The Annual Status of Education Report 2023 confirms what is seen in schools today — unprecedented learning poverty due to Covid. Given the already unsatisfactory learning outcomes in schools, the situation demands an immediate response. The non-hiking of school Budgets on the grounds of poor governance and politicisation cannot be justified. Three-fourths of the children have come back to government schools as incomes and employment have shrunk.

Government schools in most States have become the abode of children from vulnerable social groups, where the parents have limited disposable incomes and the education of girls often continues to be a formality, merely for bettering marriage prospects. Improving a government school is the most pro-poor activity that any State can undertake.

Going beyond Central/State funding issues, it is time to improve governance in schools. Also, schools must shed their forlorn and dilapidated look, an outcome of the long school closure due to Covid. Uttar Pradesh’s ‘Mission Kayakalpa’ for making schools attractive and an inviting place once again, is a great example to follow. All States must strive to improve the look of their schools; it does not cost much.

While a lot has been done to improve the schools on the supply side with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and subsequent efforts, there is a need for rejuvenating and re-imagining learning in schools. As ASER 2023 confirms, boys and girls of elementary school-going age have all come back to schools; the system is failing them, though. Making learning attractive for children is possible today with little effort.

To ensure impactful outcomes of learning in schools, the following needs to be done at the earliest:

Firstly, local governments and women’s collectives should be given the responsibility for elementary schools with funds and functionaries. They must be authorised to fill any vacancy by rationalisation or recruiting a community volunteer who has cleared the Teacher Eligibility Test. The devolved funds should be sufficient to meet the needs for basic learning and support. The school should become a community institution rather than be a government entity. It should be able to draw on voluntarism/donations and get the support of gadgets to ensure healthy learning outcomes. The physical and human infrastructure have to be adequate for learning to happen.

Secondly, all teachers and teacher educators (block and cluster coordinators, State/District resource persons) should be trained in the use of gadgets and course material that can facilitate learning. Every classroom must have a large TV and a good sound system to provide online lessons that supplement what is taught in class.

Thirdly, the Mid-Day Meal responsibility must be handed over to the village level self-help group (SHG) of women. The Panchayat and School Management Committee shall be the supervisors of the SHG. Teachers should not have any role in the Mid-Day Meal scheme. They must only teach.

Public libraries

Fourthly, develop public libraries where older children in the village can study and prepare for jobs and admissions to good institutions. Such community institutions attract volunteers. Karnataka has done outstanding work on strengthening its public libraries and this has gains for school learning outcomes as well.

Fifthly, use sound boxes, video films, play-way learning items, indoor and outdoor sports, cultural activities for learning on scale. Let toys based learning start from early childhood learning, with support of the Integrated Child Development Services. In any case, the New Education Policy 2022 mandates a continuum from ages 3 to 8 to ensure this important early beginning in life.

The nutrition challenge must be the school leadership’s responsibility, as too many committees only dilute convergent action. Field functionaries like Aanganwadi Sevikas, Ashas, ANMs and Panchayat Secretaries must all be made responsible for the well-being of children. To make a difference, healthcare management must be in partnership with the local government.

Sixthly, there should be community campaigns and regular school level interactions with parents. Teachers must build a relationship with every household to ensure children’s care and learning. Parental involvement can greatly improve learning outcomes. The Nipun Bharat Mission to ensure oral and written literacy and numeracy, should become a people’s movement like the Total Literacy Campaign.

And finally, let the Central and State grants be disaggregated gram panchayat-wise and urban local body-wise, to ensure transfer of untied funds to schools, including salary payment. The school must be community managed and the State is at best the principal financing agent. Let the private sector adopt schools to make them better.

Let the Central/State governments equally share the additional resources needed to rejuvenate the system, given that education is a Concurrent subject 1976 onwards.

The writer is a retired civil servant. The views are personal