Restart 21
Restarting Education in South Asia

Teacher sharing the app with students
Teacher sharing the app with students © Amit Chandra

Never let a good crisis go to waste.

Winston Churchill

The world is facing one of the biggest challenges of recent times with the breakout of Covid19 pandemic. The pandemic has not only created a health challenge but also multiplied to become an economic, social, and psychological challenge. One of its major victims is the education delivery to children as schools and educational institutions have been shut for one and a half years and the uncertainty continues. 

The goal of providing universal education has two major components: access to education and the quality of education being imparted. Education world over had slowly come close to address the problem of access but was struggling with poor quality of education. The situation of education quality has been specifically of concern in developing countries. According to a 2018 UNESCO study 258 million children of primary and secondary school age were out of school even before the breakout of Covid19. According to a study by the World Bank, over half of all 10-year-old children could not read and understand a simple text in low and middle-income countries. The Covid19 pandemic has further aggravated the already existing learning crisis. A report in 2021 by the World Bank, which took stock of the impact of Covid19 found that at the peak of school closures in April 2020, 94% of students or 1.6 billion children were out of school worldwide. 

South Asia, which hosts a sizeable population of school-aged children is feared to have undergone a huge school drop-out and learning deficit. According to a recent report titled “Beaten or Broken Informality and Covid19 in South Asia” by the World Bank, the South Asia region stands to lose up to USD 622 billion from the school closures besides substantial learning losses as the uncertainty around the re-opening of schools continues.

Let’s take the example of the biggest and most populated country in South Asia, India. One of the fastest-growing economies in the world has roughly 250 million students enrolled in 1.5 million schools with a gross enrollment rate of 98% in 2019-20. However, India ranked seventy-second out of 73 countries in the PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) ranking of 2010 by the OECD (after the abysmal result, India did not participate in the study in subsequent years). Only 16% of children in Class 1 can read a text at the prescribed level, while almost 40% cannot even recognise letters, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2019.

The situation has become alarming with the impact of the pandemic. Some efforts were taken to continue the teaching-learning process through various alternative modes such as online education but these have neither been sufficient nor effective. The most recent study by a group of economists, which included Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera has found that a year-and-a-half of pandemic-related school closures have created a four-year learning deficit. A student who was in Grade 3 before Covid-19 is now in Grade 5, and will soon enter middle school, but with the reading abilities of a Grade 1 pupil. We can only imagine the situation on the ground in the entire South Asia region. 

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) took cognizance of the situation and launched the campaign ‘Restart Education’ in order to initiate a dialogue of stakeholders. While the scale of the problem requires policy efforts by governments, the campaign also aims at demonstrating scalable strategic interventions. 

John Hattie has rightly said, “the greatest influence on student progression in learning is having highly expert, inspired and passionate teachers.”

India has one of the largest private school systems in the world. Roughly 70% of these private schools are low-cost private schools and charging a monthly fee below USD 14. However, the teachers in these schools are mostly untrained and low on competency but high on motivation. It was evident from the discussions that the teachers were committed and were making an effort but not at all prepared to deal with the pandemic-induced changed reality. This subsequently led to a strategic investment into upskilling teachers in low-cost private schools. FNF in collaboration with the Centre for Civil Society, Eduposse Technologies, and the National Independent Schools Alliance decided to train teachers from low-cost private schools using a technological platform. The call received an overwhelming response and 1116 teachers got training on a topic of their choice and with a schedule of their choice using mobile/laptop. All of these were done remotely without any in-person interaction using technology. The teachers were trained on a range of scholastic and non-scholastic topics to build their competency in teaching skills. The platform has built a community of teachers through its interactive user interface with the aim to make them lifelong learners. And we can only realize the dream of the Sustainable Development Goal on education to make students lifelong learners when the teachers, they get inspired from, demonstrate the idea of lifelong learning by being so.