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Re imagining 2021 primary education in rural India based on our experiences

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agarwalvj
Born in village Kotah (Saharanpur), Vijendra Agarwal, left India in 1973 after Ph.D. (Physics) from IIT Roorkee but always remained connected with his roots. A researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he came to the US in 1978. He served as faculty and academic administrator (Assistant Vice President, Associate Vice Chancellor, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering) in several universities, and an Executive Fellow in the White House S&T Policy during Clinton administration. Following his voluntary retirement in 2014, he and his wife co-founded a US-based NGO, Vidya Gyan, to serve rural India toward education, health, and empowerment of girls and overall development. An Indian at heart, his passion for writing has no boundaries. This includes policy, politics and people, and social/cultural activities promoting community engagement. Currently, he is the Brand Ambassador for Times of India and frequently blogs on Linkedin on various topics.

At last, we are stepping away from an unprecedented 2020, a year of despair, fear, and shutdowns due to pandemic, to 2021, a year of hope and optimism with the vaccines on hand. Let us embrace a dynamic 2021 with renewed energy and will to reengineer and reimagine our future. The 2020 experiences are not even worth remembering and therefore we focus on what to expect in 2021?

Globally, the challenges will include lifting the economy, creating employment opportunities, reviving industry and businesses, and restoring the effectiveness of education, just to name a few. We focus on primary education in India based on our cumulative experiences through a U.S. based NGO, Vidya Gyan. The modest efforts of Vidya Gyan for about 5 years have been aimed at improving infrastructure and learning environment in rural government schools. While Vidya Gyan believes in, “Every Child Matters,” its greater focus has been on girl children. Having visited many rural schools, meeting hundreds of teachers and parents, and the zoom calls with teachers in 2020, I fear most about the children in post-pandemic 2021 when the schools eventually open.

India has two distinct universes of primary education- private and government schools. The former cater to relatively well-to-do families have reasonably good infrastructure, charge hefty tuition/fees, and their quality of education is perceptibly better than the government schools. On the contrary, the government schools enroll almost two-third of all students in grades 1-8 from impoverished and poorly educated families. Regrettably, these schools are neglected in India’s hierarchical political and administrative structure with little or no accountability. Thus, the children, particularly girls, in rural schools are the most vulnerable.

The government schools, perceived to offer poor quality education, have been closed since March and the teachers mandated to teach via distance learning without the training and tools. Neither the teachers nor the students had prior experience or the infrastructure to teach and learn, respectively. Most teachers used their “smart” phones, but fewer students had smartphones or a working phone with data. Anecdotally, perhaps only about 10-20% of parents in different villages had smartphones and many could not afford data plans. The following is quite instructive, and troubling, about the girls being at a greater disadvantage even if there was a phone in the family.

Girls at a Greater Disadvantage: Reportedly, the data collected from a survey of 733 students of grade 7 and 8 in 10 government schools in Bihar yielded the following:

  • About one-half of all families had no phone (28%) or had a non-working phone (21%). In other words, the students could not be reached.
  • Among the remaining half, about 38% had smartphones (and 16% other phones) which belonged to a “male” with limited access to children. About one-half of the families with smartphones could not afford an “active” data package. As a result, less than 20% of families had an active smartphone with the girl child having lesser access than the boys. Reportedly, when contacted by phone, the male figure (father, brother, or a relative) asked if they could take the survey instead of the girl child. In cases when the girl could be reached by phone, they were not as forthcoming because a male member was always present.

The conditions in rural government schools in Uttar Pradesh, where Vidya Gyan works, are no different than the Bihar experience. I surmise that access to phones for children in grades 1-5 for distance learning is significantly more restricted. The above report also cited that the girls were disadvantaged even in the case of televised educational programs because they were expected to do “domestic” chores during the TV broadcast. This is a cultural phenomenon in many rural households where parents don’t value girl education as much even in 2020.

Poor Wi-Fi connectivity and frequent power shutdowns are also detrimental factors in rural areas. Teachers were expected, perhaps directed, to write homework by hand for distribution. This is a very time consuming and arduous task. The government-mandated no contact with children for the fear of infection and asked parents to collect homework from schools. Many parents did not come because they could not leave work or simply did not appreciate the value of education. We believe that the policymakers, teachers, and community did the best they could under extraordinary circumstances. One of the teachers in the Vidya Gyan network approached us for the printer for copying the homework for distribution. Vidya Gyan gave a printer to 5 schools as a pilot and without a doubt, the distribution of printed homework increased many folds.

What to expect in 2021? Earlier reports indicated that the primary schools may reopen in January until the emergence of the new variant of coronavirus in the U.K. While, not much is known about the variant, the speculations include: it infects children more easily and spreads more quickly than COVID-19. These fears alone have sounded a global alarm and the schools may not open any time soon. This may mean a full school year (April 2020- March 2021) without traditional classroom learning for tens of millions of children in rural India. Very unfortunate indeed but keeping children safe must come first.

1.Will all students return? In my informed and optimistic view, the students in grades 1-5 will be back but a perceptible decline in grades 6-8. I am afraid that the girl children may experience a greater setback due to child-marriage and/or domestic help. The parents may have also forced older children to get into child labor. It is known that once children start making money, it is difficult to get them back to school. Thus, the post-pandemic dropout rate is likely to be higher than the pre-pandemic 2.72% in 2018-19.

