Indian schools ‘can’t pick up where they left off’ after Covid

In the village of Vyas Nahari in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand in India, seven-year-old Riddhi Chauhan struggles to read simple words after more than a year without a school during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although teachers tried to send teaching materials over the phone during the extended school shutdown, Riddhi’s mother Parihibi admits she had little time to help her five children with their learning, given his other household chores.

Like Riddhi, many of India’s 260 million schoolchildren, especially the younger ones, have suffered heavy learning losses during the pandemic. These setbacks are most significant for the millions of first generation learners in India who come from environments where texts are scarce and whose parents and families are unable to sustain their education during long school closures.

The Pratham Education Foundation uses the ‘Teach at the Right Level’ approach to bring students up to standards appropriate for their age

It’s unclear when Indian schools will reopen, as the country is now in the throes of a fierce second wave of Covid-19, which has overwhelmed the country’s healthcare system. But education experts say it will be critical for educators and school systems to recognize and address the scale of the slippage when schools finally open their doors.

“The pupils, on their return to school, will be confronted with [an] huge learning gap, ”says Anurag Behar, director general of the Azim Premji Foundation, a philanthropic education organization. “Teachers have to be prepared. They are going to face groups of children with different levels of forgetfulness or memory and they have to figure out how to deal with them.

Rather than trying to pick up where schools left off, many educators agree they will need to help students master basic skills again, before trying to move the curriculum forward. .

Rukmini Banerji, Managing Director of the Pratham Education Foundation

Rukmini Banerji, Managing Director of the Pratham Education Foundation

“It is very important that you don’t go back and do what you think you missed,” says Rukmini Banerji, Managing Director of the Pratham Educational Foundation, a charity that has also worked with school children, helping to counter underperformance. “You have to go back and do the basics. “

Yet ironically, Banerji says such an approach could benefit those who struggled in school before the pandemic hit. “We have to accept that a lot of children are being left behind and now is the time to give them the space to catch up,” she said.

India faced an education crisis even before last year’s disruption. While the government has made huge strides in building schools and educating children over the past two decades, learning outcomes have been disappointing as poorly trained teachers have struggled to cope with classes of various ages and abilities.

“There is a serious learning crisis in India,” recognized India’s 2019 National Education Policy Draft. “Children are enrolled in primary school but do not even reach teaching skills. basic skills such as basic literacy and numeracy. “

India faced education crisis even before pandemic disruption last year
India faced education crisis even before pandemic disruption last year

Assessments of the learning outcome gap differ in terms of magnitude. Pratham’s annual State of Education report concluded in 2018 that only half of children in 5th Standard (or grade) of primary school could read a 2nd Standard text.

But the World Bank’s new learning poverty indicator estimated that 55 percent of Indian 10-year-olds were unable to read a basic sentence, compared to 15 percent in Sri Lanka and China.

India’s draft education policy suggested that up to 50 million primary school students had failed to acquire basic literacy skills, limiting their ability to learn even though they seemed to progress through the school system. .

“If a child does not learn to read comprehensively before the age of 10, his learning trajectory is over,” says Bikkrama Daulet Singh, co-CEO of Foundation of the central square, which works to improve the quality of education in public and private schools. “At this point all the study programs go from oral to written, and they’re sitting at the back of that classroom. “

The pandemic has exacerbated the crisis: most primary-age children have not set foot in school for over a year. While many states have tried to provide learning materials for children through other means – including television, radio, WhatsApp groups, and even some means of group tutoring – efforts have been sporadic, with their uncertain impact.

Today, educators agree that back-to-school programs should give young learners a chance to develop or rebuild their foundational skills. It can mean regaining skills lost during school closings, or helping children master those they never learned.

“If you try to do last year’s work in three months, it won’t help anyone because the kids weren’t at that level anyway,” says Banerji of Pratham. “You have children who are four years late. Now focus on the foundation. Don’t worry about the grade level just yet. Take it slow, go deep, and go basic – then you can build a lot more after that.

Pratham has long used a technique called ‘Teaching at the Right Level’ to provide remedial education and bring struggling students to the skill level appropriate for their age. The association now intends to use this method to work directly with children across India in “catch-up camps” to help them prepare for the reopening of schools.

“Teaching at the right level” and similar techniques have proven to be very effective
“Teaching at the right level” and similar techniques have proven to be very effective

The Pratham approach is to group students according to their actual skill level, instead of their age and designated year, and then help them quickly master the skills down to their grade level.

Such interventions – which break with the rigid approach of many Indian schools – have proven to be very effective in helping struggling learners catch up, and Pratham argues that they will be ideal for helping children to recover from poverty. long interruption of their schooling.

“This catch-up is a long-term fruit and within reach,” adds Banerji. “You have to do it this year.”

The Azim Premji Foundation – which for years has provided professional development support to poorly trained government teachers – is now trying to help educators prepare for the reopening of schools by developing tools to assess children’s abilities after graduation. long interruption.

“There’s no question the students have forgotten things – they can’t pick up where they left off,” said Behar, the foundation’s chief executive. “Teachers need an approach, a method, tools that allow them to go into a particular classroom and quickly assess where children are, relative to where they were before they went. quit school.

Singh of the Central Square Foundation also believes that schools should restart with a “60- to 90-day catch-up flurry, based on principles of teaching at the right level,” after which students can move up to their grade level appropriate for their. age.

Overall, education experts believe that the established programs developed to help struggling students and teachers in recent years will provide a solid foundation for school recovery.

“This notion of innovation – and the idea that innovation is an axiomatic good – is problematic,” explains Behar. “What really needs to be done is the bottom line: train teachers and provide them with support material. You need to sort out the teacher training system. Otherwise, the bucket has no bottom and you only pour water from the top.

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