While India has achieved near universal enrolment in schools, the quality of education is far from satisfactory. There is an urgent need to change classroom processes to ensure that those who go to school actually learn. In this article, former Principal Secretary, Department of Education, Government of Bihar outlines various initiatives undertaken by the state to address this issue, and makes recommendations based on their experience.
For a country where only 50% children were enrolled in schools in rural areas in 1986 (National Sample Survey (NSS)), it is no mean achievement to have got nearly all children to schools and a very large percentage attending regularly. This has been made possible with an expansion of schooling infrastructure and inputs such as teachers, drinking water, hot cooked meals etc., under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA)1. However, classroom processes have remained unchanged. Reports on the quality of education and levels of learning in schools are disturbing (Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), PROBE 1992, PROBE Revisited 20062). They lament the decline of the public system of primary education and how the private alternative is becoming the preferred option among more and more families in more and more states. They show how a large number of children lack basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills at the end of primary school, pointing towards a serious learning problem in schools.
Having expanded the infrastructure significantly, the challenge now is to understand the reasons for failure in terms of learning, and changing classroom processes in a fundamental way such that children who come to school actually learn. The Government of Bihar has been making significant efforts in this regard - a few elements of the strategy, and recommendations based on the experience of the state are outlined in this article.
Transparent, competence-based teacher recruitment and compensation
There cannot be a compromise with quality, transparency and fairness in the recruitment of teachers. We cannot recruit teachers on the basis of connections and corruption and expect the system to deliver. A recent recruitment of over 60,000 teachers in Bihar has been done on the basis of Teacher Eligibility Test and transparent, merit-based selection panels. The quality of teachers who have joined the system is definitely encouraging and gives hope for improvement.
Testing the competence of existing teachers, to see whether they have the basic capability to continue as teachers, is also important. Bihar has recently decided to terminate the services of teachers who fail the competence test twice.
In terms of compensation, an assessment-based system of compensation enhancement is being worked on in the state. Bihar is also attempting to ensure timely payment of salaries using Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) arrangements with banks3.
Developing institutions for teacher development
Cluster and Block Resource Centres4 were set up under the SSA to ensure quality of education at the school level, and to create a platform for interaction on academic issues. It is important to ensure that Cluster and Block Resource Coordinators (CRC/ BRC) are not appointed on the basis of connections and power wielding. It has to be a transparent process on the basis of well-defined guidelines. The best teacher in the cluster ought to be the coordinator as peer group supervision is a challenging task. The role of the CRC needs to be redefined so that he/she hand holds at the school level rather than only engaging with teachers at the cluster level. Bihar has recently begun selecting CRC/BRCs on the basic of defined objectives and guidelines, and realised that over 70%of the existing ones need replacement.
Similarly, at the district and sub-district levels, District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) and other Primary teacher training institutions need to have competent faculty, especially selected for the institutes in a transparent manner. These institutes require the right mix of teachers and teacher educators as that gap needs to be bridged. For this purpose, Bihar has selected 196 teachers as faculty in partnership with the Azim Premji University through a very rigorous process. The results are encouraging; 1,800 positions have been created in the state for nearly 100 government teacher training institutions, and 50% of the posts are for teachers who have teacher educator qualifications.
Government school teachers are often required to carry out non-teaching tasks such as undertaking socioeconomic surveys or serving as booth-level officers during elections. This is an important governance issue in the schooling system. It must be ensured that diversion of teachers for non-teaching tasks be done outside of school hours.
No detention policy and student assessment
As per the ‘No detention policy’ under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, no child can be held back or expelled from school until Class5 VIII. This naturally leads to a situation where some children do not have age- and Class-specific learning competency. There are bound to be some students in classes III to V who cannot read or write; special efforts are needed to deal with them. Organisation of classes, not as Class III, IV and V, but based on the competence levels of children, is required for a few hours every day. After conducting a baseline survey6 (to understand learning levels of children), Bihar has started such competency-based groups and has provided special materials to facilitate learning. The state government has also provided volunteers from the dalit and the minority community for providing remedial support to children in schools in locations where educationally backward communities reside. During April and May this year, when the country was engaged in the national election, Bihar’s school teachers and children carried out a campaign for teaching languages and mathematics to Classes I–VIII students in small, competency-based small for a couple of hours every day.
To reduce the likelihood of children reaching Class III–V without basic language and arithmetic skills, we need to earmark the best teachers for Classes I and II. We also need to train these teachers differently and provide support in bridging the language learning needs by using local dialects. Bihar has designed and rolled out a training module for Class I teachers with the objective of sensitising teachers towards the needs of children.
Assessment of children is required even with a no detention policy. We need to understand the learning challenges of every child and for doing so we need to demystify the task of continuous and comprehensive evaluation, such that it can be understood and carried out by all teachers. Parents should be involved in the evaluation process by providing inputs on their child’s performance. School-based assessments of learning such as the National Council of Educational Research and Learning (NCERT) Achievement Study, Education Initiative assessment of learning in Classes III, V and VII, or school-based achievement studies by ASER and other groups, will go a long way in determining where the problems lie and what the solutions are. Not assessing learning progress of children as a consequence of a no detention policy is surely a wrong interpretation of a child-friendly learning environment. The Bihar government is engaged in a series of assessments of learning and it is hoped that these studies will throw light on areas that need to be addressed in development of teachers and teaching-learning materials to fill learning gaps.
