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No point keeping them home, get children back to school



Get children back to school

Technology is all fine but only for tech-savvy students, in villages and remote areas of J&K, the case is not so

Dr Mehnaaz Rehman

Get children back to schoolScreen timings are good for entertainment but getting educated on the screen is entirely a different cup of coffee. It is obvious that academic development will suffer. More importantly, behavioural changes such as impatience and aggression are emerging. This is only going to increase in case the children sit back home and at the end of the session go on protest for the cancellation of the exams. Older children are susceptible to depression. They cannot play sports. They are talking like adults but without the kernel in what they speak. Two sessions have gone, and if now also they sit back at home, the third one too stands on the edge. Get children back to school. Two years without being in school is a bit indigestible, but that is where things stand now. The children are lagging, and this long break may affect them for years they have to travel in life. The situation is pretty bad on the educational front in the Union Territory, and it is time to take harsh decisions.
I will give you a small example here which I did read and this one really gives hope that where the will is there, things can move along even in the most difficult of times and this one is though the virus seems nowhere in the vicinity, it still is. Hiware Bazar, a village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, got rid of Covid in mid-May this year, and it became the first place in the country to reopen schools since the second wave pandemic stormed the nation. Not only did it start its schools, but the village has also gone one step ahead and asked the state government of Maharashtra to think on similar lines and reopen the schools in rural areas where Covid-19 cases have come down significantly. Schools from standard V to standard X have started functioning in the village, recording almost 100 percent attendance. It was the parents and teachers who called for opening the schools. They vehemently said that education with the help of smartphones was no education. Though it could be a substitute as a stop-gap arrangement, it definitely in no way could replace the time and tested mode of teaching. The village panchayat officials coordinated with teachers, doctors and Zilla Parishad officials to prepare for reopening schools, and from June 15, children started going to school again. This could have been followed here too in J&K. The children in UT Jammu and Kashmir rural areas are struggling, straggling and suffering education-wise because they have realized that free passes to the next classes will not help them in future. The school which I’m talking about did nothing big or spectacular but stressed the basics. They are following Covid-appropriate behaviour to keep the virus away. The village panchayat has enforced a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to ensure schools run smoothly and that risk to children, teachers or parents is minimized. Minimal physical interaction is key. Outdoor games have been stopped so that students don’t come in close contact with one another. School timings have been reduced to three hours, and there is no lunch break. Social-distancing norms and the wearing of masks are strictly followed. Classrooms and toilets are sanitized regularly, and every child, teacher, and non-teaching staff member is screened for Covid symptoms. Incidentally, the school does not have official permission to function as the state has not allowed educational institutions to reopen. But at the same time, the district education officials have not stopped the schools from working. No one will unduly interfere in the function of the schools provided the laid down norms are followed. By now even the children have realized that this virus hits goddamn hard so it is better to keep away from it and not let the educational aspects suffer and without it, the load on the shoulders is bound to increase and a time would come down the years that they would not be able to carry it on their fragile shoulders!

If you are sitting with a book in hand, just say to yourself, you are not reading this book because a teacher assigned it to you. You are reading it because you have a desire to learn, and the desire to learn is the biggest advantage you can have. One more thing, the distance between knowledge and wisdom is enlightenment, and technology cannot fulfil it.

Other than opening sporadically for older children, schools have remained closed since March 2020. Education has been conspicuous by its absence from government agendas. We understand the concern around safety. But, as parents, the focus on opening indoor spaces other than schools is worrying. The stress seems to be on competitive exams and not on the basic levels, where gaining knowledge and learning the concepts are the most important facets. Safety must be balanced with physical and mental development. As a fourth-grade teacher in the US described it, virtual learning has reduced the ‘collaborative magic of the classroom’ into little more than an instructional video’.
The elected leadership may not want to admit it, but digital India is still some time away. According to Save the Children, during the first wave in 2020, three out of every four children had no internet access and four out of five children reported obstacles to learning (including the inability to understand and too many chores). Many families would have more than one school-going child, but one smartphone, if at all. Many parents cannot assist their children given their own lack of education. Many children have been deprived of mid-day meals, thereby increasing the burden on already struggling families there are reports of children being forced into child labour and marriage. Even while writing about it one feels bad but the same is, actually, happening.
With the growing popularity of e-learning, it occurred to me that this should mean more than electronic. If we are going to call it e-learning, shouldn’t it be effective, efficient, and engaging? No doubt again that the teachers try to make the whole process interesting but do the children really listen and grasp as to what their teacher is trying to explain to them? Some do but maximum doesn’t. It has almost been 17 months now that this has been going on but still, it makes one believe with more affirmation that the most effective learning takes place in the classroom, where you can easily raise your hand, engage in spontaneous discussions with classmates and faculty, turn to the person next to you to ask for clarification, or approach the teacher/professor after the class or during office hours to ask questions or exchange viewpoints in a way that practically guarantees an instant response and is not constrained by typing, software interfaces, or waiting for a response.
I have heard teachers saying, we are sceptical that distance education based on asynchronous internet technologies (i.e., prerecorded video, online forums, and email) is a substitute for live classroom discussion and other on-campus interaction. In this sense, the process of dialogue between an instructor and the student is actually limited by technology. India’s failure to designate school staff as frontline workers was a costly mistake. On the contrary, government school teachers were deployed for elections and management of quarantine centres.

