About 20% of rural children have no textbooks at home, according to the Annual State of Education Report (ASER) survey conducted in September, the sixth month of school closures due to COVID-19 across the country. In Andhra Pradesh, less than 35% of children had textbooks, and only 60% had textbooks in Rajasthan. More than 98% had textbooks in West Bengal, Nagaland and Assam.
In the week of the survey, about one in three rural children had done no learning activity at all. About two in three had no learning materials or activity given by their school that week, and only one in ten had access to live online classes. It’s not always about technology; in fact, levels of smartphone ownership have almost doubled from 2018, but a third of children with smartphone access still did not receive any learning materials.
Although the Centre has now permitted States to start reopening schools if they can follow COVID-19 safety protocols, the vast majority of the country’s 25 crore students are still at home after seven straight months. The ASER survey provides a glimpse into the levels of learning loss that students in rural India are suffering, with varying levels of access to technology, school and family resources resulting in a digital divide in education.
ASER is a nationwide survey of rural education and learning outcomes in terms of reading and arithmetic skills that has been conducted by the NGO Pratham for the last 15 years. This year, the survey was conducted via phone calls, reaching 52,227 rural households with school age children in 30 States and Union Territories.
It found that 5.3% of rural children aged 6-10 years had not yet enrolled in school this year, in comparison to just 1.8% in 2018. This seems to indicate that due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, families are waiting for the physical opening of schools to enrol their youngest children, with about 10% of six-year-olds not in school. Among 15-16-year-olds, however, enrolment levels are actually slightly higher than in 2018. Enrolment patterns also show a slight shift toward government schools, with private schools seeing a drop in enrolment in all age groups.
In 2018, ASER surveyors found that about 36% of rural households with school-going children had smartphones. By 2020, that figure had spiked to 62%. About 11% of families bought a new phone after the lockdown, of which 80% were smartphones.
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This may indicate why WhatsApp was by far the most popular mode of transmitting learning materials to students, with 75% of students who got some input receiving it via the messaging app. About a quarter of those who got input had personal contact with a teacher.
However, two thirds of rural children nationwide reported that they had not received any learning materials or activities at all. In Bihar, less than 8% got such materials from their schools, along with 20% in West Bengal, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. On the other hand, more than 80% of rural children in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Kerala and Gujarat received such input.
Many children did learning activities on their own, with or without regular input. Of the 70% who did some activities, 11% had access to live online classes, and 21% had videos or recorded classes, with much higher levels in private schools. About 60% studied from their textbooks, and 20% watched classes broadcast on TV. In Andhra Pradesh, half of all children did no learning activity at all, while in Kerala, only 5% of children were left out.
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Parental levels of education and resources played a key role in whether children studied at home. About 20% of children whose parents had less than five years of education got learning materials, compared to 46% among parents who had studied beyond Class IX themselves. Almost 40% in low education households got no materials and did no learning, compared to 17% of high education families. However, almost 40% of low education families persevered and did some learning activities even without receiving any learning materials at all, the survey found.
“When schools re-open, it will be important to continue to monitor who goes back to school, and very importantly to understand whether there is learning loss as compared to previous years,” said ASER. Noting that 80% of families provided learning support to children, whether from parents or elder siblings, ASER recommended that schools find ways to build on that home support going forward.