Let me begin with an acknowledgement that this has been a hard time. Everyone is trying to navigate the pandemic and its uninvited challenges the best we can. Stresses of the pandemic have been felt by everyone alive – including every child, student, teacher and parent. However, this paper will focus on challenges in India’s government school education. What did the lockdown mean for the crores of children enrolled in these schools, that represent the poor and marginalized of our nation? How has 18 months (1.5 years) of school closures and disrupted learning impacted the lives of these children and their families? What will this mean for their future hopes? In this paper, I attempt to survey the impacts of the pandemic. We will then enquire on whether and why this should even concern Christ-followers, and we will conclude with reflections on how we can potentially respond.
Impacts of the pandemic on government school education
- Locked out and dropped off
In July 2020, UNESCO estimated that 24 million children and youth globally will drop out of education.1 This crisis was expected to exacerbate pre-existing disparities and reduce opportunities for the vulnerable (poor, girls, rural, refugees, persons with disabilities etc.). By this time, in India, we had already seen the overnight national lockdown, the reverse migration exodus of walking migrants including the exhausted girl sleeping on a trolley bag dragged by her mother.2 Empty school buildings had become shelters for the homeless.3 In August 2020, Delhi Deputy CM Manish Sisodia announced that 15% of students enrolled in the state’s government schools were already “untraceable”.4
Tatwashil Kamble, a Child Welfare Committee (CWC) member in rural Maharashtra sums up what happened, “Parents struggling financially in the pandemic have responded in one of two ways to their child being at home. If it’s a boy, he has been forced into child labour. For a girl, it is child marriage.”5 Personally, in our own work, I’ve been in classroom after classroom, in Tamil Nadu, where teachers reported that their students were now working in brick kilns. Young men were losing urban livelihoods and returning to villages, the economic stresses and the added anxieties of an early Covid-19 death meant that many in rural India hastened the marriages of their girls.6
India already had over 3-crore (30 million) children classified as out-of-school children (OOSCs) and Dr. Niranjanaradhya from the National Law School, Bangalore predicted this will double in a year within six months of school closures. He said, “We are already seeing children especially in rural areas helping their parents in MNREGA schemes. The longer the gap in learning, the more disinterested they get and eventually exit the education system. It’s dangerous.”7 Now with 18 months of closures, one can only wait in dread for the numbers to become clear once schools reopen completely.
But why are so many dropping out? Didn’t former Union Minister Prakash Javadekar assure the nation that no child was deprived of online education during the pandemic?8
- Lost in between and Cut off
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2020 – Wave 1), reported that a mere 8.1% of children in rural areas enrolled in government schools have attended live online classes and only 18.3 percent have accessed video recordings. What happened to the others? Were they uninterested? The thing to note is that access to online education depends on many things we take completely for granted: (i) Physical infrastructure (electricity supply, study space); (ii) Electronic devices (access to smartphones, TV, etc.); and (iii) access to the Internet. While India, officially, has achieved 100%-electrification in its rural districts, only 47% households even received electricity over 12 hours a day in 2017-18.9 Smartphone ownership in rural India was only 36.5% pre-pandemic and this increased to 61.8% in 2020, even as families purchased smartphones for their children’s education.10 Finally, only 24% households have access to the Internet, and this drops to 15% in rural regions. So, let’s say, you crossed those barriers – you have electricity, manage to procure a smart-phone and you have internet access, then there is the question of if you will find relevant learning content in a language you understand and whether your teacher has been able to cross her barriers!