There is no doubt that the teachers have tried and given their best but have limited ability to teach fundamental concepts and enforce discipline by the usage of technology. It simply cannot be done. The touch and feeling closer matters a lot, and digitized learning cannot cater for that. Knowledge is available on the web in abundance and no doubt about that but the fact the same has to be understood. If there is no basic knowledge of the same, then how would a child learn? That is the difficulty being faced.  Young students have limited ability to learn. They cannot.  At the best, they can mug up the rant and the rote but that is just not the solution.

Education is the only way India will emerge from the clutches of poverty. Our future generations are not only being deprived of education but are also undergoing physical and mental damage. We can do everything to save ourselves today, but prolonged school closures are jeopardizing the future, perhaps in ways, we do not yet understand. Other countries might be able to get everything back in place in no time, the same cannot be said in the Indian context. It took years for our nation to break the shackles of illiteracy and provide education to children including the vulnerable sections of the society and it might take years again to get back on track if there is any further delay in the re-opening of schools.
Covid-19 has sent the learning and education of children their health and well-being reeling. Everything looks haphazard and confusing. The fear that we are unsafe still stalks but we have to move on. By not thinking about the reopening of schools, we are compromising with their present and future. Let us ensure that we do not take the nation and the future generation back to medieval times. Therefore the action now is most important rather than sitting back and pondering. What would be the use of high pedigreed competitive exams when there would be no competition at all? This way we are heading towards that scenario.
An exploring mind is the most precious gift in life and it’s very keen to learn without any judgmental eye. Online learning was a great experience for the teachers and the students here in the Union Territory but it’s time to get back to the classrooms because it is the children who are losing it on time. This is their time to learn and not to sit back in the dreamland of their own because ten years from now it won’t really matter what school you attended, whether online or offline education, free or paid, widely known or not, what will matter most is what you learned, the skills you acquired and how you leveraged it. No one will talk about the pandemic you lived through, but they will definitely ask a couple of things, did you waste time or did you learn something to enhance your knowledge. The second would be, if you wasted time there is no place for you here but if you learnt something then show us what you can do? This is the script that is being written by some invisible hands for the future of the children today! Trust me, it is being or may have already because the future is not far away!

The author is Vice Principal of Ayesha Ali Academy, Kanipora, Kulgam

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Future Education and Sustainability 



Future Education and Sustainability 

Altaf Hussain Haji

Foundational literacy and numeracyFor the sustainability of social justice and equality, learning for all is a global agenda. Thus, education is the single important tool for achieving social justice and equality. The education system aims to benefit children so that no child loses any opportunity to learn and excel because of circumstances of birth or background. 

As we know that the Indian education system and government policies have made steady progress towards bridging gender and social category gaps in all levels of school education, disparities still remain, especially at the secondary level. It is particularly true for Socio Educationally Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs) that have been historically underrepresented in education. , 

There have been various successful policies and schemes, such as targeted scholarships, conditional cash transfers to incentivize parents for sending their children to school, etc. Also, providing bicycles for transport and other such incentives have significantly increased participation of Socio Educationally Disadvantaged Groups in the schooling system in certain areas. These successful policies and schemes need enhancement across the country as per the data available.

The new policy on education reaffirms that bridging the social category gaps in access, participation, and learning outcomes in school education may continue to be one of the main goals of all education sector development programmes for equitable and inclusive education.

In view of the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020, the various critical problems and recommendations made for equitable and inclusive education by the government for foundational literacy and numeracy, access, enrolment, and attendance are particularly relevant and necessary for underrepresented and disadvantaged groups. 

The official and administrative data show that some geographical areas contain significantly larger proportions of Socio Educationally Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs). These areas have been identified as aspirational districts and require special interventions for promoting their educational development. Hence, it is recommended that regions of the country with a large population from educationally disadvantaged groups should be declared Special Education Zones (SEZs), where all the schemes and policies are implemented to the maximum through additional concerted efforts, to truly change their educational landscape keeping in mind gender-based quality education.

