ASER 2022 returned to the field nationwide after a gap of 4 years, reaching 616 rural districts. This year’s data will be especially valuable as it comes after schools reopened after prolonged closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This household survey recorded the schooling status of children in the age group 3-16 and assessed children aged 5-16 in basic reading and arithmetic. Children’s English ability was also tested this year.
In 2022, across India, the ASER effort reached 616 rural districts and covered 699,597 children aged 3 to 16. The exercise involved visiting of 374,554 households in 19,060 villages by 27,536 surveyors. Among the major finds is that the proportion of children (age 6 to 14) enrolled in government school increased sharply from 65.6% in 2018 to 72.9% in 2022. Increase in government school enrollment is visible in almost every state in the country.
On pre-schooling front, across rural India, the proportion of 3-year-olds enrolled in some form of early childhood education stands at 78.3% in 2022, an increase of 7.1 percentage points over 2018 levels. There is a substantial shift in enrollment patterns of young children in the age group 3-5 years who have moved into the ICDS (anganwadi) system from other forms of pre-school and school provision. In 2022, 66.8% of 3-year-olds were enrolled in Anganwadi Centres as compared to 57.1% in 2018. Among 4 year olds, Anganwadi enrollment has increased from 50.5% (2018) to 61.2% (2022).
Amid these two positives, the worry is about losing gains in achviement. The report notes, nationally, children’s basic reading ability has dropped to pre-2012 levels, reversing the slow improvement achieved in the intervening years. Drops are visible in both government and private schools in most states, and for both boys and girls.
In mathematics, declines are less steep and the picture is more varied than in the case of basic reading. The All India figure for children in Std III who are able to at least do subtraction dropped from 28.2% in 2018 to 25.9% in 2022. While Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh maintained or improved slightly over 2018 levels, steep drops of more than 10 percentage points are visible in Tamil Nadu (from 25.9% in 2018 to 11.2% in 2022), Mizoram (from 58.8% to 42%), and Haryana (from 53.9% to 41.8%).
Also, on other important indicators like RTE, nationally, small improvements are visible in all Right to Education-related indicators over 2018 levels. For example, the fraction of schools with useable girls’ toilets increased from 66.4% in 2018 to 68.4% in 2022. The proportion of schools with drinking water available increased from 74.8% to 76%, and the proportion of schools with books other than textbooks being used by students increased from 36.9% to 44% over the same period.
Most sports-related indicators also remain at close to the levels observed in 2018. For example, in 2022, 68.9% schools have a playground, up slightly from 66.5% in 2018.
Ajay Piramal Chairman, Piramal Group and Chairman, Pratham Education Foundation, who released the ASER 2022 on January 18 remarked: “Although there is good monitoring, feedback and capacity building mechanism in place by the Government, more effort needs to be put into enhancing foundational literacy to raise the overall standards of children’s education in the country. This report gives us the direction and also the sense that to enhance education standards, the eco-system involving Government, Corporates, Civil Society and NGOs need to work together.”
Writing in the report, Madhav Chavan, President and member of the Board of Directors, Pratham Education Foundation adds important insights. An abridged version of the essay appearing in the report is as follows:
“While the shift from private schools to government schools is most likely due to economic stress, it has to be noted that percentage of children in both government and private schools who go to private tutors has gone up by about 4 percentage points above the already existing 26.4%. The increase is not uniform but it has happened in all states. This means that 30% of all rural children going to government and private schools are now also going to private tutors.
Tutoring seems to have been a tradition in several states such as West Bengal and Bihar, where the proportion of children going to private schools was low and near 70% children were going to tutors. Large numbers of young people in villages earned a living by tutoring children in these states. It appears that in the post-pandemic period the practice of private tutoring may spread and grow in other states as young educated people prepare for, and wait for jobs. A couple of decades ago, the three A’s of universal education were said to be Access, Attendance and Achievement. Given the enrollment figures, the issue of the first A is solved. The next A is attendance.
What proportion of children enrolled in government schools are to be found in their class on any given day? ASER has recorded broad regional patterns of attendance in India over the last decade and more. The Southern and Western states show attendance figures of high 80% and above. In contrast, the Central and North Central states range from mid-fifties to seventy. The Eastern states range in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. These patterns have not changed even though schools opened after two years of closure. The old normal continues. The third A is Achievement. “Learning loss” that children may have suffered due to school closure was and is a big concern. But the data can be seen from different angles as a case of a glass half full or half empty.
Most children who ‘entered’ Std I in July 2020 had no regular classes for one full year, and a large proportion went to school in fits and starts, or not at all, in the second year. If learning is only assumed to happen in school classrooms, no child in Std III today should have knowledge of reading or numeracy. However, the fact is that whereas 37% children in Std III could read at least a Std I level text in government schools at an all-India level in 2018, the proportion has dropped ‘only’ 7 percentage points to 30% in 2022. In private schools 61% could read a Std I level text in 2018, which dropped to 52% in 2022. In government schools the drop amounts to nearly 20% over the 2018 level while in private schools it is 15% over the 2018 level. Of course, the drops differ from state to state and in a few cases there is improvement rather than decline in reading levels. T
These interesting cases have to be considered separately, but the more important point to me is that a large proportion of children learned to read in spite of school closure.