Imagine a teacher in this setting – how does s/he transition to online teaching? Without adequate training, without the needed infrastructure and guidance, teachers have struggled to deliver education through remote mediums.11 Yet again, blame is assigned on the incompetency and lack of commitment of government school teachers, but it is hard to overstate the odds they were up against. A recent report tabled in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s parliament,12 clarified that only 11.58% schools in the country even have internet facilities. A project to provide internet connectivity for schools in 2.5 lakh gram panchayats is ongoing and is likely to take another two years! And while all this was going on, compulsory duty for teachers in UP’s panchayat polls in April 2021 led to the death of over 1600 teachers.13 And isn’t it strange that in such a time, the MHRD budget for digital e-learning was reduced from Rs. 604 crore in 2019-20 to Rs. 469 crore in 2020-21?14 Still, many teachers have surprised us all, finding creative ways to continue student learning. In the early days of the pandemic, one of the teachers in our network was sending night-time stories to her children as audio notes, to reassure them and help them make sense of what was happening. Another teacher in the middle of lockdown, started to use her alumni (with learning devices) as community volunteers to reach out to children within a refugee camp. Such inspiring examples have been everywhere and reported on the news15 16 17 but even heroic teachers couldn’t overcome this tragic digital divide – suddenly, a child who did not have access to technology also did not have access to education. The basic right to education, a constitutional aspiration and what looked like, had been achieved, was yet again now out of the reach of most. No wonder economist Jean Dreze calls online education the fig leaf that is attempting to mask the elephant of school exclusion.18
- Left Behind and asked to catch-up
Given all that has happened in the last 18 months, isn’t it interesting that there is now a clamour for the reopening of schools? An alternative academic calendar was made ready, the curriculum was trimmed, and new study guides have been published for the revised syllabus. Guidelines on how children can sit on their chairs while learning online were released. Many of our children privileged to have an online education have completed a whole academic year. Most of us in the cities have completed two rounds of the vaccine, and who knows what the rates of vaccination of rural India and teachers are, it is surely the time for us now to reopen schools!?
Let’s take a moment to think about what’s happening with the children. Earlier this year, the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF) interviewed19 nearly 2,137 students from all TN’s districts. They found that 56% of the children who were even able to attend online classes or watch the State’s education channel (Kalvi TV) said they didn’t understand these classes. So, apart from all the barriers discussed so far, there was the barrier of if these online classes were even working. Now, you may think, is this all really a problem? Aren’t our children happier with less pressure to study? Some researchers had this same question – will there be a long-term impact of learning loss? Or will children make up for their lost-learning automatically over time? This is what they found: If today, a child in Grade 3 loses half a year of schooling, by the time they reach Grade 10, if nothing is done, this child will roughly lose an estimated 1.5 years!20 Imagine this child who will be years behind, when they compete for the same college seats and jobs, will he or she really have an equal chance? There is much talk about learning loss during the pandemic, but it needs to be recognized that there are many kinds of learning losses:
- There is learning loss because of the learning being missed as students were cut off from online education.
- There is learning loss because of learning being forgotten. A landmark study by Azim Premji University covering over 16000 students in 5 states found that nearly all (92%) children have lost at least one language ability and 82% children have lost at least one mathematical ability in this time.21 This is dangerous, as this loss of foundational learning, will weaken all future education. Every new learning will be like building a house on a shaky foundation.
- There is also a third kind of learning loss less spoken about – it is learning lost as collateral damage with an environment conducive to learning. A recent study with 821 children to understand children’s experiences during the pandemic noted that: 41.7% children reported being worried. Nearly 24% children worried about contracting Covid. 26% children stressed about finances at their home. And most worryingly, 33.1% children showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).22 As you may know, PTSD is a condition triggered by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. It’s what soldiers experience in the middle of a war or what is experienced in a traumatic event such as a terrorist attack. Every teacher or parent knows what the scientist of learning also knows: when your child or student is worried or distressed or experiencing difficult emotions, they are unable to focus on learning. What about the trauma children have experienced in the past 18 months? Learning can really only start once a conducive environment of safety and engagement is created between teachers and children.
While all this is happening, there are national literacy targets being set. This is an important development to consolidate efforts to improve student foundational learning quality nationally.23 However, this is surely not the time to jump into testing and rating our children’s competencies. Given all that has happened, is it really surprising that learning has been lost? There is a need to approach this compassionately while taking into account the complex and difficult experiences children and teachers have undergone in the last 18 months. Leo Casey speaks about the dangers in only seeing like a state, where like entire geographies get reduced into maps, and lines on them, education systems can get reduced to lifeless data about learning levels.24 While national and state-level literacy targets and large-scale assessments are an important piece of the overall work of improving public education, the focus right now should also be on rebuilding the essential teacher-child classroom relationships and the conducive safe, engaging environment that fosters learning. This is not the time for us to get too obsessed with how we perform in the upcoming PISA (Programme for International Students Assessment) test.25 Unless our demand for reopening schools is accompanied by a real commitment to enable every child everywhere to access quality education, to build resilient education systems, that are committed to undo the damage of the last 1.5 years and beyond, this will be nothing more than just another fig leaf.
