Homeland Security

From Digital Divide to Digital Dividend? ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) 2023
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 24 Jan , 2024


The Right to Education (RTE) in public schools from the age of 6-14 for children of all Indian citizens was made a fundamental right in 2004 through an amendment in the Constitution and is unquestionably the most important amendment. Political parties irrespective of their ideology agreed with the Supreme Court in the Unnikrishnan judgment in 1993, albeit late, that without education, the right to life as guaranteed in Art 21 is bereft of dignity. From a promise in 1950, it has now segued into a right, with the RTE Act 2009, promising universal access, the absence of gender discrimination, and the promotion of quality education. Pratham, an NGO, has been conducting comprehensive surveys since 2005 in rural schools, where 70% of children live, how the promises made in the RTE act have borne fruit.  ASER has catalyzed a shift towards educational measurement, and timely analysis, with the fond hope that it will prod the states to take appropriate remedial action in the critical area of children’s foundational learning.

The ASER Findings

While enrollment in primary sections is nearly universal and manifest gender discrimination is absent, the foundational learning in terms of reading, writing, and basic numeracy is at a low ebb andhas either plateaued or slumped. The pandemic years (2019-2021) witnessed the sharpest drop in learning levels from 53% in 2018 to 43% in 2022. On the flip side, the migration of students to private schools where learning outcomes are purported to be better has come down from a high of 35% in 2018 to 27% by 2022.  The pandemic years (2019-2020) have been traumatic as they brought to the fore the reality of the acute digitaldivide that separates the well-off parents and the less literate and poorly equipped parents.  The ASER 2018 took a refreshing look at the picture of learning of children beyond basic foundational learning, to what extent they are equipped to do everyday tasks, financial calculations, etc. The ASER 2023 has gone one step further by delving into digital awareness and access of rural adolescents in the age group of 14-18. It also unveils the career aspirations of both boys and girls, which has interesting implications for public policy.

Highlights of ASER 2023

The sample size of ASER 2023 survey is significantly less than earlier pre-pandemic surveys. While the 2018 survey covered 6 lakh children in 596 districts, the present survey covers 34475 respondents in 28 districts, thereby failing to capture the interdistrict differences in different states and also their holistic impact. Be that as it may, on the basic learning outcomes, as far as standard VIII students’ ability to read Standard 2 text, the drop which was witnessed in the 2022 survey has been salvaged somewhat from 69% to 75%. However, in foundational numeracy like dividing three digits by one digit, there is a plateau, with only 43-44% having the capability from 2008 to 2023, a distressing trend indeed! Girls seem to read better than boys (76% to 70%), while boys outperform the girls in most of the aspects in the 14-18 age group. In terms of enrolment in different disciplines, arts account for 56%, STEM 32 %, and Commerce 9.4%.  Vocational training is one of the thrust areas of NEP 2020. The ASER 2023 notes that only 5.6% avail of vocational training and nearly 33% of such adolescent students are engaged in working side by side with their studies, mostly in agriculture.

Beyond the Basics

The Beyond Basicstrends throw interesting insights. In terms of calculation of time, only 50% could do it correctly in 2018 which has remained at the same level in 2023. But in financial calculation as in applying discounts, it remains at a low level at 37% in 2023. But as far as digital awareness and usage is concerned there is a sea change. As against 36% who knew how to use it in 2018, the % has gone up to 89% in 2023, with very little gender divide.  However, while 44% of boys own a digital device, only 19.8% of females have it. The overall availability of laptops/computers at home is a measly 9%. As regards, different types of usage 50% of males have email IDs, while for females only 30%. 90% use social media but only 50% are aware of online safety settings. 66% use them for education-related activities, and 80% use them for entertainment-related activities like movies and music. Around 66% use Google Maps for navigation tools. While technological barriers to availing of knowledge are falling,the linkage between usage and education skills is tenuous and restricted, given the plateau in reading, numeracy, and application to real-life usages.  But that does not take away the imperative of equipping young people with essential skills, knowledge, and opportunities for digital resources.

The Gender Divide

Suman Bhattacharya, Director of Research with the NGO Pratham, has brought a few differences in the usage of technological devices by boys and girls.  Boys use smartphones twice as much as girls (38% vs 19%) for booking tickets. They step out of their houses more and the patriarchal mindset in rural areas deters girls from taking independent action. All the same, most girls express a desire to stay in the educational system and complete undergraduate-level studies. More females aspire to continue a higher level of education than their male counterparts. That does not imply that they are gaining the knowledge, skill, or confidence to achieve their aspiration, given the inherent orthodoxy in the rural landscape. For girls, teachers are the role models.

Career Choice

The Survey has brought out the work aspirations of boys and girls for the first time. Interestinglyat the All India level, 16% of girls aspire to become teachers as against 6% boys. 15% of girls want to be doctors as against 7% from among boys.  A surprising preference for joining the police force is there among both men (13.6%) and girls (12.5%). The preference for joining the army is male-centric. Boys aspire to join as engineers more (9.6%) than girls (3.4%). In the Sambalpur district of Odisha, around 24% of girls prefer to become teachers as against 8% of boys. In Kerala, 34% of girls want to become nurses as against 8% at the All India level. Tamilnadu (23%)and Kerala will remain the main catchment states for Nursing as a profession.

The Way Forward

The NEP 2020 accords the highest priority to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy by all students by Grade 3 by 2025. The NIPUN Bharat Mission was launched in July 2021 to achieve this goal by 2026-2027. Sadly, education being a concurrent subject, it depends on the state government’s willingness to earmark more funds and the Central government’s ramping up the existing allocation of a little over 3% of GDP to 6% as thumbnailed consistently by development economists like Prof Amartya Sen and Kasturirangan’s NEP team. Delhi government’s resounding achievement of bridging the learning gap of 9.5 lakh students in Grades 6 to 8 is the shining template for other states to emulate. This was done by a combination of increasing allocation to education from 12% of the budget earlier to 25%, significant improvement in school infrastructure, revamping teacher’s training program, and putting in place a proper Mentor Teacher Program. As India prepares for general elections in a few months, it would be wise to recall what Banerjee, Gethin, and Piketty observed in the election results in India from 1962 to 2014.” Political conflicts have become increasingly focused on religious and ideological conflicts rather than on education, income, and occupation.” Demonetization was the unconscious hand of history to promote cashless transactions. The dystopia of Covid 19 and the digital divide roiling learning outcomes further seems to have spawned a digital boom in rural areas. However,It would be premature to celebrate digital dividends in school education, unless requisite political and budget priority compels the political contenders, what is in the best long-terminterests of the country, freebies or investing more in human capital, misguided political rhetoric and agenda or inclusive, humane society where everyone has a right to savor shared prosperity. It is time that Early Childhood Education and Care become a fundamental right rather than an illusory goal under the non-justiceable directive principle, as recommended by NEP 2020.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Prof (Dr) SN Misra

was previously Joint Secretary (Aerospace), Ministry of Defence, Government of India.

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