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COVID & Learning Loss: TN’s War-Like Education Campaign Has Lessons for India

Tamil Nadu’s volunteer-based programme shows how to go about mitigating COVID-induced educational gaps.

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Tamilarasi S, 26, is a young housewife in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district, living with her family in one of a cluster of six villages. In the normal course of things, with no pressure to augment the family income, she doesn’t have much to do besides some kitchen and household duties throughout the day. Most of her spare time is her own, and life is comfortable if unimaginative.

But since November 2021, soon after the state launched its war-like volunteering campaign to pull in people to teach young children, Tamilarasi has something to look forward to. She teaches 20 upper-primary students, all from nearby and mostly known to her for one-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week. Keeping her cohort engaged while enhancing their learning keeps her mind ticking.

This is after she was selected as one of the 1.23 lakh volunteers who are now holding such classes in 63,000 locations in the state for 20 lakh students.

The search is on for another 52,000-odd volunteers to take the total number up to 1.75 lakh, and is expected to be completed by end-February.

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A Priority Task

What has taken even the authorities and government officials by surprise is the enthusiasm and the consequent speed of the roll-out of the campaign. On 1 December, ITK was introduced as a pilot project in 13 districts, and within one month, it was rolled out to almost all 38 districts of the state. As positions for the remaining volunteers are filled, the full roll-out is expected to be completed soon. The classes are held in locations where students can just walk from home, and are held in small groups. The idea is to do remedial school work and bring the students back or as close to grade-level as possible. The volunteer has a fair amount of agency over what her cohort ingests.

Tamil Nadu’s volunteer-based programme shows how to go about mitigating COVID-induced educational gaps.

One of the reasons the quick roll-out was possible was the elevation of the mission by the Chief Minister to a priority. In June, soon after the new government had taken charge, the state had constituted an economic advisory council that included Esther Duflo, Raghuram Rajan, Arvind Subramanian, Jean Dreze and S Narayanan. Overall, the state was fully cognisant that it needed to step in to remedy the loss suffered in the first wave, and even after that. But it was not sure – like many other states – how to go about it.

Why the Campaign Was Designed

It wasn’t as if everything fell in place right from the word go. Just like all other states, Tamil Nadu also found itself at a loss when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of its 38,000 public and 20,000 private schools. The Commissioner for School Education, Thiru K Nanthakumar, says that after the first wave and lockdown, the state knew that most of their children were falling severely behind and that it was able to reach barely a fraction of students with online, digital and mobile interventions. Although states across India tried and in some cases reached students through online and other interventions, there was no escaping the fact that many students had suffered a severe learning loss due to the disruption.

Moreover, the state had 72 lakh students in government schools alone, and handing out any kind of device to all of them was too expensive an option. Broadband connectivity is also not robust enough in many remote districts.

Although classes were conducted through television channels, many students fell behind in their learning, regardless. Central Square Foundation’s Bikramma Daulet Singh says that “online interventions had at best benefited a few students sporadically, in fits and bursts” and that “learning had taken a severe blow across levels”.

What was worse is that the state realised that a far larger than the usual number of children had dropped out of the school net altogether in a matter of just a few months. Anecdotal evidence of this kind was piling up. “Drop-outs were happening in every hamlet and village for one compulsion or the other. Some couldn’t pay private school fees and lots of students between 14-18 years were pulled into helping parents earn and making ends meet”, says Nanthakumar.

Tamil Nadu’s volunteer-based programme shows how to go about mitigating COVID-induced educational gaps.
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A Survey to Map Dropouts

To understand the magnitude of the crisis, the state conducted a digital survey spearheaded by district collectors. Publicity regarding the survey was also facilitated through cinema halls, FM radio, local TV channels and newspapers.

As many as 33,791 surveyors were sent into the field, who identified 5,37,587 out-of-school students. Of these, 1.9 lakh students have since been mainstreamed into schools – a sharp improvement, since every year, the state would mainstream only around 40,000 students.

This was possible due to the use of a simple geo-tagged mobile app to track potential drop-out students. “The sharp jump we have seen now may be because the pandemic has induced many more drop-outs, or it’s possible that earlier, the reporting was not scientific and accurate,” says Nanthakumar, who is directly monitoring the programme.

Rs 210 Crore Allotted

But the bigger issue facing the state was the severe learning loss among schoolgoing children. It was through various discussions that the state decided to try and emulate the model followed by an adult literacy programme as one in 1998-2000. Officials involved with the two-year programme were sought out by state functionaries and its modalities understood and a decision was taken to adopt a similar volunteer-based remedial initiative across the state.

The only way forward was to reach each and every child physically, at a location closest to their homes. In November, the state brought on board E Elambahavat (2016, IAS) as an officer on special duty to head the remedial mission, and he began to tackle it like a “war” with the state’s full machinery behind him. In addition, the state allocated Rs 210 crore to roll out the initiative at scale, and a media campaign was launched, even as the Chief Minister and political leaders urged volunteers to come forward.

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Volunteers Are Charged By Children's Enthusiasm

Tamil Nadu has also undertaken large-scale training for volunteers and for school teachers. As and when schools fully reopen, they are aware that many kids enrolled in a specific class may not be up to grade level. Specialised workbooks for children and teacher manuals have been developed so that the teacher does not end up sticking to the regular syllabus. The ITK effort supplements what the teachers do with the children in class. For 2020 and 2021, the curriculum load for classes has been reduced between 40 and 60 per cent, depending on the grade level. “The idea is that the children or the teacher should not feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what they need to cover,” says Nanthakumar.

Elambahavat, who is putting in 14-16 hours a day like his colleague Nanthakumar, says that volunteers like Tamilarasi are charged by the enthusiasm of eager students who, at times, turn up one-and-a-half hours earlier than the scheduled lesson time.

The small size of the cohorts helps, and the novelty of the programme, which allows for innovation from the volunteers, has drawn in more and more children. Combined with the other steps the state has taken, Elambahavat hopes the state can minimise the colossal two-year damage. If it succeeds, Tamil Nadu’s two-pronged approach can perhaps offer some lessons for other states to emulate.

(Anjuli Bhargava is a senior writer and columnist based in Goa.)

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