Emergency Report on School Education Shows Cracks in Online Learning Model

While several classes were promoted to the next class without exams, are children really learning?

6 min read
Edited By :Tejas Harad

Primary and upper primary schools have been closed in India for over 17 months, that is, more than 500 days. While the whole education system went online, many feared the digital divide would put a major barrier in the growth and learning of India’s young students, especially those coming from underprivileged backgrounds.

While several classes were promoted to the next class without exams, are children really learning?

A recent survey of nearly 1,362 schoolchildren (Classes 1 to 8) in underprivileged households (the kind that send their children to government schools) done by the School Children’s Online and Offline Learning (SCHOOL) in August 2021 team has released its report titled ‘LOCKED OUT: Emergency Report on School Education’.


Closure of schools has drastically brought down the literacy rate among students, more so for children from Dalit and Adivasi households. Moreover, closure of schools has led to the discontinuation of midday meals, deprived the students of a healthy social life and increased the gap of learning among students of the same age.

The survey was carried out in 15 states and union territories, among them Assam, Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, and Karnataka.

About 60 percent of the sample households reside in rural areas, and close to 60 percent belong to Dalit or Adivasi communities.

Key Findings:

Initial findings of the report show cracks in the online model of education, as it suggests that:

  • In rural areas, only 8 percent and in urban areas, only 24 percent are studying online regularly. Moreover, only 9 percent of all sample children had their own smartphone.

  • Over 40 percent of the sample children, in both rural (48) and urban (42) areas, are not able to read more than a few words.

  • Meanwhile, over 90 percent of parents, in both rural (97) and urban areas (90), believe that schools should open.

The report highlights that “another major hurdle, especially in rural areas, is that the school is not sending online material, or if it is, parents are not aware of it. Some children, particularly the younger ones, lack understanding of online study in any case, or find it difficult to concentrate.”

The status at the time of the survey suggests that only 28 percent of students in rural areas, and 47 percent of students in urban areas, were studying regularly.

The Multiple Hurdles of Online Education

Even in households that have a smartphone, there are several reasons why children are not able to study online regularly (percentage):

While several classes were promoted to the next class without exams, are children really learning?

Reading and Writing Abilities Take a Free Fall

Even those who have been able to access online education have not had a great experience, as even a basic support structure is missing.

  • Only 25.5 percent of all children were studying online (occasionally or regularly) at the time of the survey, with an unbalanced advantage to those from urban areas.

  • Out of this small percentage, as many as 65 percent students in rural areas and 57 percent students in urban areas faced connectivity problems.

  • Over 40 percent students, in both rural (43) and urban (46) areas, found online classes/ videos difficult to follow.

A majority of parents of children studying online (70 percent in rural and 65 percent in urban areas) feel that their child’s ability to read and write has declined during the lockout.

Departure From Private Education

About one-fifth of the sample children were enrolled in a private school when the ‘lockout’ began in March 2020.

Though the online education model was adopted, most private schools charged the same amount of fees.

At the same time, as per a report by the Pew Research Centre, the number of poor people in India (with incomes of Rs 150 or less per day) is estimated to have increased by 7.5 crore because of the COVID recession.

Either due to the hit on the economy or loss of jobs, many parents became reluctant to pay and about 26 percent of all sample children shifted from private to government schools.

Meanwhile, some schools held on to the ‘transfer certificates’ for children, insisting they pay the remaining dues before transferring.


Midday Meals Discontinued

Midday meals were discontinued in all sample states. The report indicated that among parents with a child enrolled in a government school, close to 80 percent reported receiving some food (mainly rice or wheat) during the preceding three months as a substitute for their child’s midday meals

However, in urban areas, as much as 20 percent households and 14 percent in rural areas did not receive anything.

Literacy Rate

In comparison to the 2011 population census, average literacy rates in the age group of 10-14 years ranged from 88 to 98 percent in all the sample states except Bihar (83 percent). The all-India average was 91 percent.

Ten years later, among sample children, literacy rates in the 10-14 age group were found to be as low as 74 percent in urban areas, 66 percent in rural areas, and 61 percent for rural Dalits and Adivasis.

It is important to note that the test used in the survey to count if a child is literate was to ask the student to read a simple sentence, in contrast to the 2011 population census that counted a person as literate if the student was able to both read and write in any language.

The findings stress on preceding levels of poor education for underprivileged children, the wide inequalities in society, and a “lopsided lockout”.

Dalits and Adivasis Worse Off

Even among the underprivileged children, figures for Dalit and Adivasi families were worse off.

For instance, only 4 percent of rural Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) children are studying online regularly, compared with 15 percent among other rural children. Barely half of them were able to read more than a few letters in the reading test during the survey.

Among rural SC/ST parents, 98 percent wanted schools to reopen as soon as possible.

One can conclude from this that even in the online race of marks and merit, children from Dalit and Adivasi families are left far behind.

What are the reasons for this?

  • Percentage of sample children that live in a house without a smartphone is 55 percent for SC/STs, while 38 percent for others.

  • Percentage of SC/ST sample children who are studying regularly is an abysmal 4 percent.

To establish that caste is an added barrier to the digital divide, the report mentions the case of Kutmu village of Latehar district (Jharkhand), where most of the households are of Dalits and Adivasis. However, the teacher belongs to one of the few upper-caste families in the village.

The survey team was openly asked by some members of these families, “If these (SC/ST) children get educated, who will work in our fields?”.

“The teacher lives in the nearest town, comes to school in her own sweet time, and takes it easy in the classroom,” the report mentions.

None of the 20 SC/ST children interviewed in Kutmu were able to read fluently.

The report concludes that in spite of a mass decline in reading and writing abilities, students have been promoted by two grades.

Now, as schools reopen, "children are all set to find themselves 'thrice removed' from their grade’s curriculum."

This triple gap consists of:

  • The pre-lockout gap

  • The decline of literacy and related abilities during the lockout

  • The onward march of the curriculum in that period

Stressing on the need for major changes in curriculum and pedagogy over the coming years, the report explains the massive disconnect students are going to face saying, "a child who was enrolled in Grade 3 before the lockout, but actually did not master the curriculum beyond Grade 2 because of her disadvantaged position, and now finds herself closer to Grade 1 in that respect, is enrolled in Grade 5 today, and will be promoted to the upper-primary level in a few months’ time!"

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Edited By :Tejas Harad
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