Why all this matters?
Perhaps as you take all this in, you question what “the government” or “the church” is doing about it. Or maybe you even wonder, whether this is really something for the church to be concerned about. Doesn’t the church have more “spiritual” matters to be concerned about? I want to invite you to take these questions to a careful study of scripture. The Bible places the responsibility of education not solely on the State or the school, but also in the family and the faith community.26 27 It contains guidelines on how each generation is to raise up the next.28 29 Biblical revelation displays God’s powerful heart for justice, and is clear about God’s displeasure at any stumbling block in the journey of a little child.30 God stands against any attitude, system, policy, belief or mind-set that doesn’t give every last one of God’s children the equal opportunity to learn, grow and thrive. We all know what Jesus thought about the Pharisees who used their knowledge to exclude the weak and the marginalized. I like to think that Jesus and Paul cared about the education systems of their time, which is why they walked into synagogues often, and their ideas entered the blood-stream and mainstream discourse of their times. It shaped learning, and in that way, shaped culture. Our mandate to love our neighbour and pray for the peace of our nation, must include a mandate to work towards an education system that offers every child an equal opportunity to learn, grow and thrive.
Consider a parent with two children. The son goes to school to learn. The girl child is told to stay home and work. What will happen as the years pass? One of them will find opportunities the other is unable to access anymore. The spill-over effects of this learning imbalance will be seen in how their personalities develop, their confidence, and their ability to speak up for themselves. This is awfully unjust and the kind of stumbling block the Bible talks about – how can you let one flourish while another withers? Now – remember this is playing out in a million ways all around you. Just consider the children within a 1 km radius of where you are now. Some flourish, even while others wither. There are all kinds of reasons to wither – learning difficulties, poverty, trauma, gender violence to name a few. As a society, we seem to ignore or worse accelerate the withering, even while we congratulate the flourishing. If you’re a pastor, think of all the people in your church. If you are a teacher or school leader, think of all the children in your classroom or school. Isn’t it true that some are withering, even while others flourish despite what we profess as our commitment to justice and equity?
Intuitively, we believe education must make a difference. Somehow every child in my classroom, irrespective of their life circumstances, childhood experiences or status, must get a reasonably equal shot at life. And we believe every child in our nation, irrespective of caste, religion, tribe, history, geography, or economics, must get a reasonably equal shot at life, because they all have a right to education and an intrinsic value, dignity and purpose as God’s children. This is the vision and work of education equity, in which all of us have a role to play.
We have delved into many challenges facing school education today. What can you and I do in response?
- First, shift your own mind-set and challenge the dominant discourse. This dominant discourse blames the poor for their poverty and parents & teachers for the quality of government schools and student learning, without recognizing the odds stacked up against them. Resolve to not cooperate with this narrative. Refuse to share around videos that mocks the English of a rural teacher. Refuse to use your own educational accomplishments to look down on any of God’s children. Remember Daniel who refused to be content with a system that gave him access to the King’s table while the wine that flowed in from the blood and taxes of the dropped off, cut off and left behind of his nation.
- Secondly, the challenges outlined in this paper will need all of us to act. Take up a child in your neighbourhood, and vow to educate them and give them opportunities in a way that changes their life trajectory. If you’re a teacher, ensure every child in your classroom and school gets an equal shot and grows up a champion of equity. If you’re a school leader, ensure your school is welcoming to the poor, the traumatised, the needy and all God’s special children – surely, that’s the kind of school that Jesus would build – look at his disciples! If you are not directly involved in education, find other ways to get involved. Speak to the CSR of your company. Volunteer in an NGO. If you are already in the development sector, resist the crass careerism31 and recognize why God has placed you where you are. If you’re a journalist, write and advocate for what needs to be done. If you’re a researcher, dig deeper into what’s happening. If you’re in technology, or in project management or governance, there is tremendous scope for getting involved in the work of education equity. Start a discussion with your friends or in your church, dig deeper into this and God will surely show you what you can personally do.
