Fifteen years on, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has outlived its utility. In most states today, the programme is doing more harm than good to the education system. I make this strong statement responsibly as someone who has helped conceptualise and implement the SSA for many years and studied the SSA implementation in several states over the past five years.
The SSA has contributed remarkably to improving school infrastructure, establishing new schools, and appointing new teachers, and these achievements have come at a much quicker pace than they otherwise would have. That said, the SSA is not an appropriate vehicle to meet the critical challenges of revitalising teacher education institutions and improving student learning, which should be our focus now. My arguments below highlight the urgent need to phase out the SSA programme.
The SSA implementation, through a set of parallel structures, has systematically eroded the authority and capacity of mainstream educational institutions like the directorates of education and State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT). The SSA has usurped the core functions of these institutions such as teacher training, curriculum development, compiling educational statistics, and monitoring of the Right To Education (RTE). When the SSA is actually phased out, these institutions will be far weaker than they were at the beginning of the programme. This process of emaciation of mainstream education institutions must stop now.
The SSA works on an annual work-plan basis, focusing on implementing a set of activities approved for one year and on spending the funds within the year. This short-term approach has undermined perspective planning and the development of a long-term vision for change in classroom-teaching practices and systemic reforms. SSA state project directors (SPDs), who often have no experience of working in the education sector, prefer to implement short-term projects designed to show quick results. These interventions change almost every year with changes in SPDs. The school system and teachers are at the receiving end of this ‘tyranny of innovations’ unleashed by bright, well-meaning young officers who are in a hurry to show results during their short tenures. This precludes any consistent and sustained effort at improving the quality of education.
Like most other centrally sponsored schemes, the SSA follows a uniform, ‘one-size-fits-all’ normative approach to funding state and district annual work plans. Because the needs of states and districts are very different, uniform, norm-based funding is wholly inappropriate to meet these diverse needs. The centralised review and approval of annual plans for the country’s 600-plus districts should be replaced with a decentralised arrangement for assessing needs and providing ‘untied’ funds based on contextual needs.
The short-term outlook of the SSA has had a deleterious effect on formulating a long-term strategy for teacher professional development. The short duration in-service teacher training programmes that SSA has conducted over the past few years have been of indifferent quality, and resource centres at block and cluster level responsible for providing regular academic support to teachers have been largely converted into centres for data collection and administrative reporting.
The state SSA offices were registered as ‘government societies’ to facilitate direct transfer of central funds to the SSA society bypassing the state budget. However, from 2014 onwards, the SSA funds will be transferred through the state budgets and subject to the same delays and inefficiencies as all the other state plan funds. With this change in the fund transfer arrangement, the paramount reason for creating state SSA societies parallel to the mainstream education department institutions will no longer exist. This should be a clear signal for the bloated and unaccountable SSA society structures to be wound up with a sense of urgency.
Corruption in the SSA is deep-rooted and pervasive in many states. Every aspect of the programme, including the purchase of school uniforms, teacher training, printing of textbooks and other materials, construction of school buildings, and hiring of vehicles, is steeped in irregular practices. The SSA has lost the moral authority to lead any serious education change. There is no justification for continuing with a set-up that reproduces the same corrupt culture and results in emaciation of other legitimate institutions.
In most states, the SSA has been designated as the nodal agency for RTE implementation. Actually, RTE goals can never be achieved if the SSA is charged with this responsibility. Achieving RTE goals requires medium- to long-term planning. Bold administrative decisions are needed for teacher rationalisation and redeployment. Serious systemic reform and a strong vision for change at the school and classroom level are required. The SSA, with its limited agenda of spending annually sanctioned allocations, cannot provide the leadership, vision and roadmap necessary for achieving RTE goals. The responsibility for implementing and moving towards RTE objectives has to vest with the education department and the mainstream institutions.
We are running out of time. Phasing out the current model of the SSA programming and implementation is urgent. We could begin with a few quick changes to kick-start the phase-out. First, states could identify their needs for three- to five-year funds for infrastructure and teacher recruitment to meet RTE norms. These funds could be transferred to the states in a phased manner. The rest of the funding should be transferred as ‘untied’ funds to be allocated at the state level, based on a perspective plan or roadmap drawn up by the state. Second, the responsibility for implementing various components of infrastructure and quality should be transferred to the mainstream educational structures and institutions such as the directorates of education and SCERTs. Third, the personnel that have been brought on deputation or contract to the SSA offices should be redeployed at these state institutions. Fourth, the focus of the central government and national institutions should shift from day-to-day monitoring of expenditures and the SSA implementation to strengthening teacher education institutions, setting standards for curriculum, school quality, teacher performance and student learning, and strengthening institutions responsible for monitoring the RTE Act.