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Educational System Reform


One Good Example is Worth a Thousand Theories

This comment by Stanley Fischer, the former Managing Director of the IMF is quoted by Thomas Friedman in his book ‘The World is Flat’ and perhaps best summarises a general perception that while there is no dearth of expert opinion on what should be done in the primary education sector, it is now time to look at examples of what has actually worked to analyse the reasons for this and to suggest how best these can be replicated elsewhere. The schools run by the Government of Delhi for instance  have undergone a radical transformation in the past few years from a system which was once  considered one of the worst in the country to one which is now undoubtedly one of the best. Drab, dull, ray and dirty buildings are giving way to bright, cheerful, clean ones with functional toilets and  drinking water for all children. Teacher absenteeism, which used to be among the highest in India, has  been almost wiped out and all teachers now reach their school on time and remain there for the full  school day. All financial benefits such as that for school uniforms and all supplies such as text books  reach each and every child and there is no diversion. Classroom teaching has undergone an amazing  change with the introduction of joyful methods of teaching particularly for the primary classes, and all  Delhi Government school children are learning to speak English just like all “other” children. In fact,  short video clips showing the impact of the English language training imparted to school teachers  under an arrangement with the British Council can be viewed at the Education Department’s official website The smart children shown there creating stories in class from English words given to them by their teacher are all primary students in Standard V in Delhi Government Schools. The achievements are reflected in the fact that the overall enrolment in all classes increased by 20% in just  three year period till 2008. More significantly the Government took a major decision at the start of the  academic year in April 2009 to increase the number of seats available in all Delhi Government School (DGS) in primary classes by a huge 10 % in order to accommodate the increasing number of  applications received for admissions. A substantial number of the new students are coming from  private  schools within Delhi and adjoining areas in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, or are children who would otherwise have gone to a private school but for the visible improvements in DGS. In fact, the national  media, undoubtedly one of the hardest to please, have carried front page articles on how DGS are now a  viable alternative to private schools, a far cry indeed from just a few years ago when even the Planning  Commission suggested that we hand over all our schools to the private sector or NGOs as we just  could  not run them”.

In our endeavour to improve the quality of education in DGS the first step was to identify what needed to be done and the specific activities that would have to be carried out or  implemented. These two take care of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ aspects, both crucial to achieving our goal. It is surprising how easily people presume that everyone knows “what to do” and that others don’t do their duties because they are lazy or corrupt. But the truth is that most people don’t know what to do and are usually afraid to ask for fear of being scoffed at (very common) or appearing ignorant (even more common). This lack of clarity on duties coupled with a general confusion on the terms used in education (GER, NER, retaining capacity, apparent survival rate etc.) creates hurdles which hold up implementation. We therefore decided to “translate” everything into simple language which everyone understood. For example, we put aside concepts like “access” and broke it up into simple “to do” activities like constructing toilets and appointing teachers.

 In the next step we clearly informed everyone what they had to do. Thus the Branch Incharge of civil construction was asked to  construct the toilets and the administrative branch asked to ensure that all vacancies of teachers were  filled. This was done for all areas and all activities pertaining to the civil construction wing were put  under the heading “infrastructure”, be it providing ramps (which would otherwise come under inclusive  education), constructing new classrooms or schools (which would otherwise come under enrolment) or as mentioned, constructing toilets in all schools (which would otherwise come under access). We have  ultimately grouped all activities into 5 categories- Training, Administrative issues, Infrastructure, E- governance, and School based learning, with a clear cut definition of roles and responsibilities.

The next step was to actually carry out all these activities so that we would reach our goal, in other words,  he ‘how’ part. The basic route we followed is as under:

Diagnose the problem first, don’t treat the symptoms :

As India battles swine flu my mind goes back a few years to when I was Health Secretary in Goa and the state witnessed the country’s first patient of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). The excellent doctors there put us through a crash course in medicine and one of the most important lessons we learnt was the importance of distinguishing between the problem (i.e. the illness) and the symptoms which were indicating the presence of the problem. A fever for example is not an illness- it is a symptom indicating the presence of a disease such as malaria, swine flu, or even a simple viral infection. It is the duty of a doctor to identify the illness causing the fever and to treat the illness ( the problem) and not the fever (the symptom). A doctor may need to carry out a series of tests before he can reach the correct diagnosis.
The same applies elsewhere including education. A poorly functioning school with low enrolment , high drop out, low learning achievement levels, bad building, high teacher absenteeism etc. is symptomatic of a much deeper illness (problem) which must be diagnosed properly if the correct treatment is to be given. For instance, there is enormous concern  hat many children do not even have basic skills in maths, reading or writing, as borne out in studies  carried out by the NCERT and others, which are quoted often. The main reason why children cannot perform simple tasks is not because they are not able to, but because they have not been taught to do so. This could be because: 

-The teacher is absent for long periods, or even every day. A strict enforcement of attendance covering online attendance, surprise inspections and strong disciplinary action, as was followed in DGS, would help;

-The teacher is well meaning but does not know what to do. A strong dose of high quality professional training, like in DGS, would work well here;

-The  teacher does not exist. The Administrative branch obviously has to work towards filling in all posts and creating them wherever required, as was done in DGS. 

