‘Pandemic may have increased learning poverty, help children adjust first’


As offline classes resume in schools across the country, Central Square Foundation (CSF) founder Ashish Dhawan, who works closely with the Centre and many states on addressing foundational learning gaps, believes authorities should help children adjust before picking up textbooks.

Dhawan, who is also a founding member of the Ashoka University, is currently setting up Convergence Foundation, which will work across many areas in the social sector, including women empowerment and air pollution, by setting up organisations along the lines of CSF, which primarily works on school education.

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He spoke to Sourav Roy Barman on a variety of topics, including the government’s NIPUN Bharat programme, which CSF helped develop and implement, foundational learning deficiencies deepened by the pandemic and higher education reforms announced by the UGC. Excerpts:

Before the pandemic, you had cited a World Bank report to say that 55 per cent of India’s 10-year-old children lack foundational learning skills, which is classified as learning poverty. What has been the impact of the pandemic?

The percentage may have risen to 65 per cent now. The question is how to bring it down to 20-30 per cent over the next decade? We know learning is breaking down early and we have to go to Class I, II, III. If you can’t do basic math, addition, subtraction, then how do you do fractions in class IV or V? How do you do algebra in class V or VI? So these are basic foundational skills that every child needs to master by the end of class II. The committee that drafted the National Education Policy (NEP) understood this and said in the report that this should be India’s top priority in school education and should be pushed in mission mode. And then the National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy (NIPUN) Bharat programme was launched.

How does NIPUN Bharat work?

It will prioritise foundational learning in a large public system. So for classes I, I and III, the government has created a separate project, where it will pay for all the teaching-learning material, teacher professional development assessment. The Centre also sets goals and objectives and handles the monitoring aspect. The implementation is done by the states. The CSF has MoUs with 12 states. We have project management units that work at the state level. So it’s a team of people who work with the Department of Education on foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN).

NEP helped institutionalise FLN at a time when the pandemic was not on the horizon. But as children return to school after a long gap, what are the interventions required to help them cope?

States have a four-six month catch up. So, the idea is to keep the textbooks aside for the time being. Right now, if a child is in class III, the truth is he never attended school in class I or II. So in the first few months, teach them the most basic concepts. Then only do we even open the class textbook and then in the next six months, the goal should be to catch up with the key concepts.

Should NIPUN be redesigned to address the specific needs arising out of the interruption caused by the pandemic?

No, I don’t think so. The NIPUN goals remain the same. Within NIPUN, each team needs to do some catching up. We will still do formative assessment, have a teacher guide with lesson plans, have a workbook, need reading material in the classroom and need a math kit to make it easier for kids to understand abstract concepts in complete form. So I don’t think NIPUN needs to be redesigned, because it is a scheme for the next five years. Within NIPUN, the Centre has told the states to take their time to catch up.

During the pandemic, we saw schools were the first to close and last to open.

I think that mindset will change now. People have to internalise that life has to go on even if you face the next Omicron. I was in New York for Christmas, New Years and kids had to go back to school in January when Omicron was raging in the US. There is no greater risk in opening schools and our policymakers now need to internalise that because what we didn’t do early on is any form of cost benefit analysis. We should have started school earlier. If you do a cost-benefit analysis, there is a risk, but the cost of keeping kids at home for two years is not being measured and it’s an impact on a whole generation of kids. So, I think people will internalise now that we can’t do this again.

The latest UDISE report has shown a sharp drop in private school enrolment and rise in government school enrolment. What does this indicate?

That is purely an economic thing. The temptation of English and accountability lure parents into sending their kids to private schools. And normally, you need income above a certain threshold to do it. So, if your income has been hit, that’s one reason. That’s the demand shock. Covid also had a supply shock, where schools were shut for so long and there was no revenue. They couldn’t justify charging. They couldn’t do zoom classes. Top league private schools could justify saying they are holding zoom classes. As a result, parents were not willing to pay. So, many private schools even closed down. So you have both a supply shock, like we have with many MSMEs, and you have a demand shock. It is not for CBSE schools, not for the high-end schools. It’s all at the very, very low end of the sector.

Do you think the dropout rate may have risen?

It’s definitely been an issue. My hope is that the dropouts will not increase dramatically. My assumption is that there may be a couple of percentage points increase in dropouts in the near term, but I think it will eventually reverse itself.

How is Ashoka University adopting the gradual rollout of NEP in the form of four-year undergraduate courses or common entrance test among others?

We always wanted four-year courses. For us, FYUP is a blessing. In terms of CUET, we will have to see what the test looks like. For us to have yet another good external benchmark is not a bad thing. Board exams, I agree there has been a lot of grade inflation. But one will have to wait and see how it looks.

Last year around this time, Ashoka University saw two profile exits — Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian. Mehta later said the founders found him a “political liability”. What went wrong?

I can’t comment. It was their decision. A couple of them left, but we still have 150 faculty members. If they believe that we interfere with their day-to-day functioning… all of them are high-profile people and you should speak to them individually. They will tell you they have more freedom at Ashoka, whether it is in terms of designing courses, interaction with students or what they say and write. We have not had any mass exit, neither from a faculty perspective, nor from students. Our applications have seen 30 per cent rise ever year. The institution is still strong and continues to be a leading choice of students.

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