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Locked out? Only 8% of rural poor children studying online, 37% not at all: Survey

By Rosamma Thomas*

The catastrophic consequences of the prolonged lockdown since March 2020 were documented in a recent survey of 1,400 children from underprivileged backgrounds. The survey found that only 8% of rural children were studying online regularly; 37% are not studying at all. Most parents want schools to reopen soon, as half the children surveyed could barely read.
Primary and upper primary schools in India have been shut for 500 days now, and as expected, the disruption has caused many children to forget even what they had learnt.
“During this period, a small minority of privileged children were able to study online in the safety of their homes. The rest, however, were locked out of school without further ado. Some struggled to continue studying, online or offline. Many others gave up and spent time milling around the village or basti…” the report announcing this survey, which was conducted in August 2021 in 15 states and union territories – Assam, Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal -- said.
The survey was conducted by volunteers, mostly university students, who focused on hamlets and bastis where most children attend the local government school. A total of 1,362 households were part of this survey, with 60% of the sample coming from Dalit or Adivasi families. A full 98 percent of parents from SC/ST groups wanted schools to reopen without delay. In Latehar district of Jharkhand, the survey team was asked by higher caste group members, “If these people get educated, who will work in our fields?”
The survey results showed that smartphones were scarce and often needed by adults at work; when there were several children in the house, the smaller ones often did not have access to the phones. Only 9% of schoolchildren surveyed had their own phone. Many of the children who did have access to the phone found online classes harder to follow and more difficult to comprehend, given they had trouble concentrating.
Even when the children had the phone, some families reported that they did not have the money to pay for “data”. A majority of the households also reported connectivity troubles. Two thirds of urban parents whose children were able to access schooling online said their children appeared to have fallen behind, with reading and writing skills declining. Even children in grades 6-8 struggled to read a simple sentence in Hindi fluently. “To some extent, the dismal results reflect the poor quality of schooling prior to the lockdown,” the survey report,  titled "Locked Out: Emergency report on School Education", said.
Many of the children who did have access to the phone found online classes harder to follow and more difficult to comprehend
For those unable to access classes online, there was little evidence that children were doing any offline studying at all. “Children’s reading and writing abilities have been in freefall…” the report states. Among the better off in the sample, there were a few students taking private offline tuitions. “TV based education, for its part, seems to be a flop show,” the report notes. Only one percent of rural and 8% of urban children had seen these broadcasts.
What the survey found remarkable was the length to which some teachers had gone to continue classes – some of them were meeting children in small groups, holding classes at their homes or elsewhere. Some teachers were visiting children at home. These were small gestures, unable to make up for the vast lacunae in the whole education system during lockdown.
Twenty six percent of the sample were children who had transferred to government school from a private school, after parents were reluctant to pay fees for online classes alone or had trouble meeting the fee-paying requirement. Some parents were still struggling to transfer their children, unable to get the required transfer certificate without paying the whole dues in fees.
Midday meals had been discontinued and grains were distributed to students; parents complained that they were not getting the full quota they were entitled to. Twenty percent of children in urban settings had not received either food or cash transfer during the lockdown.
“The fig leaf of online education masked the elephant of school exclusion for the best of 17 months. The fact that this monumental injustice remained virtually unquestioned for so long is a telling indictment of India’s exclusionary democracy,” the report notes.
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*Freelance journalist based in Pune

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