State of adolescent learning 

ASER highlights the dismal picture of online education

April 12, 2022 12:25 am | Updated 12:59 am IST

Representational image

Representational image | Photo Credit: PICHUMANI K

Over the last few decades in India, there has been a massive government drive to push for universal enrolment, extending to secondary as well as primary school children. Successive Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) have shown that this drive has been largely successful for both age groups, with high enrolment rates even during the pandemic. Despite two years of COVID-related school closures, the increase in unenrolled 11–14-year-olds has been marginal, while the number of out-of-school 15–16-year-olds has actually fallen, for both boys and girls. This indicates that schools have been able to retain children beyond primary school. This is remarkable, because children are now enrolled beyond the age of compulsory education, and enrolment rates show almost no gender disparity. But enrolment is only one piece of the puzzle.

Absence of formal learning

Although efforts have been made by parents, teachers and governments, learning at home through online education during the pandemic has been far from successful for these children. ASER 2020 and 2021 brought to light a dismal picture of access to technology-based learning resources. Even though over 70% of children in Classes IX to XII had a smartphone at home, only about 35% of them could use it for studies at all times, while 17% could not use it at all. In the absence of formal schooling, family members often assumed the task of teaching. The ASER reports show adolescents did not fare well — older children received less learning support as compared to younger ones.

Additionally, some children — especially older girls — faced competing demands due to financial stress and increased requirement of care work at home. Even in 2017, ASER had reported that almost 90% of female youth aged 14-18 did housework on a daily basis, compared to three-fourth of male youth. According to the Building Back Better report by UNICEF, school closures exacerbated girls’ and women’s unpaid care work, limiting the time available to learn at home. During COVID-19, girls might have had to replace the work done by the missing caregiver, or simply because of gendered expectations. ASER 2021 data hints at the same. When asked if any child in the household above 12 years of age had started helping out more with household chores since the lockdown, almost two thirds of the respondents reported in the affirmative. In all age categories, girls were more likely than boys to be taking on this additional burden. For example, about three quarters of 15-year-old girls had started helping out more with chores since the lockdown, a figure which was more than 10 percentage points higher than 15-year-old boys.

Gender disparity

Gender disparity at home may have been aggravated in the pandemic, but it is not new. ASER 2017 had found that 14–18-year-old youth’s aspirations were gendered, with most male youth mentioning ‘Army/Police’ and ‘Engineer’, while female youth preferred ‘Teacher’ and ‘Doctor/Nurse’ as their occupation. The kind of work children did during lockdowns shows that they are exposed to gendered expectations from a young age. A study using ASER, India Human Development Survey and National Family Health Survey data suggests that long before the pandemic, gender disparity had started spilling over into learning outcomes too. The study found that female disadvantage persists in mathematics learning outcomes over the last decade, and shows no signs of disappearing. The study correlates this finding with “regressive household practices” that limit the autonomy of women (such as veiling of the face by women, and the practice of women eating after men), and finds that female disadvantage in mathematics learning is higher where there is higher prevalence of such practices.

All of this points to an eminent need to integrate gender sensitisation modules into curricula for adolescents’ education. School-based gender sensitisation programmes can play a transformative role in ensuring that all children get an equitable environment to grow. For example, an attitude change programme in Haryana run by Breakthrough and evaluated by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) showed promising results, with participants exhibiting gender-equitable behaviours even two years after the programme ended. It was centred around interactive classroom discussions about gender equality in secondary schools. Scaling up such programmes for all schools and States could help bring about more gender-progressive views among communities.

With schools reopening, a gender-equitable environment for their growth should be prioritised. As the world begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic, this is an opportunity to rebuild better — one which should not be missed.

(Disha Trivedi is a research associate at ASER Centre)

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