Nearly 24 million children have been estimated to be at the risk of dropping out of school, according to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).
Data has also revealed that the largest share of children at the risk of not returning to school is in the south and west Asia. Interestingly, the National Sample Survey Organisation's 2017-18 survey pointed out that the number of out-of-school children in India stood at 3.22 crore.
However, this number has been projected to double itself due to the global education emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This will double in a year's time. With schools shut for nearly six months, we are already seeing children especially in rural areas helping their parents in MNREGA schemes. The longer the gap in learning, the more disinterested they get and eventually exit the education system. It's dangerous," said V.P. Niranjanaradhya, fellow and programme head, universalisation of education, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.
Apart from parents losing jobs, another common reason for children in the country to drop out of education is poor digital infrastructure.
Turning the crisis into an opportunity is an educationist who is providing free of cost lessons specifically to out-of-school children and underprivileged youth. She plans to eradicate illiteracy with her initiative.
Dr Sunita Gandhi kick-started her 'Global Dream Shaala' to provide free classes for out-of-school children in Uttar Pradesh. She said that she aims to replicate the learning model in other parts of the country.
According to media reports, the initiative is completely driven by volunteers and is based on the principle of asking children what they know rather than making them repeat the lessons. Hence, the learning process is dynamic depending upon each child's need rather than implementing a uniform structure.
As many as 22 women volunteers in Lucknow's Karauni village were trained under the pilot project and these women then turned teachers and prepared 180 other women to take literacy tests. Together, they upskilled more than 800 women in the village and made them capable of reading, writing, numeracy
The Global Dream Toolkit, priced at ₹50 per pack is used as a curriculum to teach illiterate people, help learners start to read much faster than other existing primers and curriculums.
Many learners can begin to read within one to two months with just 15 minutes of learning sessions per day. The toolkit has 30 lessons which include 60 short videos, books, alphabet cutouts and stationery items.
"Some of my students are unlettered despite having attended school. They have been told they are 'nalayak' (useless) and beaten up. But it's not that they don't know things, 24-year-old Tom Delaney, a literacy programme trainer told The Times of India.
A unique learning technique has been incorporated into project execution. The toolkit begins with learners relating pictures that are known to them with their first sounds and then combine two sounds to make real words.
This takes a learner from the known (picture) to the picture's first sound (also known) to the letter symbol (the unknown). This keeps the learner engaged by making mind connections which is vastly different from rote learning.
"Our primary objective with Global Dream Shaala is to provide a zero-cost scale-up model of learning that is both quick and effective, and that makes learning gain real every day. This keeps the motivation of both volunteers and learners high," said Dr. Sunita.
Talking about the role of the teachers and the expansion of the project, the social entrepreneur said that the volunteers play a key role in motivating learners and facilitating their learning. With continuous training, the volunteers also become literate in the process which boosts the chances of scaling up these projects across the state and eventually spreading to Tier 2 and 3 cities and to pull the children from basic literacy to Class 3 and 5 levels within the program.
"In India, we need to consider a vastly different education, learn from global research. Out of the three-levels of reform, one is the content itself, which happens to be things that you can look up on the internet, things that you already know or can know just through rote learning or reading. Content has to be rethought of.
Second, the process by which we teach and learn is pretty archaic and old. They need to reform dramatically. We find a lot of kids get dropped out along the way or the interest wanes, they're not motivated by the system of education.
We think that children should be strong enough to take care of themselves and or parents will take care of that side of things. But the reality is that many children are falling out of the cracks and they're not being able to lift themselves up again and see themselves as having any meaningful engagement with life because they feel they're not good enough," she explained.
She further added that the education system needs to be designed in a way that makes every child feel capable of getting the highest success and worthy to be serving their own families and communities.
Hinting at her plans to expand the project, she said, "As education became inaccessible for lakhs during the pandemic we hope to provide functional literacy to the people."