According to the 17th nationwide Annual Status of Education (ASER) report released by NGO Pratham on 18 January, enrollment of children in government schools peaked between 2018 and 2022 in rural areas. The overall school enrollment for children in the age group 6 to 14 years, touched a record high of 98.4 percent -- meaning that 98.4 percent children in this age group are enrolled in some form of formal education.
In almost all states, there has been a significant jump in the number of children enrolled in government schools from private schools, after the pandemic-induced shutdown of schools, the report stated. It added that the proportion of children aged 6 to 14 years enrolled in government schools saw a significant jump -- from 65.6% in 2018 to 72.9% in 2022.
The survey, conducted by Pratham, an NGO that works to address gaps in India's education system, covered almost seven lakh children across 616 districts in the country. The last survey was conducted in 2018. This is the first post-pandemic report.
While the increase in enrollment is good news, why have students made the shift from private to government schools in the last four years? The Quint takes a look at the data and speaks to experts in the field to answer some of these questions.
'Reduced Family Income'
Karthik Menon, Lead Operations, Government Partnerships at Pratham, told The Quint, “Due to the hardships faced during the pandemic, parents could not pay the school fee. As a result, many shifted from private schools to government schools. Another reason is that many low-cost private schools in rural areas had to shut down because they were unable to pay their staff, teachers, etc.”
In states such as Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Kerala, enrollment in government schools was at its highest this year. While in UP, the enrollment increased from 44.3 percent in 2018 to 59.6 percent in 2022, in Kerala, it increased from 48 percent in 2018 to 64.5 percent in 2022. In most states across north India, enrollment in government schools saw a jump.
Meanwhile, in the eastern states where enrollment in government schools was already higher than that in private schools, even more students moved away from private schools. For instance, in West Bengal, government school enrollment has increased from 88.1 percent to 92.2 percent in the last four years.
An article written by Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, in the ASER report, read, “The rise in government school enrollment can be attributed to several possible contributing factors. For example, if family income goes down or becomes more uncertain, it is likely that parents may not be able to afford private school fee. Hence, they are likely to pull their children out of private schools and put them in government schools, where at least until the end of the compulsory stage, education is free (till grade VIII).”
Meanwhile, Kritika Sangani, CEO of TAP India Foundation, which works to enroll out-of-school children, told The Quint that the shift is a clear indicator that the "pay capacities or family incomes have shrunk." She said, "Those who were just entering the low-mid income categories were pushed back into poverty during the pandemic. The good news is that despite this, parents continued to send their children to school, indicating that school has become a necessity for most.”
Kritika Sangani, CEO of TAP India Foundation
'Low-Budget Private Schools Shut Down During Pandemic'
Apart from diminished paying capacity of families, there is another reason that the shift from private to government schools happened. Menon said, "The reasons might vary from state to state but they follow similar patterns. In states such as UP, a lot of low-cost budget schools had to shut down during the pandemic years, and so there was a significant increase in government school enrollment.”
The economic impact of the pandemic left them unable to keep up the infrastructure and pay salaries to their staff and teachers.
“There was a connection between the teacher and the child during the pandemic. Many government schools did not shift to online. But the teachers would send them worksheets and keep visiting the children,” he added.
Role of Reverse Migration, Midday Meals
Jayashree Oza, Advisor to Central Square Foundation (CSF), which works on key issues and policy implementation in the education sector, spoke to The Quint about the ASER report. She said, “One would expect that the enrollment would drop because of the pandemic. It is interesting to note that this is a rural report. Many people returned to their villages during the pandemic years. It is possible that some children left their schools in cities and enrolled in schools back in their villages. This is one of the possible reasons why the enrollment has gone up in rural areas.”
In addition, schools continued to provide midday meals, which played a role in keeping children in school. Sangani from Tap India Foundation, said, “Mid-day meals have a strong correlation with attendance. During the pandemic, ration packets were being distributed, and some categories even received direct cash transfers. This certainly played a role in keeping children in school, as it reduces the burden on families. But for the section that had shifted from private to government schools, it was purely due to the economic shock.”
The report read:
ASER 2022 Report
In addition to this increase, more children were also enrolled in anganwadis in comparison to previous years. The number of three-year-olds who were enrolled in Anganwadi's have increased from 57.1 percent to 66.8 percent in the last four years.
Meanwhile, across rural India, the proportion of three-year-olds enrolled in some form of early childhood education stands at 78.3 percent for the year in 2022
Are Government Schools Equipped to Deal with Increasing numbers?
The article by Pratham's CEO Rukmini Banerji stated that rising enrollment trends can be seen both as a “plus” and a “minus”. Higher enrollment means that more students are benefitting from schooling.
She said that there is an increase in competition for post-secondary opportunities since "more and more students (are) going through the middle school pipeline). She wrote, "These have not expanded to keep up with the massive tide of students who have completed elementary school. Board examinations continue to be gatekeepers allowing or preventing students from moving to the next stage. Acute examination stress and anxiety (sometimes ending in suicide), grade inflation in high school-leaving examinations, difficulties of gaining admission into college, lack of appropriate jobs for school leavers are all consequences of high enrollment and completion rates."
Adding to Banerji's sentiment, Sangani said, "It is a good thing that our government schools were able to absorb so many children. Problems might arise on the supply side when there might not be enough teachers. It becomes important for the government to invest in government schools now more than ever.”
Meanwhile, Oza remarked,
Jayashree Oza, Advisor to Central Square Foundation (CSF)