These learning losses among the disadvantaged children at an early age could lead to more inequality in the future

It should come as no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic has affected the health, learning and psychological well-being of young children, as revealed by a UNICEF study. The Early Childhood Development Index (ECDI) survey has shown that one in five children aged between two and four years in Nepal was not developing properly. With all educational facilities closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown, young children could not access early childhood education (ECE) programmes outside their homes, while the parents were unable to engage in early stimulation activities, so necessary for the children's development and learning. And as always is the case, it's the family's socio-economic status that determines how severe the negative impact of the pandemic on the learning process is. Whether a student is a boy or girl, where they live and the type of school they go are factors that decide their developmental needs. What is worrisome is that these learning losses among the disadvantaged children at an early age could lead to more inequality in the future.

The survey has shown that children coming from lower income families living in the rural areas with caregivers having little or no education were especially disadvantaged. And even among those who attended ECE, there is a clear divide between those who attended government ECE and private ones, with the former at a higher risk of being developmentally "off-track". The reasons behind the developmental gap between young children attending private ECE and government ECE are obvious.

Low-tech alternative learning solutions, specified by the National Emergency Action Plan, such as educational radio and TV, and tele-teaching were almost unused while high-tech modalities such as online class were used exclusively by those attending private ECE.

A lot of emphasis is put on early childhood education these days as it prepares children for kindergarten to class 12 education. In a pre-school setting, children learn social skills like listening, sharing, and taking turns with others. ECE has also shown to help children perform better in maths and reading while building a lasting love for learning past high school.

Thus, there is a need for all the stakeholders – the government, teachers, parents and development partners – to pay special attention to ECE so that it is not jeopardised even in adverse situations, such as the present pandemic. Parenting education is equally important to enhance early stimulation activities, such as reading child-friendly books, telling stories, singing songs, playing with them, drawing things together.

The pandemic is far from over, with it throwing up one variant of the virus after another every few months. In a situation like this when we never know if schools will have to close down at short notice, there is no option other than to look for alternative methods of teaching and learning so that the mental and psychological growth of children is not hampered.

The efforts made during the pandemic to introduce online teaching, though not to the desired level, is exemplary. There must now be concerted efforts to enhance the access of students and teachers to ICT both at home and in school.

Investment pledge

Nepal has not been able to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) despite the legal and procedural reforms made in the recent years. Last year also, Nepal received Rs 38 billion investment in pledges from various countries, but it actually received only half the amount, or Rs 19 billion, which is meager compared to what India received as FDI in the same period.

As per the Department of Industries, Nepal has received investment commitments of Rs 30 billion for 122 industries, mostly in the service-oriented sector, in the first five months of the current fiscal. The investment pledge is largely focussed on agriculture and forest products, energy-based industry, ITand production-based industries.

The Investment Board Nepal, which is responsible for handling FDI, should launch a thorough inquiry as to why FDI has not been coming to Nepal despite making legal reforms, which allow the investors to repatriate their profits back to their countries. Better infrastructure and good connectivity, reliable supply of electricity and a cheap labour force are the prerequisites to attract the FDI. Bureaucratic hassles are said to be the major stumbling block to bringing in more FDI, mainly in the productive sector.

A version of this article appears in the print on December 23, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.