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Learning Poverty Increases To 70 Per Cent, Inequality Widens

By Dr. Gyan Pathak

The Global learning poverty has further increased to 70 per cent in 2022 with largest increases in South Asia and the Latin America and the Caribbean, as per the simulation result based on the latest available data and evidence. It means the world has lost the gains during 2000-2015 when it had fallen from 61 per cent to 53 per cent.

“The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 update” prepared jointly by six organizations – World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, FCDO, USAID, and BILL & Melinda Gates Foundation – says that high rate of learning poverty indicates that education systems are failing to ensure that children develop critical foundational skills and thus are far from reaching, and in many cases are not on track to reach SDG 4 target of universal quality education for all by 2030. This makes it much harder for children to acquire the technical and higher-order skills needed to thrive in increasingly demanding labour markets, and for countries to develop the human capital needed for sustained, inclusive economic growth. The very high levels of learning poverty violate children’s right to education, the update emphasized.

Learning poverty was on the increase even before the general closures of schools during February 2020 – February 2022 on account of COVID-19 crisis. In 2019, when the learning poverty indicator was first launched, the learning poverty rate was already estimated to have increased by 4 per cent to 57 per cent between 2015 and 2019 in low- and middle-income countries, a category India falls in. On account of being largest populated country in South Asia, one of the two worst suffering regions, India is obviously among the worst suffering nations.

The update has come only two days after the World Bank approved additional financing of $250 million for Outcomes for Accelerated Learning (GOAL), a programme which aims to improve education results for children across Gujarat, the only state in India, where such a programme is being implemented. Education system in Gujarat has almost 12 million students, 65 per cent of which are in remote regions of ‘priority districts’. Following the COVID-19 crisis, the state estimated learning losses of about 10 per cent, with students in priority areas being disproportionately impacted. The latest financing complements the original loan of $500 million approved in March 2021. This Rapid Response Framework seeks to reach every child and retain them in schools, assess learning levels regularity, prioritise teaching the fundamentals, increase catch-up learning, and develop psychological health for students and teachers. The additional financing will scale-up the coverage from original 9000 to 12000 schools.

It should be noted that India is home to almost 25 per cent of world’s children (over 2.2 billion), and students not only of Gujarat but of all the states in the country have been in need of such programmes to overcome learning poverty. The recent data available for a few countries, for example, for the state of Karnataka in India, shows learning losses equivalent to the extent of the school closure – meaning that one year of school closures maps to roughly one year of normal learning that was not achieved or was forgotten, the update says. World average of closure of in-person schooling was 141 days with highest of 273 days in South Asia.

The update further says that the actual learning data now emerging from numerous countries show that there have been very large learning losses. More recent results from both lower- and upper-middle-income countries find even larger losses. For example, it says that in India, between 2017 and 2021, average language and math scores for 5th graders on the national assessment have declined.

As response to the school closures countries resorted to remote learning, but due to lack of connectivity and the existence of a wide digital divide the efforts were found to have very low level of success, and insufficient to compensate for the learning losses. It failed for most students, and only the richer segments of the population—those with broadband connectivity, access to devices for the use of each family member, a place to study, availability of books and learning material, and a conducive home environment, among other conditions—were able to maintain a reasonable level of education engagement. It widened the inequality in education.

The latest update has even quotes a 16 year old student Shirin Rajesh from India as saying “…Schools haven’t cut back much on their curricular expectations and “ineffective” learning becomes detrimental for students in the long run…It’s a struggle to tackle the never-ending list of assignments, especially with mental health issues in teens being at an all-time high.”

Drawing on recent experiences with accelerating learning at scale, UNICEF, UNESCO, and the World Bank have also recently proposed the RAPID strategy of learning recovery and acceleration. It gives specific example of Gujarat, that has realigned the entire curriculum for the first quarter of the academic year to focus on foundational learning. Results from the Periodic Assessment Tests (PAT), a weekly assessment that began pre-pandemic, were used to personalize remote education to the level of each student during school closures. In addition, Gujarat has used a mix of low- and high-tech interventions to deliver personalized, adaptive education to each student.

Ten-year-olds unable to read and understand a simple story increasing to 7 out of 10 is very high in low- and middle income countries with exacerbated inequalities in education. We have narrow window to act decisively to recover and accelerate learning, but without urgent action to reduce it we face a learning and human capital catastrophe, the update summarized. If children do not acquire the basics of literacy – together with numeracy and other foundational skills – the futures of hundreds of millions of children around the world, and their societies, are at grave risk. However, our action will require firm political commitment and implementation of evidence-based approaches for rapid impact.

Without action, the current generation now risks losing $21 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value, or equivalent to 17 per cent of today’s global GDP. In low- and middle-income countries it implies an annual loss of $975 per person. Recovering from this massive shock with exacerbating inequality in education, we require broader national coalitions of families, educators, civil society, the business community, and other ministries of the government with firm political will, the update says. National commitments to education require that all actors align in the design and implementation of reforms with the sole objective of improving the education and wellbeing of children and youth—not the positions or interests of political parties or unions, nor the interest of suppliers, vendors, or providers, or any other education stakeholders, but only the interest of students. (IPA Service)

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