In the case of arithmetic, there is only small changes at the all-India level in the proportion of children in Std III, or in any higher class up to Std VIII, who can do at least a 2-digit subtraction sum. It is as though school closure did not happen. So, if nearly the same proportion of children learned reading and basic numeracy whether schools were open or closed for two years, how did the children learn? Who taught them? It is reasonable to assume that some amount of learning will happen if there is someone willing to learn, someone willing to help, some material to learn from and some amount of engagement of the learner.
ASER 2021 learned that nearly 70% children had someone to help at home. Mother, father or siblings were helpful. Teachers seem to have called or made home visits or used digital devices to deliver materials and instruction where possible. In addition, as discussed before, 30% children are helped by private tutors. ASER measures learning at the very foundational level for all children so we cannot comment on the loss of learning at the higher levels of an already overambitious curriculum. It is a reasonable guess that at higher levels the loss may be greater especially given the emphasis on memorisation of textbooks. There is a need to research in some depth how children may have learned at home while schools were closed.
Isolation of the home from the school is the old norm. Bringing them together is the new one in which the family and the teacher, the village and the school work together to help children learn skills and knowledge. Could this type of hybrid home-schooling with technology assistance represent the model for the educational system or the schools of tomorrow? We know very little about the effectiveness of technology assisted learning – a lot of which happened during the pandemic. The tech sector could invest much more in understanding what worked (or works) well, and what did not.
The lockdown may have given an impetus to ending the isolation of the home from school. In the old days community and parents’ participation in children’s education was much talked about, but in practice it usually meant occasionally attending committee meetings. In the post-pandemic era, the possibility of involving parents much more in the education of their children should be explored seriously.
The National Education Policy of 2020 talks about involving communities and parents in the process of education. It will be good to build on the experiences during the period of school closures. This period also broke down what could be called the digital barrier. The resistance to technology at all levels collapsed as the need to reach children became urgent. The pandemic accelerated teachers’ capability to access online resources/ courses. Government mandates that teachers use online platforms such as NISHTHA, DIKSHA, etc., as well as a range of applications for monitoring, assessment, etc. involved massive “upskilling” in a short period of time. But the digital solutions relied on sending messages, links and attachments for children to learn from. Textbooks and lessons remained dominant. In the urgency to keep the education system going, there was no room for experimentation with content and pedagogy. It is now time to experiment and improve upon the school model. A hundred years ago when implementation of free and compulsory education was being experimented with in Baroda and Kolhapur, India’s literacy rate was barely around 11%. The model of schools where illiterate-unschooled parents brought their children to the teacher, the sole educated person in the area, was perhaps the only workable model. It was also the model existing in the Western countries that was being exported to us. Today more than 50% mothers and 80% fathers have more than five years of education, according to ASER 2022.
The teachers are no longer the only educated persons in the village. Most parents have access to smartphones and it seems that they have actively participated in their children’s learning efforts during the pandemic. ASER 2022 17 It is possible to envisage a model in which the school is a place that serves partly as a day-care center for the 3-8 or 3-10 age group in a village and partly as a place for learning foundational skills and knowledge. By the age of 8 all children can learn the basics along the lines of goals outlined by the Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Mission. In the older age groups of 8-10 and 11-14, it should be possible for children to learn in groups that are helped by the school as a resource for learning materials and instructors who can help.
Learning the skills and methods of learning is the most important thing for this age group, as opposed to memorising. Use of technology and home assistance from parents is entirely possible. In fact, as we observe in middle class homes, parents often sit with their children to help them with studies. Preparing parents to help their children at home and in groups of children should become entirely possible. As they grow older, children should become more independent learners, spending less time with a ‘teacher’ and more time with resource persons in-person and online.
The curriculum and the examination system are two major factors that cause the system to become extremely rigid. Flexibility will come from a change of mindsets and the creative use of technology. Rigidity is a part of our old mindsets. The pandemic forced us to look at schooling differently. The school system coped with the challenge and became flexible to try different solutions. It is important to learn from what we did and how we did it when schools were closed. It was a period of extreme restrictions but it also offered freedom to try new ideas. Now that there are no restrictions, we need to persist with changing mindsets to try out new ideas and create new norms. The National Education Policy of 2020 did well to emphasize importance of foundational literacy and numeracy. The Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Mission that follows from the policy is now leading the achievement of set goals. The policy also provides encouragement to change mindsets in the approach to school education. Going beyond policy, there are indications that governments are taking the Mission quite seriously. India will soon be the most populous young country in the world. It is a new world of new ideas. It is important that we set an example and give the world a new model of education as we discard old habits and create new norms for education.