The education sector was looking forward to a big allocation in this year’s union Budget with the reopening and regular functioning of schools becoming a big area of concern impacting the lives of 320 million learners in India.
Lockdown has impacted the goal of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education as it resulted in children, especially from marginalised communities, having limited or absolutely no means for continuing their education.
Studies by various agencies indicate that the digital divide and inadequate reach of remote learning solutions has ultimately resulted in increased learning gaps and dropout rates, pushing children into labour, early marriages and so on.
Covid has also affected the holistic development and capacity of learning in children by creating a social and emotional impact on the children. Studies indicate that stress levels have increased, and children and their families have been finding it hard to cope with the current situations.
Preliminary findings from a recent study by ChildFund India, covering approximately 2,000 children from marginalised communities in the age group of 6-14, from 10 States suggest that around 73 per cent children were feeling sad and 8 per cent were feeling anxious because they were not able to meet friends and teachers, access or/and understand online learning sessions and missing active face-to-face teaching learning. Most of these respondents desperately wanted the schools to reopen soon but were worried and apprehensive about the availability of the adequate infrastructural facilities required to maintain the physical distancing norms and sanitation conditions.
In the same study, both parents and children reported major negative changes in the behaviour patterns of the children, ranging from increased aggression, to lack of concentration and irritability. Online learning has only exacerbated this stress in children.
In addition, trends like reverse migration during Covid, livelihood loss has impacted families from the marginalised sections, have increased dependency on government schools with decreased ability to pay school fees due and so on. Approximately 60 per cent of the parents interviewed said that they are looking up to the government for making special financial arrangements to address these concerns.
Also, the diverse socio-cultural fabric of our country, with its unique set of caste, class and gender discrimination issues, has further been negatively impacted during the pandemic, impacting equitable access to education. Experts worry that this might also affect the enrolment and retention rates in schools, when they eventually reopen.
In the preliminary findings of the ChildFund study, nearly 50 per cent teachers out of the 150 surveyed, reported being concerned that further delay in opening of schools might result into increase in dropout rates, child labour and learning gap. So special focus is needed on interventions that support the social and emotional learning (SEL) aspect in children along with the special interventions to help children cope with their learning loss as well as the stress and anxiety that they have been experiencing. SEL is otherwise also important for a holistic development of children. SEL’s importance has been neglected despite the fact that recent research in fields of education, neuroscience and learning, find that it aides children in continuing and succeeding in education. It also found a significant mention in the National Education Policy, 2020.
Overall, one can say that social impact of the pandemic on equal and equitable education needs special mitigation strategies and interventions. These might include making arrangements of reopening schools at the earliest and interventions like specially designed modules on SEL for teachers as well as children, bridge classes for overcoming the learning gaps and a massive boost in infrastructural support to government schools. Hence many were expecting an increase in the allocation for education in the Budget and even announcement of a special Covid rehabilitation package for getting schools ready for instilling faith in the parents and children that the schools can handle Covid related measures.
However, the Budget disappointed the education sector when it slashed its allocations. Since the Kothari commission report in 1986 there has been a need and demand of spending at least 6 per cent of GDP on education, last year it was somewhere around 3.5 per cent.
In this year’s Budget it has come down to as low as 0.42 per cent, out of which spending on school education is a mere 0.25 per cent. Also, around 97 per cent of these allocations are coming from the education cess, so the actual amount from the gross allocation is even lower. The Budget has also reduced allocations for the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan that is major intervention catering to the school education from ₹38,751 crore in the last Budget to ₹31,050 crore this year.
With the worry of increased drop out of children from marginalised communities, the expectation was for announcement of schemes and programmes. Also the budget for National scheme for incentive to girl child for secondary education has been reduced from ₹110 crore to just ₹1 crore. With 2020 being the year of pandemic and also the year of release of NEP 2020, the children of this nation would really have appreciated if the government opened its purse a bit more for that much needed healing touch on their pandemic induced miseries.
The writer is Senior Specialist - Education, ChildFund India