outskirts, smaller towns and villages were not able to do so due to the lack of availability of resources. According to data presented by the Ministry of Education in parliament last month, nearly 30 million children across India do not have a digital device to access education online.
The internet technology has not yet reached all parts of the country. Even in the villages and towns where the internet is available, students face challenges in access to education due to intermittent connectivity and the inability to buy digital devices.
In India, we also face a great gender divide where a girl may not be sent to school. This divide has also widened due to the economic slowdown during the pandemic. When parents’ income was reduced, they chose to curtail the education of their daughters rather than their sons.
Additionally, a family’s socio-economic status affects the development of a child’s cognitive skills and ability to learn. In an economically marginalised background, access to multi-media and multi-lingual resources is limited. This limits the development of a child’s cognitive skills and overall personality. The access to resources has been further reduced amid the pandemic. Thus, the gap in the skills and abilities of children belonging to higher and lower strata of society has widened.
How can we bridge these gaps?
By investing in early childcare:
A child develops response to a stimulus based on the environment in which she or he has been brought up. When children are exposed to an environment that has diversity, from the beginning, they not only learn better but also develop better affinitive skills. These skills help them adjust to any change in environment.
There is also a need to offer students age-appropriate learning resources, play-based approach and right pedagogy to help them develop skills required to thrive in a dynamic future. Hence, it is of utmost importance to invest more in infrastructure, pedagogy and curriculum for kindergarten or pre-primary students.
By investing in teacher training
It was noticed that at the onset of the pandemic, while many private schools were able to train and equip their teaching staff to meet the challenges of the new normal, this was not the case in public schools. Some public school teachers, however, did use innovative means to ensure that learning continues for their students like writing the lessons on the walls of houses in the village or using the mike in the mosques to read out the lessons.
Going forward, it is necessary that the basic qualifications of teachers are in sync with the demands of today and prepare them for the challenges of the dynamically changing world of the future.
By demanding that education is moved to the Union List
The original enactment of the Indian Constitution defined education as a state subject. The 42nd Amendment Act 1976 moved it from the State List to Concurrent List under Section 57. This means that both the central and state governments are eligible to make laws regarding education.
If education, including primary education, is put in the Union List, it will ensure uniformity and better quality. Currently, only some states such as Kerala have achieved higher literacy rates. By making education a central subject, we can ensure the union government’s interventions in overall quality enhancement and boosting literacy rates across the country.
To conclude, it is my personal belief that in order to to achieve NEP 2020’s target of 100% Gross Enrolment Ratio in school education by 2030, participation of all stakeholders is necessary. As responsible members of society, we need to partner with the government, schools, industry, educators and parents to bridge the social gaps in access, participation and learning outcomes in school education. Our efforts today will empower our future generations to create a stronger nation tomorrow.
(The author is Vice Chairperson, Ampersand Group. Views expressed are personal.)