India’s learning poverty has shot up, says World Bank official

Post-COVID learning for children should be accelerated, says World Bank’s Global Director for Education Jaime Saavedra.

April 10, 2022 03:13 pm | Updated April 16, 2022 09:55 am IST

World Bank’s Global Director for Education Jaime Saavedra.

World Bank’s Global Director for Education Jaime Saavedra. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

World Bank’s Global Director for Education Jaime Saavedra was in India last week to meet Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and governments of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh to discuss concerns over learning losses for children due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for concerted efforts to bridge these gaps. In a sit-down interview with Jagriti Chandra, he talks about the impact of school closures in India, the need for re-enrollment campaigns, and reassessment of learning levels as schools reopen after a gap of two years and calls for investment in education technology to complement classroom teaching.

What was the agenda of your visit to India?

We met the Minister of Education [Dharmendra Pradhan] to share with him that as the World Bank we emphasise a lot on the work that is needed both globally and in different countries and to bridge the learning losses due to the impact of the pandemic on the education systems all over the world. Globally, we were living in a learning crisis even before the pandemic. Now, with this gigantic shock we have had of two years of children out of school there has been a dramatic effect on their learning and their well-being. Obviously, they share these concerns and we will continue working with them in order to accelerate the learning process. We visited Gujarat, which is doing a lot of progress on how to accelerate the process of learning recovery. We visited their command and control centre where they monitor both teachers and students to see how they can better support them. Then we were in U.P. to visit schools and in Delhi we had meetings with NGOs and think tanks. This is in the context of the very large support of the World Bank to India which includes a portfolio of  $2.1 billion to the country.

What is your assessment of the impact COVID-19 has had on education in India?

We see the impacts of the pandemic in all countries, but definitely much more in countries in which the closures have been the longest such as in South Asia and Latin America. According to our learning poverty calculation, we have found that if before the pandemic about 53% of children were not able to read a simple text by the age of 10, which is already a crisis, unfortunately with the pandemic this has shot up to 70%. In India, learning poverty has shot up from 54% to 70%. We don’t have real data, these are simulations.

According to Pratham’s ASER survey, in rural Karnataka the share of grade 3 students in government schools able to perform simple subtraction fell from 24% in 2018 to 16% in 2020. We have seen that roughly what has been lost was the equivalent of the extent of the school closures.

In Sao Paulo, one year after the pandemic there was a reduction in the scores in both learning and mathematics that took the kids of the State back to the level they were in 2011. That’s a learning loss of 10 years. That’s a worry for all of us.

That is why we need to worry about making sure that we don’t create inter-generational inequality. If we don’t do something now this generation will be harmed compared to the previous and the next generation just because they were born in specific years and were between five and 18 years. If we don’t do something now, this generation will have lower productivity, lower earnings, lower well-being in the future and that is what we need to avoid.

How can schools work to bridge learning gaps?

The first action is to open schools. Most countries by now have opened schools but still there are those that have only opened partially. However, that schools are open doesn’t mean automatically kids are coming back. We need to reach every child to ensure that all of them re-enroll. We need very aggressive enrollment campaigns, communication campaigns at [both] the macro-level such as the national and State-level as well as community-level so that they take action to ensure that they bring kids back to school [as] many kids are by now working, or doing household choresThe second key action is to assess learning to know where kids are today. Third, we need to prioritise teaching the fundamentalsMany countries have very rich and dense curriculum with many subjects, but we need to make sure that at least in the beginning children are focusing on the fundamentals. Fourth, we need to increase catch-up learning which will require very effective instructional time. [To achieve this] teachers will require a lot of support to be able to group students within the classroom not according to the grade or according to the age, but according to where they are. And finally, we really need to work on emotional support for both children and teachers.

Surveys have shown that many students have been forced to withdraw from private schools and enrol in government schools because of decline in household incomes. But there are vast quality gaps in private and public schools. How can governments respond to this transition?

This is something we see globally. Two things have happened _ small private schools have closed, and parents don’t have resources to pay. This has put more pressure on government schools. This could be a mixed blessing. Government and private schools will have to increase the quality of their offer in order to cover the needs of these children and increase resources or increase efficiency of their resources or a mix of both.

In response to the pandemic, there is a major thrust by the Indian government on digital literacy. But given that there are issues in access resulting in widening of losses for those on the margins, is this a step in the right direction?

The fact that education television and radio came back after being abandoned for many years is a good development. We need such resilient systems because we don’t know what the next natural disaster is going to be. On the digital front, educational technology in general has the potential to be a great equaliser, but it is still a divider around the world. This divide has to be closed by all countries by investing in not the software or the hardware but the entire ecosystem. But investing in educational technology by itself is not a solution. The pandemic has taught us that the magic of learning happens in the interactions between students and teachers which will never be replaced by technology. But technology to complement the human factor to make the work of teachers more impactful and effective.

While there have been calls for greater budgetary allocation for education to overcome challenges due to COVID-19, but in a situation where that is lacking, what is the way out?

In many cases, the first line of action is spending the money you have and being impactful and efficient in spending that. Now globally though we need more resources going into education per student, but [lack of increased allocations] can be an excuse. In the short run, we need to be more impactful and focused on learning of children. 

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