2. Will they be ready and competent for the next grade? The larger issue is how much learning occurred at home during the COVID-19. The ASER data collected for decades suggest that children in government schools are generally significantly below the expected grade-level competencies in basic reading, writing, and numeracy. With little to no learning in 2020, they will perform much poorer than before. With schools closed, a systemic assessment of learning was not possible and perhaps minimal at best. Thus, a major challenge for the policymakers is to:

  • (a) Promote every child to the next grade without the minimum competencies and risk their failure in the higher grades (I know that the U.P. government has promoted children for years without the requisite competencies). OR
  • (b) Hold children back at the pre-pandemic grade level and risk mass dissatisfaction among children and possible protests by parents/families.

Obviously, neither is a good option. We suggest an out-of-the-box approach for the extenuating circumstances. The government should renegotiate teacher contracts to keep the schools open for at least 7 hours each day for 6 days/week with absolute minimum holidays. Additionally, the teachers are asked to sacrifice for the greater good of their pupils with an uncompromising assurance of “no other assigned duties” except teaching. Such conversation may be more effective under the direction of the Prime Minister committing to reimagine and reinvigorate education and economy with equal priority in the post-pandemic era. Modi has often talked about restoring India’s economy but not education. The leadership in Delhi and the State capitals must let go of “vote-bank” politics and put the greater and sincere focus on investing in children’s education and wellbeing.

3. Wellbeing of children: With schools closed for a long time, the children were isolated from their peers and thus a loss of social learning and support system. They were home alone while their parents worked. Many roamed the streets and had unstructured learning and daily routine. Reportedly, the isolation led to increased child abuse during the lockdown as the lawyers wrote to the Chief Justice of India to take sou moto notice about it. This highlights that schools are safe spaces in addition to learning centers for many children. Although the government provided the monetary value of mid-day meals and additional ration to families during the pandemic, it did not necessarily mean that children got nutritional meals. Thus, children will return to school being socially indifferent, mal-nourished, suffering from emotional issues, and in poor health. The government must provide resources to deal with these post-pandemic challenges.

4. Technology in schools: If I were to identify a plausible good outcome of COVID-19, it is the rude awakening about the criticality of technology in all aspects of our lives. The pandemic thrust the use of technology on us almost overnight with no debates and discussion. Globally, the nations and communities with access to technology came ahead of those without it. Rural India suffered significantly more than the urban areas. The government schools and offices were resource-deficient and slow to change and adapt. The year 2021 will require concerted efforts and resources to equip every school with technological tools such as computers, printers, projectors, LED panels, etc. to enable technology-assisted learning. Vidya Gyan’s simple experiment and expense of about Rs. 20,000/school for printers to select schools made a big difference.

5. National Education Policy: The policy received excellent reviews for being reform-oriented and bold at all levels of education. It will be a daunting task to implement it in phases and the devil is always in how it gets implemented in 2021 and beyond. Among other reforms, a long-overdue integration of pre-school “Anganwadi” as a continuum to primary education is most noteworthy in the present context. This alone will require huge professional development of Anganwadi workers most of whom, at best, can be characterized as “babysitters’ without the adequate credentials of a teacher. May I dare suggest that the government must make the Anganwadi integration the highest priority even if other good reform strategies must be put on hold for a few years?

In conclusion, Vidya Gyan’s efforts are modest in scale (limited to only dozens of rural government schools) but profoundly meaningful in the cumulative perspectives we have gained. In five years, we faced a fair share of frustration and lack of trust and met with resistance. We had mixed success because of the poor attitude and/or commitment of teachers, government officials, and communities, but it was worth it. With our continuous learning, we continued to experiment and reimagine new initiatives. For example, in 2020, we established computer labs in two government schools and initiated an after-school learning academy called “Super 20” in five schools. Super 20 is aimed at the holistic leadership development of 20 children with a greater focus on girls. Unfortunately, both programs have not advanced much because of the pandemic.

In 2021, our newest initiative is “Adopt a Girl Child” under which we plan to adopt about 20 girls and offer them a scholarship worth Rs. 21000 in their Sukanya Saving account opened years ago with Vidya Gyan’s financial incentive. The scholarship will be given for the next 5-6 years until they reach 10th grade. Our focus is “Beti Padhao” and change parents’ attitude toward their daughter’s education and financial wellbeing. The teachers are our valued partners and human resources in all initiatives. We push them to embrace challenges and the schools are now being rewarded with new initiatives. Vidya Gyan continues to be motivated and blessed by teachers, friends, and donors alike to make a difference- one child/one school at a time.

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agarwalvj
Born in village Kotah (Saharanpur), Vijendra Agarwal, left India in 1973 after Ph.D. (Physics) from IIT Roorkee but always remained connected with his roots. A researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he came to the US in 1978. He served as faculty and academic administrator (Assistant Vice President, Associate Vice Chancellor, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering) in several universities, and an Executive Fellow in the White House S&T Policy during Clinton administration. Following his voluntary retirement in 2014, he and his wife co-founded a US-based NGO, Vidya Gyan, to serve rural India toward education, health, and empowerment of girls and overall development. An Indian at heart, his passion for writing has no boundaries. This includes policy, politics and people, and social/cultural activities promoting community engagement. Currently, he is the Brand Ambassador for Times of India and frequently blogs on Linkedin on various topics.

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