Mumbai: As the COVID-19 pandemic hit India in March 2020, schools across the country were completely shut down. “Zoom classes” were held irrespective of internet connectivity and the availability of mobile phones and computers. Online schooling came to be accepted as a “new normal”. This replacement, however, has had a major bearing on children’s basic ability to read and comprehend. The findings of the 2022 Annual Status of Education Report, the first in four years, offer some significant takeaways.
The ASER 2022 is a nationwide citizen-led household survey that provides a snapshot of children’s schooling and learning in rural India. ASER 2022 studied almost all rural districts of India, and generated district, state and national level estimates of children’s enrolment status and foundational skills. Information about enrolment in school or preschool was collected for all children aged 3-16, and children aged 5-16 were tested one-on-one to understand their reading, arithmetic and English skills.
Among the most startling data is the steep decline in the reading ability of school children. The reading ability, the study finds, has dropped to pre-2012 levels. This drop is seen across both government and private schools in most states and among both boys and girls.
The study highlights a disturbing trend through numbers. Barring Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which already did very poorly in comparison with other states, there is a remarkable dip in the percentage of children able to read and comprehend words appropriate to the age and standard they are studying in. Bihar, which was at a 12.3% reading ability scale in 2018, has shown a marginal improvement to 12.9% in 2022. Similarly, in UP, the number has improved from 12.3 % to 16.4%.
States like Kerala and Maharashtra which have otherwise had a better educational outlook, were shown to have done poorly in the past four years. In Maharashtra, the study points out that 44.2% of surveyed children showed adequate reading ability in 2018. It has now plummeted to 26.1%. Similarly, Kerala has slid from 43.4% in 2018 to 31.6% in 2022.
While the pandemic has had a deep impact, leading to learning loss, what the ASER 2022 figures seem to suggest is that the loss is much greater in reading as compared to arithmetic.
Another reassuring trend that the study finds is the impressive decline in school dropout among both boys and girls. The pandemic-induced school closures didn’t have any bearing as far as school enrolment is concerned, the data collected by the ASER researchers indicates. Pre-COVID, the last national ASER rural field survey was conducted in 2018. That year, the all-India enrolment figure for the age group 6 to 14 was 97.2%. The 2022 data shows that this number has increased to 98.4%.
Along with rising overall enrolment in the period 2018-2022, in practically all states and for all age groups, there has been a significant shift in enrolment away from private schools into government schools. For the country as a whole (all of India rural), the percentage of all children aged 11 to 14 who are enrolled in government schools has risen from 65% in 2018 to 71.7% in 2022.
The private tuition incidence which remained flat at about 25% for many years, saw a sharp rise of almost 40% in 2021. In 2022, it came down to 30%, yet higher than in 2018. While the average doesn’t seem as alarming, individual states give a clearer picture of the impact.
Bihar and Jharkhand are high tuition states – 70% of children in Bihar and 45% in Jharkhand were taking tuition classes in 2022, the study finds. In Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra, 10% and 15% students are availing private tuitions, respectively.
Private tuitions are a direct commentary on the education imparted in schools. The higher number of children enrolling in private tuition, however, does not necessarily correspond to their parent’s capacity to pay. Among the very poor population too, there is an increase in the numbers. If anything, this is a reflection of the parents’ desperation to impart better education to their children.
ASER has also made school-level observations to see how accessible education is to students. One of the most common phenomena that the study captures is small and multi-grade classrooms.
The proportion of government schools with less than 60 students enrolled has increased every year over the last decade. Nationally, this figure was 17.3% in 2010, 24% in 2014, 29.4% in 2018, and stands at 29.9% in 2022. The states with the highest proportion of small schools in 2022 include Himachal Pradesh (81.4%) and Uttarakhand (74%). However, some states show a decrease in the fraction of small schools, such as Uttar Pradesh (from 10.4% in 2018 to 7.9% in 2022) and Kerala (from 24.1% in 2018 to 16.2% in 2022).
The proportion of multigrade Std II and Std IV classrooms also shows a steady increase over the past decade. For example, the proportion of Std II classrooms observed to be sitting with children from other grade(s) was 54.8% in 2010, 61.6% in 2014, 62.4% in 2018, and stands at 65.5% in 2022. Increases over 2018 levels are visible in Gujarat (from 50.9% in 2018 to 69.3% in 2022) and Chhattisgarh (from 71.3% in 2018 to 79.5% in 2022), among others.
After the pandemic, the general fear was that economic stress might lead to children dropping out of school but this has not happened. Instead, the already low proportion of not-enrolled children in the 6-14 age group has halved from 2.8% to 1.6% over four years. Another change is that a very large proportion of children have moved from private schools to government schools. An increase in government school enrolment is visible for almost every state in the country, the study finds. The study shows that not just the enrolment but the attendance too has improved in the last four years.
In this study, ASER introduced a new component – the availability of facilities in pre-schools. Since this was the first time this was done, there is no baseline to compare the data with. But the corresponding enrolment data suggests that the proportion of young children enrolled in government school-based preschool classes is only a fraction of those going either to AWCs or to private LKG/UKG classes. Further, across all states in the country, this proportion has increased significantly only in Himachal Pradesh (from 3.1% of 3-6-year-olds in 2018 to 11.6% in 2022).
Nationally, the report suggests, small improvements are visible in all Right to Education-related indicators over 2018 levels. An important component here is useable toilets for girl students. The fraction of schools with useable girls’ toilets increased from 66.4% in 2018 to 68.4% in 2022, the study has found. Similarly, the proportion of schools with drinking water available increased from 74.8% to 76%, and the proportion of schools with books other than textbooks being used by students increased from 36.9% to 44% over the same period.