- Thirdly, we need to also tap into the power of the collective. As a church, we have always had kind people who would help children with weekend tutoring. These efforts need to be consolidated and lead somewhere. Vishal Mangalwadi in his recent book The Third Education Revolution, sets out a vision for tapping into the power of the collective to transform Christian education. Could we tap into the power of the collective not just to transform Christian education but public education? Earlier in this year, I was reading a book called Hole in the Gospel, written by the former President of World Vision US, Rich Stearns. One of the chapters is titled ‘Two Percent of Two Percent’, in which he shares that only around 2% of Christians in the U.S. tithed regularly, and only around 2% of this tithe went outside the church into mission. Suddenly, you can sense an excitement in his voice, as he starts to think about the possibilities. He says that if only every churchgoer in America tithed, just that money could bring an end to world hunger, solve the clean water crisis, provide a safety net to all the world’s orphans, virtually eliminate child deaths and guarantee education for all! Let’s forget Christians in America – what do you think Christians in India could do, if we tapped into the power of our collective? Not just money, but time, energy and talents… could we ensure that every out of school child is brought back to school? Could we ensure that no child finds themselves years behind and having to catch up? Could we now turn all the blessings God has poured abundantly on us – the skills, talent, resources and knowledge – into a blessing? Could all the nations of the world be blessed because of the blessing on us?
- Finally, I believe it is time for Christ-followers to get over a minority worldview and plunge into the wide-open complex and exciting work of systemic education reform. What do I mean? What does anyone who cares about children and education within the church do? We start schools, and child-care institutions. While these are valuable, there is more that needs to be done. A recent report by the NCPCR showed that while Christians comprise 11.54% of India’s minority population, we run 71.96% schools. It is definitely a legacy to be proud of; but what is disheartening is that the report goes on to report that only 8.76% of the students in minority schools belong to socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.32 Are our schools are using its minority status to exclude the poor and the marginalized? If we really are to see equity in education, this has to be a long-term commitment for the next 15 years and more. Even the work of raising one child well is revolutionary. Imparting to one student a lifelong love of learning is a lifetime achievement. However, in the Christian world, I believe, we also need to start working with governments and policies. This is not just about partnerships with governments, but becoming their thought partners, co-designing solutions and solving the toughest challenges facing education. Says Nicole Baker Fulgham, “We’ve consciously, or subconsciously, allowed public school disparities to go largely unchecked for decades. Ironically, most people recognize the need to fix low-income public schools. Every politician laments the unfortunate failings of schools; if the topic is broached at a dinner party or picnic, most guests would agree that something isn’t working. But far fewer of us are actively engaged in rectifying the problem. As Christians, we are called to fix broken systems and restore what has been lost or been allowed to decay.”32This will need us to get our hands dirty and develop an on-ground credibility. We need to carry an authentic vision for the working of entire education systems.
This paper set out to give a brief snapshot on the challenges facing government school education in India today. This is in no way meant to be comprehensive – and I hope this paper has whet your appetite to study further, and also seek God further for what you individually and us collectively can do. May future generations look at their history and find that the people of God in this land rose up heroically and stood with its children. That with small and large efforts, this movement of Christ-followers made a lasting difference in how all future generations of children learn and are raised.
Disclaimer: The views of the author are entirely personal and may or may not be representative of any organisation he may be associated with.
Dexter Sam lives in Chennai with his wife and 3-year old son. He is passionate about the potential of education to bring deep personal, social, national and global change. He is presently a Lead Senior Manager at STiR Education, an international NGO working with education systems in India, Uganda and Indonesia. His work involves designing and implementing a programme reaching out to over 50,000 Tamil Nadu government school teachers. His academic background is in chemical engineering, social work, child rights law