The post-pandemic world needs better public schools

The pandemic has thrown a harsh light on the vulnerabilities and challenges faced by the world in education. There is an immense learning gap due to existing inequalities.

In India, we have to accept that unless we mobilise learning resources and institutions at the government level, the divides will continue to expand and learners will continue to fall between the cracks. We urgently need the government, both at the Center and state levels, to invest in learning systems. This will help address poverty and bring in gender equality.

How are we going to restart learning when we have pressed the pause button on many of our social systems?

There are too many headlines telling us that education is catastrophically broken. How do we fix it? The rhetoric of brokenness and crisis doesn’t help. It favors quick fixes over dialogue and reflection. Systems have to be put into place to find a variety of methods to equip all learners — privileged, poor, middle-class and alternatively-abled. The child must always be the priority and not an afterthought.

The challenge is not about exams because exams are not a threat. It has been proven that assessments in the last three years, whether online or offline, have been child-centric, often to the point of being unrealistic. The challenge is about returning to school.

Conversations continue to hover around the lack of vaccinations for children and unmanageable protocols, along with the general atmosphere of fear that prevails across the country.

In wealthier nations, schools have always been the first to open and last to close and citizens have benefited from the public school system.

In India, across states, there is a sense of despair due to unemployment and lack of financial resources, which has snowballed due to the pandemic, resulting in greater inequality. Sending children to school, as opposed to keeping them at home, is a huge financial investment, particularly in the private school system. Uniforms, books, shoes, refreshments, transportation and other material for activities and school programs are essential for children attending private schools.

Parents have refrained from sending their children back to school due to a lack of funds. Ruchika Dhingra said, “My child is 3 years old and if I enrol her in any of the private pre-schools, the fees are approximately Rs 1,80,000 per annum. I may end up paying the fees and not sending her to school, as the virus may come again. I might as well not enrol her, as we are all facing a financial crunch.” Another parent with two children has admitted the one with the better academic performance in an expensive private school, while the other child was admitted to a mediocre private school with lower fees. The reason they gave was that they did not have the money to educate both children in the same school.

These narratives show a lack of trust in government schools across the country. They would rather educate their children in a poor quality private school than a good government school.

As a result of the pandemic, opportunity gaps have widened, as families do not have the financial capacity to support the education of their children. Many have placed education second to health in the priority list, thereby undermining children’s learning for years to come. The effect will be particularly felt in vulnerable countries and regions.

The big shift that we as a nation have to make is viewing education through a government school lens. This will only take place if states provide the opportunity for free, compulsory, neighborhood education.

In western nations, over 90 per cent of education is under government control, with extremely well-run schools. Hot meals, uniforms, books, and other learning accessories, including medical care, are provided to the children.

Most children, other than those of extremely privileged citizens, attend public schools. This helps in achieving the sustainable development goals related to hunger, nutrition, quality education and gender equality, finally leading to livelihood and economic growth.

Radical reforms have to be implemented to restructure government schools and ensure quality. Across the country, subsides are being given for electricity, gas, water, housing, food distribution and other basic amenities. The government, both at the Center and in the states, should build good-quality primary, middle and high schools and provide facilities that the best private schools have to offer.

Parents have realised the multiple roles that schools play. They provide for the wellbeing of children, health and nutrition along with academic learning. This increased awareness will serve as the basis for a revival of public education.

We are subsumed by the myth that technology has expanded potential. The concern is that online learning will create greater inequality, not only in the global South but even in the most well-resourced corners of the planet. Online learning is not the way
forward.

We need to safeguard the right to education by mobilising government schools to support all stakeholders. The UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education states in its report, “the core commitments that should always be remembered are public education and common good”. It says, “This is not the time to step back and weaken these principles but rather to affirm and reinforce them.” We must take the opportunity to protect and advance public education.

We cannot allow the government health system and government education to be opposed to one another. Their synergies must overlap. Governments have to be involved with the lifelong learning of people. The French philosopher Edgar Morin observed that “public health and public education are closely interconnected, as they show the undeniable necessity of collaboration, solidarity and collective action for the common good.”

Public education is crucial to societies, communities and individual lives. It is the only thing that will enable us to live with dignity and purpose. We have arrived at a moment, however unexpectedly, where we need to revisit the purpose of schooling and how we organize it. How we thrive should not be a continuation of the world as it was, but of the world that should be: A more sustainable one.

The writer is chairperson and executive director education, DLF Foundation Schools and Scholarship Programs

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