Alka Kapur, (CBSE & State Awardee) Principal, Modern Public School, Shalimar Bagh, Delhi is an empowering leader, a zealous educationist with rich academic and administrative experience offering an illustrious career of 32 years in educational research. As the Principal of the school, she has taken the school to great heights through open attitude for learning and love for children. Twenty years of her sedulous selfless service as the Principal of the school has accorded the school a priceless status in Forbes India Marquee Edition, The Great Indian Schools.
The Covid-19 pandemic impacted education globally in a big way. According to UNICEF figures, schools for more than 168 million children around the world remained closed for more than a year even. The figures are bleak in India too. According to a study, more than 25 crore Indian children were affected by the pandemic-induced lockdown in India. Now, we should understand that these estimates mostly talk about children from urban poor and rural backgrounds who either had no access to classes during that period or were forced to drop-out of school because of financial problems. They do not discuss about children from these backgrounds who were supposed to start their school in nursery or pre-primary classes.
There are very few studies that have focused on the impact of the pandemic on foundational learning. Foundational learning basically can be defined as the base of all learning by which children learn to read and write. There are two arms of foundational learning – foundational literacy and foundational numeracy. The former deals with basic comprehension of letters, words and sentences while the latter deals with basic understanding of numbers. Without this base cemented properly and efficiently, the whole tower of education will fall flat, and therefore the importance of foundational learning cannot be underestimated. With national-level data showing that the enrolment at the pre-primary level had been minimal in the pandemic years starting from 2020 till the end of 2021, it is fair to assume that a ‘foundational learning gap’ has been created in the period.
So, how can we address and bridge this foundational learning gap? Firstly, there needs to be a comprehensive and well-executed state-wise study of pre-primary enrolments. We are not only talking about quantitative data, but also qualitative data. Mere numbers will not give us the true picture; case studies and interviews need to be conducted with all parties (like children, their parents, teachers, headmasters, etc.) involved so that a clearer picture of the situation can emerge.
Secondly, the digital divide in Indian education needs to be looked at carefully. We know that the pandemic exposed and exacerbated this divide. While the middle class and upper middle class children, with better access to internet and ICT (Information and Communications Technology) attended online classes and got promoted to the next level, the lower middle class and poorer children had to miss out on learning. There should be a national-level policy that guarantees access to basic internet infrastructure for all school-going children. This is indeed an urgent requirement because the pandemic opened our eyes to the fact that the internet is indeed the future. Without it, it would be difficult to survive let alone thrive in a post-pandemic world.
Thirdly, there should be a revamping of pre-primary syllabus. We know that the Ministry of Education had launched the NIPUN Bharat Mission which emphasises on foundational learning and makes it a priority. It aims to achieve 100% basic literacy and numeracy for all grade-three level children by 2027. While the initiative is laudatory, we know that the pre-primary syllabus has not been revamped to keep up with modern times. We cannot keep using old methods and expect new and improved results. There needs to be a constitution of a specialised committee that can look at the current syllabus, teaching methods employed, student outcomes, etc. This committee can then suggest changes in the syllabus and material, in order to get better results. The focus here should be on inculcating basic literacy and numeracy skills using the most cost-effective methods. This needs to be emphasised because we know that most schools in rural areas do not have the best infrastructure or amenities. Yes, education budgets can very-well be revised by the ministry and more funds can be pumped into sorting that out, but it can take a long time. This is why we have to think about solutions that can be easily worked out for the present scenario.
Finally, there should be a proper monitoring in place to monitor nursery and pre-primary education. We put up rules and guidelines in place all the time, but there is never a proper review of how these are being followed or executed. This is the need of the hour especially considering that the pandemic has completely undone whatever progress had been made in the field, and many schools and teachers have to start from scratch. Monitoring does not only mean looking at how progress is being made; it is also helping the schools deal with challenges effectively. For this purpose, the government can tie up with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), call in education consultants and experts from both India and abroad and devise new strategies accordingly.
India can also learn from other countries and take notes. Since many countries in the world, especially those in Asia, Africa and some parts of South America had been affected differently by the pandemic, they might have dealt with it in different ways as well. India can examine the data from these countries in terms of education, and see whether there are overlaps in major learning challenges and the techniques used to tide over them. An in-depth SWOT analysis can be done too so that India can come up with its own solutions by borrowing from some experiences of its counterparts.
It should be underlined that education, especially, in India is an area where stakeholder partnerships need to be applied the most. If civil society organisations that work for the betterment of society along with corporates tie up with the government to bridge the existing gap in foundational learning, then the results will be better and much faster. Stakeholders need to understand that such a change may not happen overnight; but without at least trying to better foundational learning processes, the whole education system may crumble. This is especially relevant at a time where skills are not given much importance and the whole class is basically promoted to the next level without an assessment of the necessary skills. This ‘full promotion’ happens mostly at the pre-primary and primary levels, which sets a dangerous precedent.