In addition, the Government of India will constitute a ‘Gender-Inclusion Fund’ to build the nation’s capacity to provide equitable quality education for all girls and transgender students. The fund will be available to States to implement priorities determined by the Central government critical for assisting female and transgender children in gaining access to education. These funds will also enable states to support and scale effective community-based interventions that address local context-specific barriers to female and transgender children access to and participation in education. Similarly, inclusive fund schemes should be developed to address access issues for other SEDGs. In essence, this policy aims to eliminate any remaining disparity in access to education (including vocational education) for children from any gender or other socio-economically disadvantaged group.

Education for Children with Disabilities

Ensuring the inclusion and equal participation of children with disabilities in early childhood care and education (ECCE) and the schooling system will also be accorded the highest priority. Children with disabilities will be enabled to fully participate in the regular schooling process from the Foundational Stage to higher education.

According to NEP 2020, schools or school complexes will be provided resources for integrating children with disabilities, recruiting special educators with cross-disability training, and establishing resource centres, wherever needed, especially for children with severe or multiple disabilities.

 It is to mention here that different categories of children with disabilities have different needs that the barrier-free access for all children with disabilities to enable as per the RPWD Act 2016. The children with benchmark disabilities shall have the choice of regular or special schooling. Resource centres in conjunction with special educators will support the rehabilitation and educational needs of learners with severe or multiple disabilities and assist parents or guardians in achieving high-quality homeschooling and skilling of such students. Home-based education will continue to be a choice available for children with severe and profound disabilities who are unable to go to school. The children under home-based education must be treated as equal to any other child in the general system. There shall be an audit of home-based education for its efficiency and effectiveness using the principle of equity and equality of opportunity. Guidelines for home-based schooling shall be developed based on this audit in line with the RPWD Act 2016. While it is clear that the education of all children with disabilities is the responsibility of the state, technology-based solutions are to be used for the orientation of parents/caregivers along with wide-scale dissemination of learning materials to enable parents or caregivers to actively support their child’s learning needs will be accorded on priority. 

Schools and school complexes will work for providing all children with disabilities accommodations and support mechanisms tailored to suit their needs and to ensure their full participation and inclusion in the classroom. In particular, assistive devices and appropriate technology-based tools, as well as adequate and language-appropriate teaching-learning materials, will be made available to help children with disabilities integrate more easily into classrooms and engage with teachers and their peers. Most classrooms have children with specific learning disabilities who need continuous support.

It is the duty of teachers to help identify such learning disabilities early and plan specifically for their mitigation. Specific actions will include the use of appropriate technology, allowing and enabling children to work at their own pace with flexible curricula to advantage each child’s strengths, and creating an ecosystem for appropriate assessment and certification. Assessment and certification agencies, including the proposed new National Assessment Centre, ensure equitable access and opportunities for all students with learning disabilities. This will also apply to all school activities, including arts, sports, and vocational education.

In the NEP, it is also recommended that all scholarships and other opportunities and schemes available to students under SEDGs will be coordinated and announced by a single agency to ensure that all students are aware of, and can apply in a simplified manner through a ‘single window system’ as per the eligibility.

Further, under the aegis of the Ministry of Defence, opening NCC wings in their secondary and higher secondary schools, including those located in tribal-dominated areas of different states, will be encouraged. This will enable harnessing of the natural talent and unique potential of students, which in turn would help them to aspire to a successful career in the defence forces. 

For all the above policy points, special attention is to be given to reduce the disparities in the educational development of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students. As a part of the efforts to enhance participation in school education, hostels in dedicated regions, bridge courses, and financial assistance through fee waivers and scholarships be offered to talented and meritorious students from all SEDGs on a larger scale, especially at the secondary stage of education, to facilitate their entry into higher education.

All the above policies and measures are critical to attaining full inclusion and equity for all SEDGs, but they are not sufficient. What is also required is a change in school culture. All participants in the school education system, including teachers, principals, administrators, counsellors, and students, will be sensitized to the requirements of all students, the notions of inclusion and equity, and the respect, dignity, and privacy of all persons. Such an educational culture will provide the best pathway to help students become empowered individuals who, in turn, will enable society to transform into one that is responsible towards its most vulnerable citizens. Inclusion and equity will become key aspects of teacher education, including training for leadership, administrative, and other positions in schools. Efforts are needed to recruit more high-quality teachers and leaders from SEDGs to bring in excellent role models for all students.

