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Caste or income or mother? As primary schools reopen, we need to decide who gets extra support

The pandemic-induced loss of learning in primary schools has remained unaddressed. It is the foundation for vital outcomes like employment and income.

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Several reports have recently highlighted a massive learning loss among school students during the pandemic year. But how should we decide which child gets extra support — on the basis of caste, income or some other criteria?

Schools are reopening in several states in India after Covid forced their closure for nearly one and a half years. A recent report that surveyed around 1,400 children in grades I to VIII noted that only 8 per cent of rural and 24 per cent of urban children have been studying online regularly since the pandemic began. Further, parents of 3 out of 4 children reported that they perceived a decline in their child’s ability to read. Another study covering over 16,000 children in five states, found an overwhelming majority of children between grades 2 and 6 had lost at least one language and mathematical ability since the schools closed. India’s school closures have been among one of the longest — 69 weeks compared to the global average of 34 weeks.

As the debate on whether schools should be opened or not for all grades rages on, it is vital to identify strategies that may help to overcome children’s loss of learning when the schools reopen for all. Some states such as Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh are planning bridge courses for older children. Similarly, the loss of learning at the primary school level should not remain unaddressed. Basic learning abilities developed in primary schools are the foundation for being able to absorb a high level of learning in later years and is known to influence outcomes such as employment and income.

Understanding which group of children may have experienced the maximum learning loss due to closure of schools for more than a year is, therefore, important. It may not be possible to provide extra support at schools for all children, and although a comprehensive assessment to test the learning levels would help in better targeting of support, it might face a lot of problems while implementing, given prior experience.

Also Read: School lockdowns in India have robbed a generation of upward mobility

School students who need extra support

Given that the aim is to identify children who may be most adversely affected, we group the same cohort of children by their basic numeracy and literacy skills in multiple ways. Categorisation was made based on social background (caste), school background (government or private), location (urban or rural), parental education level, and finally, income levels. We use the national-level India Human Development Survey-II (IHDS-II), 2011-12, which is a decade old but the only unit-level data available publicly, which provides learning outcomes along with socioeconomic characteristics of the children. Although dated, the trend in learning outcomes tends to be persistent without dramatic changes within a decade and hence, can be used to derive policy-relevant insights.

We estimate the proportion of children who are unable to complete the lowest level of a given age-appropriate task such as reading letters, reading numbers and writing. Such children in the current scenario are the most vulnerable in terms of the cumulative impact of school closures and this proportion could be even higher now.

Illustration by Manisha Yadav
Illustration by Manisha Yadav

Only 4 per cent of children (between 8 and 11 years) in India’s metropolitan cities could not read the letter and numbers, and around 7 per cent were unable to write. At the other extreme, at the same age, over 17 per cent of children from less-developed villages could not read and over 33 per cent could not write. In terms of the school type, all three learning outcomes were better for children in private schools compared to government schools or government-aided schools, influenced by income and education levels of parents.

Illustration by Manisha Yadav
Illustration by Manisha Yadav

Based on the caste group, children from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes have the lowest outcomes on all three parameters (figure 3). Similarly, children from the lowest consumption household (a proxy for income levels), have the lowest learning outcomes (figure 4).

Illustration by Manisha Yadav
Illustration by Manisha Yadav

Also Read: 37% students in rural areas not studying at all as schools remain shut, survey finds

Mother’s education plays a crucial role

Among all the inter-related factors that influence children’s learning outcomes one determinant stands out – the mother’s education level (figure 5). Almost all children of tertiary-educated mothers can read letters and numbers and can write, while almost 20 per cent of children of mothers who have an education level of less than primary schools cannot read letters and a whopping 40 per cent cannot write. In line with other studies including for India, China and Pakistan, this suggests that mothers’ education level plays an important role in shaping children’s learning abilities.

Illustration by Manisha Yadav
Illustration by Manisha Yadav

If schools have to identify and provide extra support for children to erase the adverse impact of school closures on learning outcomes and close the gap with the other groups, the best way to identify children who need help may be based on their mother’s level of education rather than on the basis of caste or even income levels, which are, in any case, sensitive measures.

Also Read: In Covid year, UP dispatched 3 midday meal rations, but some students are still waiting

Parental education is key

The ASER 2020 report for rural India finds that families with parents who were less educated were less likely to be able to help their children with their studies. During the pandemic, only 55 per cent of children in families with low parental education received any learning support at home, including from parents and older siblings compared to almost 90 per cent of children in families with high parental education. Further, only 7.6 per cent of children with less-educated mothers received learning support from their mothers, while the same was 45 per cent for high-educated mothers.

If we use the criteria of the level of mother’s education to provide extra-learning support for the primary school children, what proportion of children would require such support? Based on data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey report for June 2018 to July 2019, around 31 per cent of children live in a household where the highest educated, married woman has less than primary education.

One of the most critical and negative, but invisible trade-offs of the Covid-19 pandemic is an increased inequality in learning outcomes. It is unseen and mostly unmeasured at present, but it is real and would be stark once schools re-open fully. The government and schools’ management should right now prepare and plan for extra help that some children would need.

Vidya Mahambare is Professor of Economics, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai. Sowmya Dhanaraj is Assistant Professor of Economics, Madras School of Economics. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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