While decades of interventions in school education, including those of a remarkable scale like the Mid-Day Meal Scheme and Right to Education, have ensured success in boosting schooling for all, the country is facing a severe crisis. Learning poverty is widespread in India where over half the children at age 10, lack proficiency in reading. Ergo, in 2020, we are still grappling with one of the most pressing questions – how do we ensure that schooling equals learning?
The first step to finding an answer is to diagnose the problem. Sub-optimal schools, segregated systems and several inter-related challenges serve as stumbling blocks, hindering learning. Even though India takes pride in housing one of the largest educational footprints with 15 lakh schools, a granular diagnostic throws out some appalling statistics. One in three schools have less than 50 students enrolled, defying the fundamental rationale of economies of scale. The pupil-teacher ratio exceeds 40 in 15 per cent of India’s schools. Further, about a lakh schools have only one teacher. On the ground, these startling statistics are reflected in rampant multi-grade, multi-level teaching – a single teacher could be teaching children from grade 1 till 8 at the same time. In sum, students are not learning, teachers are not adequately distributed, schools are too small, and systems are typically not accountable to outcomes. These challenges are like multiple rusted cogs in a suboptimal engine. Therefore, solutions that focus on oiling all parts are needed.
The NITI Aayog has embarked on an exceptional endeavour to address these challenges, finding an answer in systemic transformation. 2017 was a landmark year with the birth of the Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital (Project SATH), where three states were selected through a rigorous challenge-route which drew extensive participation from across the country. As an inflexion point in their reform journey, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha partnered with the NITI Aayog, corroborating their commitment to a bold transformation agenda. The purpose of SATH is threefold — first, to create efficiently-resourced schools; second, to facilitate quality improvements within all schools and third, to align the entire education ecosystem towards delivering outcomes. To fulfil these objectives, the states are implementing customised roadmaps with simultaneous academic and governance interventions, tailored to their own unique contexts.
School mergers are key to creating optimal-sized schools. MP has undertaken one of the largest school integration programmes ever, merging 35,000 same campus schools, within a short distance of 100 metres, into 16,000 schools. Impacting 35 per cent of the total students, this effort has significantly improved access to resources. The number of schools with greater than two classes per teacher has reduced by 14 percentage points while the number of schools with principals has increased by 35 percentage points. In Jharkhand, as half the schools had less than 60 students enrolled, the state undertook a consolidation of over 4,600 low-enrolment schools. For example, in Khunti district, the administration consolidated seven schools into a large integrated grade 1-12 school with transportation facilities for students who live farther away. The benefits of such exercises, on aggregate, include a 10 per cent increase in enrolment in consolidated schools and an astounding estimate of Rs 400 crore in savings through reduced resource requirements.
A parallel step for enhancing the efficiency of the education engine must involve both teacher recruitment and rationalisation. The states are pioneering online systems for appointments, spearheading transparency in traditionally opaque placement systems. Jharkhand has recruited around 12,000 teachers to address its major challenge of vacancies, which was high as 50 per cent. Rationalisation, on the other hand, entails the distribution of teaching resources from surplus to deficit regions. A diagnostic in MP revealed a shortage of 24,000 teachers in 18,000 schools. Concurrently, however, the state had a surplus of 33,000 teachers across another 15,000 schools, reflecting poor teacher-allocation. Calibrating surplus teachers and vacancies, Madhya Pradesh has successfully rationalised over 10,000 teachers till date.
The quintessence of academic reform is learning enhancement, bridging the differential between what students know and what they are expected to know. All the SATH states have launched campaign-mode remedial programmes, entered on ensuring foundational learning for all by teaching at the right level. Dedicated instructional time, personalised teaching-learning material, and competency-based teacher trainings are successfully bolstering the learning ecosystem.
On the governance front, the states have also undertaken various interventions to integrate systems and invigorate stakeholders through greater accountability and engagement. For students, the focus has shifted from syllabus-completion to building competencies. For teachers, capacity is enhanced via customised trainings, and performance is encouraged with incentives and recognition programme. Jharkhand has rolled out one of the largest external teacher-needs assessment, driving the design of training curriculum.
Within classrooms, regular and revamped assessments are being used to provide timely and effective feedback. State-wide, single-day, parent-teacher meetings are amplifying community awareness and engagement, facilitating a Jan Andolan, a true people-centric movement around education. For schools, school certification programmes have been launched to reward achievements of learning outcomes. Further, app-based monitoring has ensured that over 90 per cent of schools are inspected every month. For districts, monthly report cards are spurring healthy competition and facilitating regular data-backed reviews across all layers of the administration.
Organisational restructuring, through the integration of over 16 directorates into 11 directorates, is synergising efforts across Odisha. Additionally, communication is being streamlined through virtual field support, SMS Gateways and WhatsApp groups, improving implementation success. As a result of an exceptional innovation that led to the establishment of the integrated legal management system, Jharkhand has halved the number of cases dealt by the department of education and significantly reduced its administrative burden. Thus, through SATH, technology is being leveraged, governance is being transformed, and every stakeholder is geared towards improving learning outcomes.
All of these interventions are greasing the cogs and optimising the education engine. Three years since its inception, all states have exhibited an enhancement of learning by about 10-15 per cent. The resultant change, evidenced across the three states, home to about a fifth of India’s public schools, is proof of success at-scale. Cumulatively, interventions under the project have impacted over 2.5 lakh schools, six lakh teachers and two crore students.
The project’s design is remarkable for three reasons. First, it is in sync with global benchmarks for what is needed to realise education’s promise, stated in the World Bank’s “World Development Report 2018”. It hits the bull’s eye in terms of policy responses required to break free from a trap of low learning and low accountability — by making learning a serious goal, ensuring schools work for all learners, and aligning the whole system towards learning. Second, by blending the expertise of the Centre, states and external consultancies – the Boston Consulting Group and the Piramal Foundation for Education Leadership — it is a model for leveraging public-private partnerships in the social sector. SATH embodies the true spirit of cooperative federalism, demonstrating success through symbiosis, collective action and innovation. Lastly and most importantly, by simultaneously addressing multiple challenges across the spectrum of education, it offers a replicable prototype with a systemic, scalable and sustainable solution.
Lessons from SATH can help all states dismantle the learning poverty trap, setting them free towards an India unchained. The power to propel the education engine and reap our demographic dividend is rested on delivering quality education now.
Kant is CEO, NITI Aayog and Iype is a young professional in NITI Aayog. Views expressed are personal
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