Kohima: In a country where the marginalised communities have to work harder than anyone else to attain education, the COVID-19 pandemic and the push for online education has caused irreparable damage. And one only needs to look at Nagaland to understand the true cost school students are paying for being from poor backgrounds in regions where mobile connectivity is patchy at best and non-existent at its worst.
This was visible in the recently-declared High School Leaving Certificate (HSLC) examination results. The learning disparity between students studying in private schools and government schools in Nagaland has never been laid out more than now. The overall pass percentage of students in the government schools dropped to 44.86% from 47.40% in 2020. Out of 4,902 students from government schools who were enrolled for the exam, 2,199—of which 907 are male and 1,292 are female—passed the examination. These are shocking numbers for any state, even more for a state which has a literacy rate of almost 80% as per Census 2011.
The pass percentage in government schools has been witnessing an increase for the past few years, until it dropped this year. This reflects how bad the situation was in these schools even before the pandemic hit. The pass percentage of the government schools in the past five years is 32.81% in 2016, 42.60% in 2017, 40.77% in 2018, 43.32% in 2019, and 47.40% in 2020 as reported earlier.
Although the overall pass percentage for private schools slightly declined to 85.58% in comparison to 86.28% last year, no private school in the state recorded a nil (zero) result this year. However, 23 schools in the state, all of which are government run, recorded nil results in the recently declared HSLC examination. Last year, 34 schools recorded nil results, out of which 30 were government schools and 4 were private.
A female student, who failed the HSLC exam, told EastMojo about the difficulties she faced in catching up with the e-learning system.
“Our teachers sent us notes through WhatsApp. Mobile network connectivity is very poor in my village, so I used to download the notes, copy them down and then try to learn. But it was very difficult for me to understand since there was no explanation,” she said.
In the physical classroom, the teachers would take lessons in English and explain concepts in the local dialect to make it easier for the students to understand. Now the students were left to understand concepts on their own. According to this student, the teachers could not provide notes for all chapters across subjects.
The student, with no access to a personal mobile phone, relied on the device that her mother owns, also sharing it with her younger siblings who attended the online classes. “I have enough time to study at home but I struggled to understand the lessons. I also took tuitions before the exam but could not pass.”
She said that her parents, both of whom are farmers, have been very supportive.
Another student said he could use his elder sister’s phone for the online classes when she was home from Kohima during the lockdown. “But whenever she returned back to Kohima for her studies, I did not have any device at home and my parents couldn’t buy me one.”
While the school education department has also been providing free video lessons for the students, he said it was hard to learn through the videos as he struggled to understand and follow up with the pace of teaching.
“Science and Math were very difficult for me. Although we got some notes from the teachers, it was hard for me to learn and comprehend the lessons since there was no explanation and my English language is not very good. I knew that I couldn’t clear the exam,” he said.
When coaching institutes open in Kohima, he hopes to take tuitions and prepare for the next HSLC examination.
It is no doubt that the pandemic ushered in the need to create digital literacy in the existing education system. While each student has their own struggles, it likely widened the learning outcome among students studying in the private sector versus the government sector.
A top official of the Nagaland Education department, however, said this was reflective of the difference between ‘good students’ and the not-so-good ones.
“The good students have performed better because of the pandemic. Last year, there were 51 toppers in the Top 20; and year before last, there were 55 toppers. This year, the toppers increased to 82. This shows that the good students are utilising their time really well because of the pandemic while sitting at home,” Principal Director of school education, Shanavas C, told EastMojo.
According to the official, the gap in the learning outcome among students should be attributed to the pandemic, which affected education systems across the world.
Shanavas also blamed the teachers, saying that many educators, especially in government schools, did not take their classes seriously. “If there are no teachers, the students also do not study. That must be another reason,” he said.
During a recent state-level meeting of the education committee, the education department proposed down-gradation of schools that produce nil results for three years.
“The department will analyse the schools on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Lack of supervision in government schools
Another official of the education department, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told EastMojo that there is “no supervisory mechanism” in place to regulate and monitor the performance of students in government schools.
“There is a lack of dedication among teachers in government schools as compared to the private schools. No punitive action is taken against schools when there is bad performance. Even when a school gets a nil result, no responsibility has been fixed. Many teachers and faculty also have a feeling that they are not answerable,” the source said.
This official also put the majority of the blame on teachers. “The pandemic was common to everyone. The teachers were getting their pay and they were directed to be in station to help the students since many online activities were conducted by the department to help students. But many teachers failed to contribute on their part.”
