New Delhi: As schools--closed for a large part of the last two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic--are set to re-open, the Union government has increased the budget for a key education programme, Samagra Shiksha, to Rs 37,383 crore in the 2022-23 budget, up by 20% from Rs 31,050 crore in 2021-22. Money well spent as part of this programme will be key to help children get back to school, train teachers and support them, as most other sources of the states' funds are spent on salaries and administrative expenses, finds our analysis.

The overall school education budget increased by 15.6% in 2022-23, as compared to 2021-22.

Covid-19, and school closures as a response to the pandemic, means that schools are confronting several challenges, including learning loss, ensuring Covid-19 safety norms as schools re-open, adapting to hybrid teaching models which combine in-class and digital education, and the digital divide among households.

In order to overcome these challenges, financing will be critical. Samagra Shiksha--the largest centrally sponsored scheme (CSS) on school education in India--could help states address some of these issues. Yet, since its start in 2018-19, budgets approved for the scheme have been far less than projections made by the Department of School Education and Literacy or by cabinet committees, as we explain below.

For 2022-23, despite the budget increase, central funds for Samagra Shiksha are 64.5% lower than what was asked for by the education ministry last year, in 2021-22. The amount asked for by the ministry for 2022-23 is not currently available.

In addition, overall Samagra Shiksha budgets, including state shares, have reduced in many states over the last two years.

"Covid-enforced closures have been a huge setback for children in India," said Manisha Priyam, a professor at the National Institute for Educational Planning. "To cover for the learning loss, it is important to enhance central spending through programmes such as Samagra Shiksha in "back to school" programmes, special focus on language and maths learning, and teacher training."

Samagra Shiksha funds needed for quality education, funding Right to Education Act

In terms of public financing of school education in India, while a large proportion of finances comes from a state's own budget, the majority of these funds is spent on fixed, committed liabilities such as salaries and administrative expenses. Thus, CSSs provide a window for states to prioritise other aspects, such as the quality of education and implementation of national goals as laid out in the National Education Policy.

Within CSSs related to school education in India, Samagra Shiksha forms the largest share, ranging from 50% to 90% across states. Not all states are dependent on CSSs in a similar manner. For instance, while states such as Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra are relatively less dependent on CSSs, Bihar and Rajasthan financed more than half of their education needs through CSSs in 2017-18.

Two sub-components under Samagra Shiksha--'Quality Interventions', and 'RTE entitlements'--are crucial. Under 'quality interventions', there is provision for financing in-service training for teachers; ensuring Covid-19-related safety protocols in schools; information technology and digital initiatives; academic support from block and cluster officials; and composite grants--an annual grant of which at least 10% must be used for water, sanitation and hygiene.

Through 'RTE entitlements' funds can be allocated for distribution of free textbooks and uniforms, reimbursement for private schools towards 25% reservation for children from economically weaker sections, community mobilisation and special training for out-of-school children.

After salaries for teachers, these two components are prioritised in Samagra Shiksha. In 2021-22, 'quality interventions' received 24% while 'RTE entitlements' received 16% of the budget.

Samagra Shiksha necessary to face Covid-19 challenges, support teacher training

One key concern for parents with sending their children to schools is their safety. School administrations should regularly clean all physical infrastructure, provide functioning tap connections with hand-washing facilities, along with separate toilets for girls and boys, as per the guidelines for reopening schools, by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Schools are also expected to provide face masks, and procure thermometers and screen students' health regularly.

For 2021-22, funds were also allocated for online orientation programmes for teachers on school safety and security and to encourage them to function as counsellors for giving children basic information about Covid-19, and to enable them to provide digital or online education.

Additionally, all states have been allocated funds under Samagra Shiksha for safety and security measures for children in schools, at Rs 2,000 per school. Many states have been using the 'composite grant' for cleaning of physical infrastructure, maintenance of toilets, procurement of masks, thermal scanners etc.

With Samagra Shiksha funds, schools prepare and distribute study material, including worksheets, workbooks, and activity-based learning materials, for pre-primary and primary grades.

At the elementary level, schools have used remedial teaching, the government said in its year-end review for 2021. Such programmes are partly financed through sub-interventions such as 'support at pre-primary level', 'foundational literacy and numeracy', and 'learning enhancement programmes' within 'quality interventions', all under Samagra Shiksha.

Teachers will need more training for hybrid teaching, addressing socio-emotional needs of children returning to schools and in addressing learning gaps. Majority of in-service training of teachers are funded under 'quality interventions', and the 'teacher education' components of Samagra Shiksha. The funds can also be used to strengthen State Councils for Educational Research and Training, District Institutes for Education and Training and the Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA) platform.

Further, funding for teacher training under the National Initiative for School Heads' and Teachers' Holistic Advancement (NISHTA) to understand new pedagogies are also funded through Samagra Shiksha.

Variations in prioritisation of Samagra Shiksha across states

The priority given to interventions related to school reopening differ substantially across states. For instance, in 2021-22, some of the economically better-off states, such as Himachal Pradesh (41%) and Maharashtra (39%), allocated relatively higher shares of their Samagra Shiksha budgets for 'quality interventions'.

In contrast, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar allocated much lower shares, at 13% and 15%, respectively.

In August 2021, the Union government approved continuing the Samagra Shiksha scheme for five more years from 2021-22. But the allocation of Rs 30,000 crore in 2021-22 was only 52% of the projections by the education ministry. This lower funding was also reflected in the lower budget approvals for most states by the union government from 2020 to 2022.

The lack of adequate funds remains a systemic issue and these funds allocated in 2021-22 had been exhausted in most schools by December 2021, as per interactions with frontline teachers and officials across Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.

Given the nature of the challenges, such as learning gaps and inequity, faced by children in India, the education sector needs long-term planning and sustained public financing. Thus, this increase in the Samagra Shiksha budget, as well as the broader education budget, would need to be sustained in the coming years, especially as the budget is still short of ministry projections, as the analysis shows.

Further, as a large part of public education financing in most states comes from the state budget, this increase in funding must be complemented by higher allocations in the state budgets in the coming months and the right interventions prioritised by state-specific Samagra Shiksha plans for 2022-23.

"The pandemic and associated school closure has impacted the mental wellbeing of children to a large extent. Teachers' role is no more limited to educators but they are also expected to play the role of mentors and counsellors," said Protiva Kundu, the lead of social sector at the New Delhi-based Centre For Budget and Governance Accountability. "This needs appropriate training and therefore a higher allocation towards the 'teacher education' component should be approved for states in the coming months."

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