Necessary But Not Sufficient? What More The Modi Government Can Do For Children In This Pandemic, Beyond Vaccines
Over and above vaccines for kids, the Modi government must narrow the learning gap that has widened in the last two years.
Nothing more heartening than to start the new year with over 4 million children, in the 15-18 age group, opting for a vaccine dose on the first day of the drive.
For the last 20 months, since April 2020, the children have had to give up on school, tuitions, and other social interactions that are integral to their lives and mental development, and many had to go through a tough phase quite early in their lives as the virus decimated lives and livelihoods around them.
For all these children, the vaccination dose is a beginning of the end of the travesty the virus has put them through.
Beyond vaccines, however, there are problems that require urgent attention. In December 2021, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) conducted the term-1 board exams for Classes 10th and 12th. While the CBSE has announced that no student would be failed in these exams, and they shall only carry 50 per cent weightage in the final result, some issues have emerged.
One, even for students from the best private schools in metro cities, the last 20-months of online learning has not delivered the results students, teachers, and parents would have hoped for, and by no fault of their own or any other stakeholder within the system, the learning has suffered.
Two, the 20-month gap and the lack of understanding of various subjects and topics within them makes for a weak foundation for the future schooling years. The whole idea of online schooling was brave and necessary, but we are not there yet, not even remotely.
The students have a lot going on at their end.
One, most students, especially those from government schools and second and third-tier cities, cannot have an independent device to access lectures from. Most of them are sharing a smartphone or a laptop with their siblings, and there is the lack of space in most homes, even in metros, that dents the learning further. For many, owing to the financial stress the pandemic has ushered, tuitions and tutors have become inaccessible.
Online learning, from the students’ perspective, comes with its own set of challenges.
One, it took the best private schools many months before they could acquaint themselves with the whole process, and even today, many government schools lack the infrastructure.
Two, even where the infrastructure exists, the classroom experience is warranted, for some subjects like mathematics and science. It would be unfair to expect the students outside metros to grasp complex topics like organic chemistry, accounts, economics, calculus, algebra, and so forth through online learning. As students struggled in the term-1 exams, even with languages, these learning fault lines became evident.
The teachers and school administrators have not had it easy either. The first year of the pandemic and a prolonged lockdown amounted to many institutions warding off an existential crisis given many parents were unable to pay the fee for the first-six months, at least.
There was also the issue of urgently imparting the necessary digital infrastructure to many teachers and to train them to take online classes, something they had never attempted before. This was an arduous task, for many teachers with over 10 or 15 years of experience were not at all acquainted with the ways of the digital world, unlike professionals in the services industry.
Thus, many teachers, in government schools and second and third-tier cities simply gave up or diverted their students to several apps or online videos, and only some made the effort to take classes online, pushed by school administrations.
Even for those who made the brave shift, imparting knowledge of certain topics and subjects was close to impossible. Unlike classrooms, doubt clearing and attention to certain students was quite difficult. However, it must be emphasised that most teachers are not constrained by a lack of will but of resources, training, and infrastructure.
Closed for almost two years, and now shut again due to the emerging omicron threat, schools are integral to the development of any child. From an academic perspective, the two-year gap will have long-term implications not only for students in the 15-18 age group, but also those studying in primary classes.
For instance, a student unable to grasp the basic concepts of addition, subtraction, and multiplication in Class-2 or 3 will struggle in Class-5 with BODMAS, and a student unable to grasp algebra concepts in Class-6 will struggle with mathematical identities in Class-8.
For students unable to master the concept of identities in Class-8, physics and mathematics until Class-12 is doomed, and so forth. Forget the likes of R.D Sharma, students have been unable to master the NCERT books.
Even with science, the story remains similar. How can students, unable to understand the basics of chemistry in Class-6, be expected to master chemical equations, reactions, and chemical bonds in higher classes, and for students in Class-8, failing to understand chemical bonds will doom them in the organic chemistry classes later on.
Similar examples can be cited for every subject, including languages, and the results of the term-1 exam further validate this fear.