There is no going away from providing the basic inputs in terms of adequate and qualified teachers, infrastructure such as classrooms, furniture for children and teachers, playgrounds, libraries, sports facilities etc., opportunities for co-curricular activities, and quality hot cooked meals. In a state like Bihar, the challenge is even more formidable as over 91% children attend government schools, and the infrastructure is still far away from the basic standards guaranteed by the RTE. The RTE provides for shared financial responsibility of the Centre and the state in the regard, but does not specify who has to contribute how much. Unfortunately, resource transfers under SSA from the Centre do not recognise norm based and per capita infrastructure needs, as laid down by the RTE.
Institutionalising the role of the community
The role of the community needs to be further emphasised and strengthened through institutional arrangements for their participation. This can be done through holding regular community meetings for sharing progress reports, and by organising cultural activities and sports events. While parents do take interest, the challenge is to have representation of articulate women from civil society in the Vidyalaya Shiksha Samitis (school committees). Bihar has included Mahila Samakhya7 and Jeevika Self Help Group women in school committees, besides choosing representatives of Meena Manch (forum of adolescent girls) and Bal Sansad (forum of school children) from among children. Early responses indicate their active involvement.
To involve the Panchayats, untied financial grants to schools for maintenance of infrastructure and for provision of electricity has been recently attempted through Panchayats. Electricity has the potential to transform a school into a community learning centre where children, youth and women come together to make it a truly life-long learning centre. The Lok Shikshan Kendras (literacy centre at Panchayat level) of the national literacy mission have all been co-located in every Panchayat headquarter school of Bihar.
20,000 Tola Sevaks (education volunteers from the Mahadalit community) and 10,000 Talim–i-Markaj (education volunteers from the minority community in schools) volunteers from the minority community are engaged in schools to provide supplementary learning support for children from their respective communities, and to work for literacy among women from those communities.
Reorientation of education administrators
Reorientation of educational administrators is the key to changing schools. There is a need for the Education Department to engage with school head masters and Block- and District-level education officers, and to organise meaningful and focused training programmes for them that clearly spell out the vision for change and a concrete action plan. Management institutions can play an important role in team building and in making public systems more effective. Supportive supervision by teacher training institutions and inspection by educational administrators are both required for a more effective transformation of schools.
Facilitating participation of poor children
All constraints on the participation of poor children in schools need to be removed. This requires a comprehensive support programme that provides uniforms, scholarships, textbooks, mid-day meals etc. Bihar now provides a scholarship to every girl child in school up to Class X. It also provides uniforms for all children in elementary schools. To improve the impact of these interventions, over the last two years, the state has introduced a requirement of 75% attendance to avail the support programme. This has been a key contributing factor in the increase in school attendance from below 50% of the enrolled children to nearly 70%, during this period. Considering double enrolment and other factors, 80-85% attendance in government schools will be equal to nearly universal attendance. The 75% requirement is a harsh measure but parents needed to understand that support is for children in schools and not for wasting on non-educational activities. The provision of cycles in Class IX introduced initially for girls, and then for boys as well in Bihar, and uniforms for girls right up to Class XII has significantly raised girls’ attendance in higher secondary school. The new policy of a higher secondary school in every Gram Panchayat is also a major step forward and is likely to make a major difference to access for girls.
Interventions for differently-abled children
Interventions for differently-abled children have to be re-visited to assess the effectiveness of what has been done so far. Merely having a few special educators in every Block may not yield the desired results. While mainstreaming differently-abled children is the appropriate strategy, we need to begin from residential schools such as the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBVs)8 . The state government has admitted 25 differently-abled girls with hearing, orthopaedic and visually impairment in KGBVs and provided all support for their mainstreaming. The results are encouraging. Similarly, experiments in setting up artificial limb centres, and day care centres for mentally challenged children and those with cerebral palsy have also shown results when implemented well. There can be no half-way measures in mainstreaming differently-abled children and we must provide for required last mile resources if we want these interventions to be successful.
Fixing the classroom process is no rocket science. It needs removal of governance and infrastructure deficits, thrust on teacher development, greater community interface with schools, and most important of all, strengthening of teacher development institutions that link with schools in promoting excellence.
- Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is Government of India´s flagship programme for achievement of Universalisation of Elementary Education (UEE) in a time bound manner, as mandated by 86th amendment to the Constitution of India making free and compulsory Education to the Children of 6-14 years age group, a Fundamental Right.
- ‘PROBE Revisited’ is a field-based study of the schooling situation in rural India. It is based on a resurvey, in 2006, of largely the same villages that were covered by the PROBE survey in 1996, in Rajasthan, undivided Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh, referred to in the report as the ‘PROBE states´. Himachal Pradesh was also surveyed, as the state of primary education there provided a contrast to the situation in the other states.
- RTGS is the fastest possible money transfer system through the banking channel. Payment transaction is not subject to any waiting period, and transaction is settled on a one-to-one basis without bunching with any other transaction.
- All government schools in two to three Gram Panchayats are grouped together to form a ‘cluster’ and each of these ‘clusters’ are managed by a resource person, and are allocated with a resource centre (a physical structure – room or building).
- ´Class´ refers to ´Grade´ here.
- These surveys were conducted by DIET faculty after proper training.
- Mahila Samakhya is a programme of women’s empowerment that constitutes all women’s groups called Mahila Sangha at the village level.
- Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) is a scheme that was launched by the government in July 2004, for setting up residential schools at upper primary level for girls belonging predominantly to the SC, ST, OBC and minority communities.