Education post-Covid

Source: By Rudrashis Datta: The Statesman

In a letter written to his friend, Arthur Hugh Clough, in 1851 upon taking over as school inspector, the English poet and essayist, Matthew Arnold, expressed the fear of the impact of increasing mechanization that the Industrial Revolution was bringing about in England and its possible impact on education.

He wrote that he sees ‘relevance’ as the greatest challenge confronting education since industrialization was threatening to change the traditional humanistic and literary slant that English school education enjoyed for over three centuries.

Arnold’s call for urgent reform was neglected and it took almost five decades before humanities education in England’s schools could recover from the onslaught of utilitarian education inspired by the Industrial Revolution. In today’s context of COVID, we are facing a challenge to education, one that is no less serious than what Arnold faced, but on a greater, pervasive and critical scale.

The importance of education, especially elementary education, is the fundamental indicator of a country’s preparedness for the globalized world order, and India has been struggling for the last five decades to bring education to the doors of the millions of children whose challenged circumstances kept them out of education for generations.

Ever since the days of the Secondary Education Commission of 1952, the primary focus of our policy planners was to achieve universal literacy and elementary education. But the primary barrier to India’s universal elementary education was that under challenged economic circumstances, a family would most likely forego their children’s education and deploy them in gainful labour to supplement the family’s income.

Lack of education ensured that such children ended up being exploited in whatever vocation they chose to adopt and this vicious circle continued till the turn of the twentieth century when the thrust shifted towards incentivizing elementary education under the policy umbrella of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). Framed in 2002, the SSA worked to significantly reduce school dropouts and increase enrolment through the incentives of financial relief and mid-day meals to children.

The gains of the SSA were planned to be cemented by the passing of the Right to Education Act, 2009 which made elementary education a fundamental right of Indian nationals. The Act saw near universal enrolment at the initial stage and India experienced a drastic dropout reduction in elementary education and was on its way to a universal elementary education coverage by 2025 well before the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on education targeted for 2030.

Today, most developing countries of the world and their educational policies are guided by the framework of UNESCO with the current standard being ‘Education 2030: Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning.’

In other words, the fourth goal of sustainable development parameters is to ensure inclusive, universal and quality education and also make education an appendage to adulthood through updating of skills, broadening of the knowledge base, and application of learning to new vocational circumstances.

Clearly, these goals were established in a pre-Covid- 19 world, and initial parameters indicate that the 2030 goal may well be pushed back to 2040 internationally, since for most developing countries, a significant part of the GDP shall be diverted to ensuring basic living necessities of food and medicines, rather than education while under the COVID pandemic.

A model case of the impact that pandemic has on education would be the ebola outbreak in west African countries in 2014- 2015. The outbreak took 20,000 lives in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Schools were closed for most of 2014, and these countries which were on their way to universal elementary education in 2014 due to the efforts of UNESCO, suddenly saw elementary enrolments reduce to 21 per cent in 2016, with most children forced to forego education in search of gainful labour after an economic devastation that followed the pandemic.

The impact on elementary education was so severe that these countries are still struggling to attain a 50 per cent enrolment figure four years after the outbreak. While the Indian context is not expected to be that severe, initial data indicates that the impact of the pandemic on elementary education would be profound and would require out-of-the-box policy making.

We are already facing a depressed economic scenario and encountering lay-offs, job losses, and a freeze of fresh employment. It is universally accepted that the first casualty of an economic crisis the world over is elementary education since the challenged population tends to sacrifice education of children and divert them for gainful employment.

The Indian context is further compounded by the fact that privately funded elementary education tends to be more resilient to economic downturn than state funded ones since schools funded by the government generally cater to the economically challenged section of the population who are the most vulnerable to socio-economic crises. As a consequence, with the Indian unorganized sector facing the brunt of the post-Covid economic challenge, we would be expecting sharper dropouts in the elementary education in the near present and immediate future.

In fact, rudimentary details of the joblessness of the unorganized Indian workforce indicate that elementary education drop-out may scale up to over 40 per cent of the total school going population of the country, since this workforce would be challenged to send their children to school or enable them to continue meaningful school education.

In contrast, the education of the well-off, usually serviced through privately run schools, might be resilient to the downturn by devising unique education strategies, such as tapping the internet and digital education to weather the disturbance and continue with some semblance of normalcy. This discrepancy shall only widen the socio-economic divide in the long run. Indian socio-economic history has been a long and continuous struggle of justifying the importance of elementary education over gainful labour with a large section of the challenged population still considering elementary education as a ‘wastage of time’ that could be used elsewhere with some pecuniary gain.

This perception has intensified in the last few years with the shrinking scope of employment that is open to school level pass-outs. With job qualification benchmarks getting higher and higher, a sense of resignation is evident in a large section of the school going population. It is therefore not unusual to encounter students who enrol in state-aided schools merely to partake of the incentives given while at the same time involved in gainful work elsewhere.

The stakeholders in India have been working hard to neutralize this scenario with varying degrees of success. However, in the exceptionally challenging post-COVID world, this crisis shall only intensify and may even threaten to undo the gains in enrolment attained due to the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) in the last decade. A compromised school education environment today shall translate into a mediocre higher education and a dismal research scenario tomorrow.

We cannot let this critical issue go unattended while we address other areas of COVID influenced living. An urgent way out of this crisis before our schools is to begin microlevel monitoring of student engagement with schools while increasing the financial component of the incentives which are due to continuing students, in a ‘retainsupport- transform strategy’.

Failure to tackle this in time shall invariably translate into an unmanageable crisis tomorrow with unforeseen consequences to our socioeconomic and security fabric with child labour becoming pervasive and poverty-induced human trafficking intensifying. The last issue that we can afford at this crucial crisis is erosion in our student base which may undo painful gains in education made in the last decade.