For the students in metro cities and coming from higher-income backgrounds, access to ed-tech solutions is feasible. However, for a majority of students in India, long-term learning implications is something they must struggle with, and with no clarity on the opening of schools in 2022, one fears if there is going to be a third consecutive year of stunted learning.
This is where the Modi government needs to step in. Two things must be urgently done for the academic session starting in April 2022.
One, the syllabus must be tweaked to include the basics from lower classes, even at the risk of repetition, to benefit students in the longer run.
This is strongly recommended for mathematics and sciences. The tweaks must be made visible in the new NCERT books. Further, it would be ideal if the government at the Centre can ensure that students in the government schools can be given the updated books free of cost for the next two years.
Two, the government must up the ante on the digital front. As of today, the online resources offered by the government across several websites are of substandard quality, and light years behind what an average ed-tech company can offer.
On most portals, the lessons are incomplete, and therefore, the government must embark on a two-months project, one they should have accomplished long ago, preferably in the second-half of 2020 itself.
The idea is fairly simple. For every subject, for classes 1 to 12, hire a fixed number of teachers or tutors, even if they are without prior teaching experience.
A quick filtration process must be put in place to get the best educators on board, one who can engage the students effectively. Ideally, have these educators in Delhi for a few weeks at government cost and aid them with adequate digital infrastructure and resources for them to shoot lectures for two months for the entire curriculum under the supervision of a professional production team.
For instance, for mathematics, the government, preferably through Niti Aayog, and for the love of God, not the Education Ministry, should hire seven tutors who can teach in English and Hindi each, and two each for a local language, so that students have multiple tutors to choose from.
To complement it, a professional editing squad must be created to add required animations, processing, and uploading. The government should not focus on creating something to complex or fancy, but get the basics right. Focus on engaging the students and on quality, and not on animation and graphics. It's a lecture, not a Marvel movie.
Instead of an app, the government should upload the lectures for free on YouTube, the most accessible and engaging video platform. Plus, this will save the government the overhead costs of creating an app from scratch and the glitches that may trouble later.
Also, the maintenance becomes easier. To put things in perspective, T-Series, the world’s biggest YouTube channel with over 200 million subscribers and over 16,000 videos is managed by 10-odd people.
It’s knowledge, and even though the lobbies backing the likes of Byju’s may hate it, let it be free and easy to access.
Assuming there are 10 to 12 subjects (Science to be counted as 3, Social Sciences as 4 separate subjects), the government would need around 30 tutors for each (12-14 in Hindi and English and the remaining to teach in local languages like Punjabi, Tamil, etc.).
At max, the government would need to hire 500 people, including the editing team. In entirety, the one-time investment in public service for children would be a few crores, and yet cost less than 0.1 per cent of the last payout under the PM-Kisan Scheme from two days ago.
Surely, an economy aiming to become a $5 trillion giant by the end of this decade can spare the expenditure.
Uploading courses on the NCERT curriculum is the lowest hanging fruit this government can pluck. The only challenge is execution, and to ensure some degree of private sector participation, the Modi government should aid with the resources and allow for volunteering teachers and tutors, willing to spare three months and accept market-linked salaries, to be a part of this one-time project.
Ideally, the government must have this exercise each year, as the syllabus and chapters receive an upgrade. However, get efficient tutors for the job, one who does not give students another reason to doze off.
The bottom-line is that the bar for basic school education should be lowered, and be made free. We are a nation of inequality, and while the government of the day, the students or teachers cannot be blamed for it, the least that can be ensured is that every student, from every economic wing, across the country, has access to quality education.
Imagine what a platform like this can do to the students of Kashmir or that of North-East, or those who have lost out on two years of education for financial reasons. Such a project can also be an enabler for students who want to go back to school after years and want to brush up on their basics.
Beyond vaccines, the Modi government must narrow the learning gap that has widened in the last two-years, and all it needs is a little nudge, some intent, a few crore rupees, and a group of willing individuals to oversee its execution.
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