The new government has taken office at a critical juncture. There is a pervasive feeling that the implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) has been tardy and student-learning outcomes are abysmally low. The government school system seems to be in need of a thorough overhaul. While the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) made big strides in improving school infrastructure, teacher availability and school enrolments in the past decade, the quality of education is not showing any signs of improvement. There are no quick-fixes for these challenges. It is important to work on the root causes that afflict the government school system.
Here are nine priority areas of work that could help the government realise the dream of ‘education of equitable quality’ for all children.
First, enhance funding for school education. India’s spending of 3.1% of GDP on education is one of the lowest in the world and there is a huge shortfall in the funding required for achieving RTE norms.
Second, promote a strong focus on student learning. We need to target the culture of rote-memorisation, repetition and copying that is pervasive in our classrooms and aim at a transformative change in teaching practice where students are actively engaged in understanding concepts and practising skills. This requires a vision of change in classrooms. Right now, teachers get a series of random and inconsistent ‘innovative packages’ that change almost every year, leading to confusion. As a first step towards school accountability for student learning, the focus should be on ensuring that all children acquire foundational skills of basic literacy and numeracy. Can our system guarantee that every child would be able to read and write with understanding at the end of the first three years in primary school? This would be the strongest intervention for promoting education of equitable quality. My experience has been that teachers respond to such an intervention if there is seriousness and consistency of messaging and effort in the system.
Third, invest in continuous teacher professional development. The quality of pre-service and in-service teacher training is highly unsatisfactory. Teachers need high-quality professional learning opportunities relevant to classroom teaching. In addition, regular academic discussions and on-site support are crucial. The school academic support system is in a disarray and burdened with administrative tasks. The almost exclusive focus on the SSA has resulted in a neglect of teacher education institutions. The entire academic support structure for teachers needs to be revitalised and focused on the vision of classroom change. The government needs to commit itself to reviving district institutes of education and training that are moribund in most states.
Fourth, strengthen educational administration and school monitoring to make it more responsive to the demands of RTE. This entails attention to issues of decentralisation of school management, more supportive and regular school monitoring and encouraging educational administrators, like district educational officers, to champion the changes in classroom practice. Again, the focus on short-term interventions and the annual spending targets under the SSA have deflected attention from the task of systemic reform.
Fifth, foster initiatives for strong school leadership. A strong school level leadership of the headmaster or principal is very effective in improving school quality.
Sixth, include at least one pre-primary class as a part of every primary school. This will address the problem of under-age children enrolling in Class 1 and help build foundational skills.
Seventh, the SSA needs to change its focus significantly. A centrally sponsored scheme like the SSA has to follow a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to ensure uniformity of activities; while state needs are very diverse. An annual project mode of funding has other problems — a short-term orientation of interventions that try to show quick results, focus on spending within the year (some estimates show that more than two-thirds of the SSA spending takes place in the last two months of the financial year) etc. The focus has to shift to integration of the scheme with the mainstream education department, institutional capacity building, systemic reform, strengthening of academic support and school supervision and decentralisation of school management. Greater involvement of school management committees and parents in school affairs would foster local accountability.
Eighth, put in place policies and systems that ensure that teachers are posted to schools that need them. There is evidence that many new teachers being recruited through the SSA are not being placed in schools that have a shortage of teachers. This is despite the clear norms of the RTE regarding teacher entitlement based on school enrolment. Despite recruitment of almost 1.4 million additional teachers in the past decade, about 9% of primary schools are still single-teacher schools. Teacher placement and transfer policies need to be overhauled to ensure a rational placement of teachers.
Ninth, and probably the most important, strong political commitment to the agenda of school reform and transparent, accountable governance. Discretion, nepotism and corruption have eroded the credibility of the education system. Ministers and senior education administrators have to support and follow evidence-based and equity-oriented processes for allocating resources to schools by curbing their proclivity to use discretion and dole out favours.
Too many decades have passed without serious investment, attention and action towards systemic education reform. Ensuring that all students acquire foundational skills for learning, including literacy and numeracy, is not only an absolute requirement of the 21st century, it is also a fundamental right. Attending to these nine priorities would serve as crucial first steps in improving educational quality in our schools.
Dhir Jhingran is an educationist and former civil servant. The views expressed by the author are personal.