School closures disproportionately harm less privileged students

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For most people around the world, how much they earn is determined by the wealth and education level of their parents. But the degree of income “persistence” from generation to generation is much higher in India than in other developing countries, a team of World Bank researchers found in a 2018 study. In other words, children of undereducated parents in India have much more difficulty climbing the education and income ladder than in other large developing countries (China, Brazil, Indonesia, Egypt and Nigeria) studied by researchers.

The pandemic-induced school closures threaten to further widen those fault lines, with children from the poorest and undereducated families falling far behind their peers. Already, the length of school closures in the country is among the longest in the world. Although it has affected more than 300 million children across India, those who do not have access to smartphones or a family member to help them with their classes have been hit the hardest. The temptation to drop out of school to increase declining family incomes is also highest among this group. And yet, these children are the least likely to receive the attention of teachers and schools, according to data from a survey by the nonprofit Pratham.

The impact of such learning losses could last a lifetime. Those who drop out may have difficulty returning to school. But some of those who remain may find peers far ahead. This could discourage first generation learners from pursuing higher education and impact lifelong earnings in an uneven labor market where the education premium has only grown over time.

Privileged learners

Even during normal years without any school closings, children from wealthier, better-educated families learn much more than those from poorer families, previous Plain Facts analysis of rural education survey data showed. Pratham in 2016. More than the type of school children attend (public or private), it is the household to which the child belongs that determines what he or she ultimately learns. The reading skills of privileged children are much higher than others, the analysis showed. The advantage of privileged children in mastery of mathematics is similar. Among disadvantaged families, children whose parents are relatively more educated tend to do better.

The data suggests that the circumstances of birth determine which child ends up being seen as “deserving” by the school system and by society in general. For those most in need, the pandemic has only added to the historical disadvantages of birth.

Gap between castes

In a socially stratified society like India, class differences tend to reflect caste differences, and educational outcomes reflect this reality. Most Indians with a university education belong to privileged castes and tend to be the sons or daughters of parents with a university education.

It also means that many students from marginalized caste groups tend to be first generation learners who struggle even in a physical classroom environment.

With limited access to computers, their struggle is much greater in today’s digital learning environment. While smartphones can bridge the gap to some extent, for many professional courses there is simply no alternative to working at the computer for performing learning tasks. Plus, as the Pratham survey showed, students from undereducated families are the least likely to even have a smartphone.

This suggests that unless corrective action is taken by educational institutions, disadvantaged students, often from historically disadvantaged caste groups, are the most likely to fail assessments or drop out of university by frustration.

Job segregation

Differences in educational attainment can in turn increase inequalities in the labor market, with “deserving” children from privileged castes and social backgrounds obtaining better paying jobs. Decent salaried jobs are in any case rare for the listed castes (SC) and the tribes (ST). Despite much angst about how government employment quotas narrow the pool of “good jobs” for advanced castes, they still dominate white-collar employment in the country. Only a tiny minority of SC / ST are able to land white-collar jobs in the country, as previous Plain Facts analysis has shown.

There is a similar division between occupational groups, with the son of a white collar being 10 times more likely to get a white collar job than a son born to a farmer.

The role of the pandemic in worsening wealth inequalities has received good attention, thanks to the soaring share prices of a few multi-billion dollar companies. Its role in widening inequality of opportunity has not received the attention it deserves.

(This is the final part of a four-part series on how the pandemic has deepened economic inequality. first part examined the growing inequalities between countries, the second part examined regional inequalities, and Part Three examined inequalities in the labor market)

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