Budget 2021 | Four points to reset India’s school education

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We risk losing hard-won gains in school education and ending up with a lost generation of children if education financing is not prioritised in the upcoming Budget

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the most crucial and awaited Union Budget for the education sector in the past decade. Education for 270 million children in India has been disrupted by the world’s largest school closure in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to an Oxfam study, teachers fear that a third of the children might not return even after schools reopen, most of whom are likely to belong to the most marginalised social groups — Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims. Thus, this Budget has a crucial role to play in supporting the recovery of school education and prevent large-scale dropout of children.

If the Narendra Modi-led government does not want to lose decades of progress in the field of school education, the government must ensure the below provisions in the Union Budget 2021-22.

First, the government must ensure additional finances to support safe reopening of schools:

A survey by Oxfam found that 40 percent schools are being used as quarantine centres. Further, only 54 percent schools have toilet, drinking water and hand-washing facilities. As we move towards reopening schools, the government must renew its commitment of making a ‘Swachh Bharat’ and allocate additional funds for making adequate WASH facilities (water, soap and functional toilets) available in all schools before they reopen.

In line with the NHRC advisory on protection of rights of children during COVID-19, the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) must be developed for safe reopening and resources must be allocated for capacity-building of school management committee members and teachers on these SOPs to prevent outbreaks of the virus. It is estimated that students from disadvantaged backgrounds will lose 40 percent of their previous year’s learning due to their interrupted access to education. The Budget must provide for additional academic support and learning materials to recover the lost instructional time.

Second, the central government must provide support to states for a back-to-school campaign and additional financing for existing out of school programmes:

A report by the ILO and UNICEF estimates that a 1 percent increase in poverty leads to a 0.7 percent rise in child labour. The NSSO (2017-18) estimates put the figure of out-of-school-children (OoSC) at 32 million — a number likely to rise even further because of the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis.

The Budget must allocate funds for a back-to-school campaign to minimise dropouts. The campaign should include a large-scale mapping exercise to identify children who are out of school, and support their transition back to school through the special training centres, which would need additional financing given that millions of children are currently out of school.

Third, the Budget should allocate funds to the gender and social inclusion funds, recommended under the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP):

Girls from disadvantaged families could lose 50 percent of their total years of education in the aftermath of the pandemic if preventive measures are not taken. To prevent this, the Budget must implement the recommendation put forward in the NEP 2020, of creating gender and social inclusion funds to support states in implementing community-based interventions to address context-specific barriers to education for girls, transgender children and for children belonging to disadvantaged social groups.

Fourth, government must provide adequate financing for effective implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act:

Eleven years after it came into effect, only 12.7 percent of all schools comply with infrastructural norms laid out under the RTE Act. In Bihar and Jharkhand, compliance is less than 4 percent. This is a direct consequence of resource inadequacy. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to fulfil the vision of the RTE Act by ensuring adequate and equitable financing. According to an estimate, an additional 1.2 percent of GDP is needed every year for RTE financing. This must be provided for, with a focus on providing a fiscal stimulus to lagging states.

We risk losing hard-won gains in school education and ending up with a lost generation of children if education financing is not prioritised in the upcoming Budget. India will have the largest population of young people in the world over the next decade. How well we can provide them with universal access to quality educational opportunities will determine India’s future.

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