 In the end, according to NEP 2020, students are to be sensitized through this new school culture, brought in by teachers, trained social workers and counsellors. As well as through corresponding changes to bring in an inclusive school curriculum. The school curriculum will include, early on, the material on human values such as respect for all persons, empathy, tolerance, human rights, gender equality, nonviolence, global citizenship, inclusion, and equity. It would also include more detailed knowledge of various cultures, religions, languages, gender identities and more to sensitize and develop respect for diversity. Any biases and stereotypes in the school curriculum will be removed, and more material will be included that is relevant and relatable to all communities. The above important mentions will also help to achieve success in process of quality education of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is the main thrust for development and wellbeing at this stage of each UN member country for their nations.

Altaf Hussain Haji, ISS, is Deputy Director General National Statistical Office, Shimla. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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SKUAST-K holds webinar on Self Directed Learning



SKUAST-K holds webinar

Srinagar, Aug 26: Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Kashmir held a daylong webinar on ‘Self Directed Learning (SDL) – Veterinary Perspective’ at Shuhama Campus.

The webinar was organised by the university’s Division of Veterinary Anatomy, Faculty of Veterinary Sciences and Animal Husbandry, under the World Bank-ICAR funded National Agricultural Higher Education Project (NAHEP) for the institutional development of SKUAST-K. More than 100 students, scholars and faculty members participated in the webinar.

Head Veterinary Anatomy, Prof AR Choudhary, while welcoming the guests, deliberated on the purpose of the webinar.

Director Planning and Monitoring and PI NAHEP, Prof Nazir Ahmad Ganai, talked about the concept and importance of self-directed learning and the technologies associated with it.  Prof M Tufail Banday, Dean, FVSc & AH, in his address, highlighted the need for self-directed learning in achieving life-long learning. Dean Faculty of Fisheries, Prof Massarat Khan was also present in the webinar.

Prof Azmat Alam Khan Associate Director Research SKUAST-Kashmir presented the first lecture. He talked about Self-directed learning: concept, conduct and curriculum placement. Prof Azmat stressed on implementation of self-directed learning and its advantages for the learners to be life-long learners.

Dr Frances Shapter, Assistant professor in the School of Veterinary Science, The University of Queensland, Australia, in her lecture “Using clinical skills hub to augment veterinary technology clinical teaching” emphasised the use of simulators and other resources to augment self-directed learning in veterinary education.

Dr Firdous Assit Prof Veterinary Anatomy, in his lecture “Self-directed learning readiness of Indian Veterinary students” talked about the current scenario of acceptance of Self-directed learning in the veterinary curriculum.

A special talk on “International licensing examination” was lucidly presented by Dr Swaid Abdullah, Assist Prof in Veterinary Parasitology, The University of Queensland, Australia. He presented different international licensing examination protocols, procedures, and the ways to qualify them.

Dr Andleeb Rafiq of the Division of Veterinary Anatomy presented the vote of thanks.

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Foundational literacy and numeracy: A challenge and prerequisite for future schooling



Foundational literacy and numeracy

Altaf Hussain Haji

Foundational literacy and numeracyEducation is one of the sectors that play a crucial role in development processes at all levels in terms of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs for education is ‘quality education’ recommended by all member countries of the United Nations during sustainable development conference. Quality education is a human right and a public good. It evolves with time and is subject to social, economic and environmental conditions.

The new National Education Policy envisions an education system to contribute directly to transforming India sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society by providing high-quality education to all and thereby making the nation a global knowledge superpower. The vision of the new policy is now clear: to instil among the learners a deep-rooted pride in being Indian, not only in thought, but also in spirit, intellect, and deeds, as well as to develop knowledge, skills, values, and dispositions that support responsible commitment to human rights, sustainable development and living, and global wellbeing, thereby reflecting a truly global citizen. The policy also envisages that the curriculum and pedagogy of our institutions must develop among the students a deep sense of respect towards the Fundamental Duties and Constitutional values, bonding with one’s country, and conscious awareness of one’s roles and responsibilities in a changing world.

The new educational policy envisages the current system modified with new pedagogical and curriculam restructuring from the ministry level to the grassroots level.  This will be a great step towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Thus, the foundation of literacy and numeracy is an urgent need and prerequisite for sustainability and wellbeing.

There are various urgent and necessary prerequisites for learning at this stage, and the data available show that problems in the education system need attention. Such as universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school, a large number of vacant posts of teachers at a different level, focus on foundational literacy and numeracy, implementation of technology for high-quality education on foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school, capacity building for teachers for improving quality education and many other prerequisites.

