The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022 is noteworthy in many respects. Conducted by NGO Pratham, it covers seven lakh students from over 19,000 schools in 616 districts. The last ASER survey of comparable scope was conducted in 2018, with the two intervening Covid years bringing a stop to offline surveys. Hence, it brings out perhaps the first reliable picture on how the pandemic impacted school-level learning, by comparing the results with 2018.

Some findings are heartening, such as the rise in enrolment rate since 2018 from 97.2 per cent to 98.4 per cent in 2022. Obviously, the opening up of schools came as a big relief to all. The drop rate, which had increased during the pandemic, is down to below 2018 levels. In another significant development, for children in the 11-14 age bracket, the percentage of enrolment in government schools increased from 65 per cent in 2018 to 71.7 per cent in 2022. This could be a result of income uncertainty and closure of affordable private schools, the report authors observe.

But the report lays bare the impact of the pandemic on learning outcomes. For instance, the proportion of children in Class 3 who could do subtraction fell from 28.2 per cent in 2018 to 25.9 per cent in 2022. Nationally, the proportion of Class 5 children in government or private schools who can read a Class 2-level text fell from 50.5 per cent in 2018 to 42.8 per cent in 2022. The drop was even sharper in States with high literacy and reading levels such as Kerala (from 52.1 per cent in 2018 to 38.7 per cent) and Himachal Pradesh (from 47.7 per cent to 28.4 per cent). To be sure, the pandemic only exacerbated an endemic crisis of learning at the primary level, not least because children are passed without being tested.

The learning gap needs to be bridged before India’s much-vaunted demographic dividend turns into a disaster — leading to social unrest. Both States and the Centre must ramp up their allocations for education (a concurrent list item). For instance, despite a hike in the total outlay in the 2022 Budget — from ₹93,224 crore in 2021-22 (BE) to ₹1,04,277 crore in 2022-23 — education spend as a percentage of the Centre’s budget is just about 2.64 per cent. The FY23 allocation towards transport and telecom was nearly four times more. Within education, the biggest centrally sponsored scheme ‘Samagra Shiksha’, that has subsumed the three flagship programmes including Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan and Teacher Education, has an outlay of ₹37,383 crore in the FY23 Budget. This programme is the key to help children get back to schools, train teachers and support them. A June 2021 Reserve Bank of India paper observes that owing to committed expenditures towards salaries, pensions and interest payments, “developmental expenditure has stagnated over the last two-and-a-half decades, particularly for the Centre”. Both States and the Centre must free up fiscal space for creating social assets.