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Indian School Children Plagued By Poor Facilities

Many schools still struggle to log on to the internet while the ed-tech sector booms.

KOLKATA, India — Jeet Nandy (17) is a student at one of Kolkata’s government schools. His mother works as a housekeeper, and his father works in a factory. The parents are too busy making ends meet to pay attention to their son’s academic performance, which has them worried.

So, last year, before the pandemic began, Nandy’s parents relocated him to the city’s northern suburbs to live with his maternal aunt. He was promptly enrolled at a local government school, but the change in the environment did little to remedy his woes.

“Once I got to the new school, I realized nothing had changed,” Nandy told Zenger News.

“The school’s classrooms and bathrooms were in a pitiful state. Neither did it have a library nor a decent playground. There was not a single computer in the entire school, let alone a stable internet connection. This had an impact on my day-to-day learning, and despite getting help at home, I couldn’t improve.”

Nandy is one among hordes of schoolchildren from around India who are subjected to dismal school facilities. A report released by the central government-run web portal Unified District Information on School Education (UDISE+)  in June 2021 revealed that only a meager 22.3 percent of Indian schools have access to the internet, and a lowly 38.5 percent of them have computers.

A library, reading room, or a reading corner is not available in more than 15 percent of all Indian schools surveyed. To make matters worse, more than 16 percent of the schools do not have access to electricity, and 18 percent don’t have the provisions for an annual medical checkup.

Only a meager 22.3 percent of Indian schools have access to the internet, and a lowly 38.5 percent of them have computers. (Dogherine/Unsplash)

Over-hiring of teachers

Despite such stark inadequacies, the government appears to be spending resources less than judiciously. Take, for instance, the increased hiring of new teachers over the past few years. In 2019, there were 9.68 million school teachers in India, 250,000 more than that in 2018.

This has had an effect on the Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) across Indian schools. Currently, it is on the decline at all levels of school education in the country. A reduction in PTR means a teacher has to teach fewer students, leading to declining class sizes.

However, are small class sizes really effective in enhancing learning standards amongst its students?

“Internationally, there is no consistent evidence that it is necessarily better if children are taught in smaller classes,” Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, Chair of Education Economics and International Development at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, told Zenger News.

A study, co-written by her and Sandip Datta, assistant professor at Delhi School of Economics, argues that India is indeed overspending on hiring more teachers when that money can be used more effectively elsewhere.

In 2019, there were 9.68 million school teachers in India, 250,000 more than that in 2018. (Artem Maltsev/Unsplash)

Kingdon and her colleague found that in 2017-18, the $3.6 billion spent on the wages of 0.4 million new teachers hired between 2010 and 2017 was a waste of money rather than an investment in education.

“Up to a class-size of roughly 40 in science subjects and roughly 50 in non-science subjects, there is non-reduction in pupil learning as class size increases… If the government had maintained a pupil-teacher ratio of 40, it could have saved $19.4 billion [INR 145,000 crore in Indian currency] per annum,” the study states.

With less than 12 percent of that $19.4 billion, all public elementary schools could have been provided with a computer and internet connection, accompanied by a dedicated IT professional for maintenance purposes, as per the same study.

The remainder would have facilitated a smartphone to every child below India’s poverty line, studying in classes 1 to 8. And all this could have been achieved from the money saved from one year.

India’s ed-tech sector on the rise

With COVID-19 driving Indian students away from classrooms, a computer/ smartphone and a basic internet connection can expose students to a whole range of cutting edge educational services offered by India’s booming ed-tech start-ups.

This is bolstered by the fact that start-ups like Unacademy and Byju’s have witnessed unprecedented funding during the heady days of the pandemic. Funding in 2020 was greater than investments between 2016 and 2019 combined.

(Representative image) Covid-19 imposed lockdowns in 2020-21 boosted the adoption of online learning disproportionately. (Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

Around 60 investments were made in the education sector, amounting to $2,105 million in 2020. And, in 2021, the level of funds invested ($614 million) so far has crossed the 2019 levels ($404 million) already.

“Covid-19 imposed lockdowns in 2020-21 boosted the adoption of online learning disproportionately,” Mit Desai, consultant, Praxis Global Alliance, told Zenger News. PGA Labs has conducted various studies in collaboration with Praxis Global on ed-techs in India.

“However, it also exposed the shortcomings in terms of IT infrastructure, learning journeys in pure-virtual education, peer-influence, and group-learning activities. Schools have a strong social element that is conducive to learning while ed-tech platforms continue to be a formidable force in supplementary education, extracurricular learning, ‘gamification of learning, etc.” The gamification of learning is an educational approach to motivate students to learn by using video game design and game elements in learning environments.

India has the third highest-grossing ed-tech start-up industry after the US and China. Education in India is now a $117-billion market with around 360 million new learners in 2019-2020, as per an IVCA report done in collaboration with PGA Labs.

The industry is expected to double to $225 billion in 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 14 percent from 2020-25.

“Indian ed-tech landscape continues to evolve not just in its domestic markets, but also on the international stage,” Vaibhav Tamrakar, senior vice-president, PGA Labs, told Zenger News.

“With a natural flair in Math and a widely available English-speaking population, India is fast becoming the ‘tutor of the world’ on the back of these tech-enabled learning platforms.”

Thus, with schools unable to provide the proper infrastructure to students, ed-tech start-ups have emerged as a key player in India’s school education landscape. And with increased spending to fund innovations in the field, it might become the harbinger of radical change in Indian school education as we know it.

Edited by Amrita Das and Anindita Ghosh