Classrooms across the country are coming to life with children returning to schools. However, the closure due to Covid-19 interrupted student’s learning abilities. This has been corroborated by field surveys carried out in some States, said Rukmini Banerji, CEO, Pratham Educational Foundation.

For example, in West Bengal, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) found that only 27.7 per cent of children in class 3 could read class 2 level text, as against 36.6 per cent in 2018 and 32.9 per cent in 2014. About 48 per cent of students in class 5 can read class 2 level text, down from 50.5 per cent in 2018.

Laureate of Education Development of the 2021 Yidan Prize, the world’s highest education accolade, Banerji talks about the learning deficiencies that students face as schools re-open now and ways to overcome it; how the hybrid model of education is not a long-term solution and why teacher training isn’t a one-size fits all formula. Excerpts:

Q

As schools open up, what are the challenges children face? 

In States that we work or places where we have conducted surveys, the basic reading and numerical abilities of school children have substantially reduced since the pandemic brought classroom learning to a halt for a prolonged period. We saw this and noted down the findings in our Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for West Bengal, Karnataka and some other States. 

Q

So what is the solution?

As schools open, teaching should focus primarily on the existing learning abilities of children rather than grade-level curriculum. Moreover, it is welcome that the Centre is planning to carry out a national survey of Class 3 students to assess the extent of this learning loss.

Some of the States are also doing things in their own ways, depending on age and are devising strategy accordingly to ensure that learning deficiencies are handled. For instance, in Punjab they are organising a workshop for mothers whose children are in the pre-primary grades. Maharashtra is organising school readiness melas while Haryana is carrying out training programmes from anganwaadis.

Q

The current spike of Covid infections had led to a number of school children being infected. Apprehension of school closure cannot be ruled out. Your comments. 

I am not a health expert but closing down schools would be a bad idea. It will further hamper learning abilities. Many experts believe that school re-opening should have happened earlier, and I believe so too. A recent World Bank and UKAID report advocated for schools to remain open.

Q

Has online learning helped students? 

I do not see hybrid learning to be a long term solution. This digital learning is more of a city-based phenomenon and really does not work in deep interiors of a State.

For example, follow up on assignments and home tasks are something that has been completely overlooked in the online learning system. Even in case of the hybrid model, it does not take into account the learning capability differences of students.

Here, I would like to say, the SMS-and-call follow-up model that Pratham adopted was far easier to understand learning capabilities. So we would try and send messages to students or their parents with different tasks, and then make calls to follow up on the status of those tasks.

However, not all is bad in the model. The online model of teaching have helped teachers upgrade their capabilities, ensure better teaching modules to those who wished to experiment. So instead of a one-size-fits all training model, where many people just go through the motions, one can look at the online one for improving teacher training.

Q

Pratham reported the issue of parents enrolling their children into government schools from private institutions, post the pandemic, as family incomes were hit. Is there a change to that trend? 

It is too early to say at the moment. Opening up is happening and how much of economic recovery has come back into family income is something one needs to watch out for in the long term. As of now, the enrolment numbers at government schools have held on. 

Q

Are dropout rates low?

In a way, yes. But then again, whether all enrolled are actually coming to attend classes has to be observed. Here again, we have seen that interventions by district administration or school authorities — to go to home of students and convince the parents to send children back-to-school — have gone a long way in improving attendance.

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