As we know that the ability to read and write and perform basic operations with numbers is a necessary foundation and an indispensable prerequisite for all future schooling and lifelong learning. However, various government and non-government surveys indicate that we are currently in a learning crisis. A large proportion of students currently in elementary school, estimated over five crore in number, have not attained foundational literacy and numeracy — the ability to read and comprehend text and carry out additions and subtractions.

Attaining foundational literacy and numeracy for all children shall, thus, become an urgent national mission. Immediate measures need to be taken on many fronts and with clear goals to be attained in the short term including, that every student will attain foundational literacy and numeracy by Grade 3 as per the new system. The highest priority of the education system will be to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school by 2025. The rest of this policy will become relevant for our students only if this most basic learning requirement i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic at the foundational level is first achieved.  Accordingly, all State/UT Governments will have to immediately prepare an implementation plan for attaining universal foundational literacy and numeracy in all primary schools, identifying stage-wise targets and goals to be achieved by 2025, and closely tracking and monitoring the progress of the same through a setup of  National Mission on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy by the Ministry of Education.

The next step, as per the new policy, is teacher vacancies which will be filled at the earliest, in a time-bound manner especially in disadvantaged areas and areas with large pupil-to-teacher ratios or high rates of illiteracy. This is an acute problem at this time as per the unemployment situation of India to get suitable or by choice teacher among the unemployed youth.  In this situation, the new National Education Policy 2020 especially will be given to employing local teachers or those with familiarity with local languages.  Since the indicator of pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) will be ensured at the level of each school for 30 students of one teacher in a class, and in the case of areas having large numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged students will aim for a pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) for 25 students with one teacher.  Further as per the new policy the teachers will be trained, encouraged, and supported with continuous professional development and to impart foundational literacy and numeracy.

There will be also an increased focus on foundational literacy and numeracy and generally, on reading, writing, speaking, counting, arithmetic, and mathematical thinking throughout the preparatory and middle school curriculum, with a robust system of continuous formative/adaptive assessment to track and thereby individualize and ensure each student’s learning with specific hours daily and regular events over the year on activities involving these subjects will be dedicated to encourage and enthuse students. Redesign the teacher education and the early grade curriculum to have a renewed emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy.

A national repository of high-quality resources on foundational literacy and numeracy will be made available on the Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA). Thus, the technological interventions is another step to serve as aids to teachers and to help bridge any language barriers that may exist between teachers and students, will be piloted and implemented.

It was observed that due to the scale of the current learning crisis, all viable methods would be explored to support teachers in the mission of attaining universal foundational literacy and numeracy. Studies around the world show one-on-one peer tutoring to be extremely effective for learning not just for the learner but also for the tutor. Thus, peer tutoring can be taken up as a voluntary and joyful activity for fellow students under the supervision of trained teachers and by taking due care of safety aspects. Additionally, it will also be made far easier for trained volunteers from both the local community and beyond to participate in this large-scale mission. Every literate member of the community could commit to teaching one student/person how to read. It would change the nation’s landscape very quickly. States may consider establishing innovative models to foster such peer-tutoring and volunteer activities, as well as launch other programmes to support learners, in this nationwide mission to promote foundational literacy and numeracy.

Another change in the system will be a policy named National Book Promotion Policy to ensure the availability, accessibility, quality, and readership of books across geographies, languages, levels, and genres.  In this course of action, the study material for school education for students at all levels will be developed, including through high-quality translation (technology-assisted as needed) in all local and Indian languages and will be made available extensively in both school and local public libraries with the aim enjoyable and inspirational books.  The public and school libraries will be significantly expanded to build a culture of reading across the country. Digital libraries will also be established. School libraries will be set up, particularly in villages to serve the community during non-school hours, and book clubs may meet in public/school libraries to further facilitate and promote widespread reading.

At last, I want to say that children are unable to learn optimally when they are undernourished or unwell. Hence, the nutrition and health (including mental health) of children to be addressed, through healthy meals and the introduction of well-trained social workers, counsellors, and community involvement into the schooling system. Furthermore, research shows that the morning hours after a nutritious breakfast can be particularly productive for the study of cognitively more demanding subjects and hence these hours may be leveraged by providing a simple but energizing breakfast in addition to midday meals. All school children shall undergo regular National Education Policy 2020 and health check-ups, especially for complete immunization in schools, and health cards will be issued to monitor the same.

The foundational literacy and numeracy will help to achieve the successes of the targets and achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals for quality education by 2030 as committed by UN member countries in the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly during September 2016 to September 2017.  Let us hope for the successes of SDG  targets of quality education as per new policy education 2020.

Altaf Hussain Haji, ISS, is Deputy Director General National Statistical Office, Shimla. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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