By Sudarshan Kasbe
Education is accepted as a fundamental right across the world and it has been advocated at international level to provide free access to quality education. At the national level, a constitutional commitment to education has paved a way for a robust education system both symbolically and practically. In Indian context we have accepted education as a fundamental right and there are safety guards to ensure that everyone gets access to education. At the times of independence when the country was going through turmoil of separation and lack of resource the enrollment number was very low. in 1950-51 total institutions in India was around 7416 where as enrollment of boys 13 lakhs compared to 2 lakh of girls across all section primary secondary and higher secondary.
Now after almost 73 years the situation has changed to a large extent. With almost half of the population of youth in this country India has roughly 367 universities, 18,000 colleges, about half a million teachers, and 11 million pupils involved in education sectors. The higher education system of the country is one of the largest in the world with 36.64 million enrollments. When the Covid 19 stopped the world, the closure of schools was sudden. Across the world, there were announcements, and within a month of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the Covid-19 pandemic, 91% of the world’s student population found itself at home. In India, schools had less than 24 hours to figure out how to respond to the closure notice. School leaders, who were used to government orders, were faced with the need to make independent instant decisions - Go online? Use an app? Let go? Lie low? And this decision had to be made in the absence of any definitive information - just how long would the lockdown last? A week? a fortnight? Would it be like the usual school closures for pollution or a heat wave? By the end of March 2020, 32 crore students in India lost access to education for an indefinite period of time. An access that had been enabled with the greatest difficulty over that last 40 years, by incrementally creating the second-largest school system in the world that provided every child with a primary school within a kilometer from their homes. This situation is completely different from 70 years ago when we began to formulate a system that favoured a few students going to school. At that time our problem was defined as one of low access. Over the last 50 years, we developed nation-wide programmes to get most of our children into primary school, only to realize that we were losing them by the 1st, 5th and then the 8th grades.
The Right to Education Act 2009 brought in a focus on the quality of education provision. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) reports continued to reveal the agonizing impoverishment in the academic achievement of the students in spite of - and in my view, due to - a narrow examination focus in schools. Our policymakers acknowledged that the problem lay in the quality of the schooling experience. Consultations were held to develop a bold new education policy that would address the needs of the second largest and youngest population in the world. We appeared to be on the cusp of big transformations in the school system.
At this critical juncture, Covid19 swept like a malicious twist in the tale into an unprepared world and an even less prepared India. Governments worldwide scrambled to understand the implications of this illness seeking to buy time to flatten the curve with the singular aim to save their citizens and make it possible for their healthcare systems to cope with the burgeoning numbers. A list of essential services was made. This list identified what was really important in a state of extreme emergency. Sadly, education didn’t make that list in India. In other countries, it did. New Zealand rapidly provided teacher training to enable teaching staff and devices to students who did not have them. Singapore too provided iPads and laptops to their children if they could not afford one; children who could not stay at home and undertake distance learning are still able to go to school with all the social distancing protocol in place - every child’s education process is accounted for, even this 1% of the student population who either cannot afford digital devices and data or their parents are serving the nation as part of essential services. Ministry of Education staff is seen going to work in Singapore as they come under essential services.
Every country that could has transitioned to online teaching and learning. The governments are creating special budgets and education frameworks to facilitate this new learning model where access to digital technology and competent teachers to keep the students constructively occupied is the new normal. These governments realized a while back that this investment is urgently needed as the Covid catastrophe is not a transient, short-term malady. If not Covid, it could be another. (Anand, 2020)
Indian education system which is one of the largest education systems in the world is bound to have challenges. Given the extraordinarily large and complex educational system prevalent in India, it is perhaps difficult to bring new changes in the entire system. Also it is difficult for an outsider person to intervene and affect the curriculum to a large extent. A systematic approach where the system takes the lead and work on providing solutions can be a way forward but for the capacity building of the system need to take place.
As far as India is concerned we have been able to provide the option of distance learning where doordarshan and all India radio is providing educational content through their regional channels across the country on TV, Radio and YouTube. These virtual classes are helping lakhs of students, especially those in Class 10 and 12, in preparation for their board and competitive examinations, according to an official statement. But the solution is not encompassing all and there is still huge population of students which needs access and support to learn. To provide this support and access to education, states need to intervene with all possible solutions.
Manager at Education and skill training,
MA in development studies
Tata institute of social sciences Mumbai