Bridging the gap
Yonglong Konyak, teacher-in-charge at the government High School in Mon village, which recorded a nil result in the recently declared HSLC examination, spoke of the challenges faced by teachers in trying to bridge the learning gap among students amid the pandemic as schools remained closed.
“We had a huge difficulty in bridging the gap between us — the teachers and students — as our schools were closed due to COVID-19. There are no teachers’ quarters in the village, so most of us stay in rented houses in nearby towns. With permission from the concerned authorities, we go to the villages to give notes for all subjects,” he said.
As many students were unable to afford mobile phones for attending online classes, he said, the teachers would print notes using the lone printer that the school owns. However, due to the printing overload, he said the machine broke down and is awaiting repairs due to the current COVID-19 restrictions in the state, since the nearest repair shop would be in Jorhat or Dimapur.
Konyak said their school was upgraded to a high school recently and the first HSLC batch appeared for the board exams in 2019. This is also the first time that the school recorded a nil result with all 6 students who appeared for the exam having failed.
At present, other than 9 teachers managing over 90 students from classes 6-10, the school has no headmaster/headmistress or Principal and non-teaching staff.
“I have written to the District Education Officer (DEO) informing them about the shortage of staff. If one teacher falls sick or takes leave, we face a lot of problems,” he said.
The teacher told EastMojo that during the past years, World Vision, an NGO, has been sponsoring Class 10 students by paying their hostel fees to undergo tutions 2-3 months before the board exams. However, due to the pandemic, the sponsorship stopped. The hostels remained shut and students were required to study from home.
Konyak said students enrolled in the school were not really good in studies, as most of them were dropouts from schools in the town.
“We usually provide very simple notes for the students to learn. But last year, although we distributed printed notes, our efforts were also limited. This could be one factor for the poor results,” he said.
While the students were off for some months on their own, he said that ahead of the winter break, the teachers organized a coaching camp at the school. No student turned up.
“We made an effort to give coaching but not even one student showed up. There’s been limited effort on their part also,” he said.
Due to the pandemic that forced closure of the school, he said the number of tests and assignments conducted also reduced drastically. As parents of most students are uneducated farmers, he said, there were instances of students taking advantage of the parents. “Lack of a study environment at home also affects a student’s interest in academics.”
The unpleasant rumor
Kevi Tase, a teacher at Government High School in Zhadima under Kohima district, told EastMojo that an unpleasant rumor among students in the village also played a part. This year, the school recorded 42% pass percentage, a decline by 41% as compared to 83% last year.
“We faced a massive communication gap. Most of our children had no access to online classes, although we provided printed notes. The students were also not very serious with their studies. There was also a rumor among the students that the invigilators for board exams would be very lenient due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected our schooling system,” he said.
One of the main reasons behind the poor performance of students, according to Tase, was the inability of the students to comprehend the questions that were asked in the examination.
“We tried our best but we could not reach out to our students in the manner that they might have wanted us to reach them. We could not conduct as many tests and assignments in comparison to other years,” he said.
Tase said the students who could not clear the board exam mainly failed in subjects like Math and Science. “We did not expect some of them to fail since their performance was quite good in the past. Many of them scored above 70 in the other subjects but failed in the two major subjects.”
For many students in Nagaland, failing the board examination means the end of learning, especially for the female students. “Parents play a very important role in encouraging students to study. It is sad that some parents never ask about how the students are doing but only ask about their results,” Tase said.
The Senior District Education Officer (SDEO) of Longleng, Shamthei, blamed poor network connectivity and the inaccessibility of technology as major factors responsible for the nil result of Government High School at Namching under the district.
Despite a drop in the pass percentage among government schools in Nagaland, several government schools have also recorded a 100% pass percentage. As per the recently declared HSLC examination results by the Nagaland Board of School Education, 25 government schools — 11 in Mokokchung, five in Phek, four in Kohima, two each in Tuensang and Phek, and one in Peren — out of 259 recorded a 100% pass percentage.
As reported earlier, in the government sector, Nagaland has 1069 primary schools, 627 middle schools, 247 high schools, and 44 higher secondary schools. These institutions have a total of around 1,69,548 students. There are 2,752 private schools in Nagaland.
Decline in quality education
Meanwhile, as per a recent NITI Aayog report, Nagaland has witnessed a decline in quality education in 2020. Through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Vision 2030, the government aims to focus on quality education linked with enhanced learning outcomes, enhance teacher training, improve infrastructure and promote entrepreneurship and increase employability.
Nagaland has set a target of 100 percent literacy, 100% enrolment in primary education, zero percent or near 0% drop-out rate at school level, 100% or near 100% pass for primary education, and 100% enrolment rate of children with special needs.
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