In earlier articles, I pointed out the risks posed to the Public Education System (PES) by the Right to Education Act (link) and by failed ideas of public education in the US being transported here (link). These risks are all the more distressing because we needn't take them at all - significant improvements can be achieved in the State-run schools with small, inexpensive but targeted interventions.

My experience in the field for nearly a decade has taught me low cost interventions that are participatory in nature and based on sound management concepts do offer viable solutions, that cannot be obtained from mega programs backed by big bucks. Sikshana is such an effort, aimed at evolving a sustainable model that works for the Public Education System.

Learning in the field

Sikshana recognised right from start that no two schools are the same, just as no two children are identical. Each has its own unique problems, for which local solutions need to be found, since no one knows more about these issues than the stakeholders who are closest to them. Any proposed solution must be owned by the school and the community around it in letter and spirit in order to be successful. It is only to be expected that solutions based on standard templates and forced top down do not invariably work in this environment. Further, external agencies can only be instrumental in developing the necessary skills to identify the problems and finding appropriate solutions, and in providing resources to implement the latter.

A number of examples can be cited in support of the above. If a student, fluent in talking in his mother tongue and more, is unable to read a text in his own language, the reason, invariably, is that there aren't any reading materials at home other than the textbook to practice the skill. Poor families such as the ones these students come from do not spend money buying newspapers or books. Similarly, If a child is unable to write fluently, it is often because of lack of practice; their parents cannot be expected to spend money buying blank sheets of paper to try out writing when they cannot even provide enough notebooks for classroom work.

Simply making available these two essential inputs - reading materials and blank sheets - can and do produce amazing improvements in the learning levels of children.

But here is the challenge for the State and the bureaucracy - the requisite sensitivity to local issues is difficult to develop sitting far away from the scene of action, however well intentioned the implementing agencies may be. This kind of 'learning on the ground' is only possible by being there at the site and keeping all communication channels open from everyone - the children themselves, parents, teachers, school administrators and the members of the community. It is not surprising, therefore, that each one of the 'signature' Sikshana initiatives owes its origin to one or the other of the above.

Systemic issues

The teachers in government schools are invariably as qualified and experienced, if not more than what is obtained in the private stream, and also well compensated. But these teachers are trapped by systemic issues, many of which only the State can address.

It is a grave error on the part of States to treat the teachers like other government employees - whatever be the administrative compulsions. In a feudal society - which we continue to be - this gets reflected in their treatment at the hands of their superiors on a personal level. I became aware of this when I found I could not make many Headmasters sit in front of me during my routine visits despite persuasion; one of them frankly told me that if he gets used to this habit, he may have a serious issue when he takes a seat by mistake in front of his superiors! Such an environment encourages obedience - even servility - and not certainly attitudes like dedication or innovation that good teaching demands. This in turn sets the norm for the treatment of the child by the teacher.

If you add to this the range of issues that they face such as illogical postings/ transfers, non-teaching duties and bureaucratic control of teaching processes - you have a recipe for failure and that is what we are getting from the system. Many of these are beyond the ambit of voluntary sector initiatives, and will have to wait for more enlightened governance to wipe them away.

Focus on motivation

Voluntary Sector Organisations active in the field of Education however, can make a difference by focusing on other aspects that are normally beyond the reach of the State. One important area in this context is motivation. If we stop to think about it, there is no reason why a public school should in any way be inferior to a private school, given children of the same profile. The problem is that teachers in public schools are not as productive as they could be. This is partly because they lack a clear focus for their work and they are not sufficiently motivated to do the best they can in the class room. Hence Sikshana focused on this aspect as a tool in its approach to teachers.

No two schools are the same, just as no two children are identical. Each has its own unique problems, for which local solutions need to be found, since no one knows more about these issues than the stakeholders who are closest to them.

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In the process, Sikshana opened up a channel of communication with the staff; just asking them what they wanted elicited an emotional reaction. One of the Headmasters was moved to tears, saying it was the first time in his long years of experience that anyone had asked him what his school wanted. It is not that the school was not getting stuff; usually he will be asked to come to an office and collect what is allotted, or someone will come and drop off the stuff in the school. But he'd never been asked if he had a wish list of his own. This one step we took achieved a lot more than what we anticipated.

We followed this up with another initiative: entrusting responsibility to teachers, and reposing trust in them to get things done, backed by an appeal to their individual and collective self-esteem. How could they allow themselves to send children along to higher grades without ensuring that they had the necessary skills to cope at that level?

A cursory look at the ASER report shows how deficient the students are in respect of the basic skills in various Grades. Sikshana addressed these shortfalls in learning of 4th/7th Graders through a dual process: 'goal setting' and shifting the focus from merely running through the syllabus to actually acquiring skills.. We offered to fund a volunteer teacher to assist the existing staff so that they can handle the latter.

Initially this was tried out in 250 schools for three specific skills- reading in own language/ English and computation up to division of simple numbers. The enthusiastic co-operation from the schools belied all expectations. In 250 schools covered by the program, it has achieved 70-90 per cent compliance to the skills defined under ASER (Annual Survey of Education Report). These are against corresponding State averages that range from as low as 15 per cent to 67 per cent.

This performance could justifiably be considered as a breakthrough in constructive engagement with the schools at a statistically valid level of experimentation. The reception from the schools to the idea of upgrading skills through this program was so positive that we intend to take it up during the ensuing academic year with enhanced scope - covering Grades V and VI and additional skills including writing in Kannada/English. The schools themselves have accepted to set a high target - that no student will go into the High School without acquiring five specified learning skills: fluency in reading and writing in one's own language/ English, and basic computation.

Even if demonstrated at a 85% compliance level, such a performance will have a far-reaching impact on the Public Education System.

Motivation isn't just for headmasters and teachers; indeed, we extended this concept to the children too. Invariably, students in State-run schools come from an environment in which reward for a good act is scarce, if not absent altogether. Sikshana came up with a scheme for rewarding kids for their good performance - with 'spot prizes', the teacher being entrusted with total freedom of choose and decide which efforts to reward. Incidentally, this also made a big difference to the morale of the teachers, who felt 'empowered' by the scheme - something that cannot be expected from the bureaucratic system to which they are accustomed.

This initiative was such a hit that many other organisations we have shared our experiences with have also started implementing similar programs in their schools. Sikshana is full of such initiatives that have been extremely useful at the ground level - and popular with the students and the staff. These micro-interventions are capable of producing higher learning outcomes across the PES and deserve to be considered seriously for adoption by the State.

Sikshana is also a low cost effort, designed to ensure scalability. The typical cost is around Rs.400 per student per annum. The State is already spending in excess of Rs.8000 per student per annum in primary schooling, but this has not ensured acceptable learning outcomes. Throwing more money into the same things the PES now does, therefore, is not going to make its problems disappear. What we need instead is better targeting of the proposed additional expenditure.

We certainly need more funds for ensuring optimal infrastructure and bringing in adequate teachers. But beyond this, the funds earmarked for public education should be spent through decentralised programs like Sikshana that are designed to meet the less glamorous but more essential needs of a school at the micro-level rather than on capital intensive schemes. After all, how relevant is a satellite-based educational network to a school which is struggling to find funds to buy chalk and dusters? Or to keep their toilets clean, without which they are kept locked.

We have always been a country with a strong preference for large projects and schemes, and have paid very little attention to micro-level interventions needed in every sector to ensure development. Education too has suffered from this malady, like other sectors. This model is now at its breaking point. Massive levels of functional illiteracy, poor health, and homelessness are now staring us in the face, forcing us to swallow the pride we had in such grand designs and make a course correction. It is time our priorities are set in the right direction.