However, the truth is that it is perfectly possible to spend a lifetime enforcing attendance, training teachers, and filling in vacancies, and still make no difference in the learning achievement levels of students! To go back to the analogy with medicine, it is necessary therefore to go even further into the symptom of low learning achievement levels to understand what is causing it. When we carried out this extensive, in depth exercise in the DGS we came up with the main problem for almost all the symptoms in the education system-the utter and complete disillusionment and alienation of the teachers, principals and officials.

Invest in people, they are worth it :

Whatever the issue pertaining to education, all roads ultimately lead to the people who are responsible for ensuring delivery–the teachers, principals and officials. It doesn’t matter how much funds are pumped in or new schemes launched, if the people responsible don’t work then everything is meaningless. An education system is an organization like any other and a fine balance has to be drawn between taking care of the employees and providing them with as many benefits as possible on the one hand, and ensuring that they produce results on other. When we followed this approach and delved into why our employees (the teachers, principals and officials) were not delivering we were shocked at the magnitude of the negativity and disillusionment we encountered. Our employees were deeply resentful of the fact that no one was looking into their problems of stagnation where promotions had not taken place for years, of the bias in transfers where employees with connections got plum postings, of unfulfilled promises in the Assured Career Progression Scheme, and of huge delays in receiving salaries, GPF withdrawals, sanction of leave etc. They were angry that no one was bothered about whether they had toilets or not, of the fact that their superiors treated them badly and that everyone only had expectations from them and no one was interested in their grievances. The list was a long and troubled one but we took a conscious decision immediately that we would deliberately work towards removing all the professional problems that our employees were facing. In addition, a healthy system of incentives and rewards was introduced and over time, we were able to transform most of our previously disillusioned and alienated employees into positive, dynamic ones. A very robust training programme not only honed their professional and leadership skills but linked their work with a higher purpose and gave it meaning. We also learnt the importance of giving our employees respect. Our teachers and principals became part of all policy decision making and extensive powers and funds were decentralized to them. We established cordial relations with the Unions and learnt to work as a Team. The result was that our teachers and principals began to feel valued and to own all the initiatives, which in turn ensured that they worked to achieve the goals of the department.

Recognise ground realities and always try to be a few steps ahead :

There are many reasons why even the best laid plans and most noble intentions can go awry, not the least of which is corruption. But if we are alert enough then these can be countered. For instance, providing a library in all schools should be a relatively easy task once funds are allocated, but the truth for us was very different. Low grade publishers formed a cartel and in collusion with unscrupulous officials sold poor quality or inappropriate books to schools. When we finally solved all the problems and put bright, new, child friendly books and comics in schools, our feedback was that teachers were stealing them.

Extensive professional and motivational training coupled with a robust system of incentives and rewards, in an environment where job related concerns are being positively addressed (as above) helps to a very large extent to achieve goals and overcome such problems. 

But there will still be obstacles and challenges which must be squarely faced and for this a rigorous monitoring system must be in place, and whenever required, disciplinary action has to be swift. A comprehensive e-governance programme with camera and broadband enabled computers in all schools will help senior officers to be in touch with all schools at all times. This must be accompanied by a structured programme of inspections, both surprise and planned, by a variety of persons including the community. In the case of our libraries a decision to create a team of teachers and students in all schools who would select and buy the books and watch over their issue, along with strict disciplinary action in the case of a few librarians, ultimately worked. There are many areas where we adopted a policy of zero-tolerance such as in cases of child abuse, absenteeism and proven corruption, and we did not hesitate to act against the teachers, principals or officials concerned. However, it is important to note that there was no resistance to this or any backlash because of the activities which we were simultaneously carrying out under step 2 above. 

As a result of these, the Delhi Government was able to usher in a host of initiatives under the over all banner of YUVA which have made learning in schools joyful, meaningful and interesting, so that children develop a desire to go to school and these include:  
·         Ensuring that BALA (Building as Learning Aid) activities are conducted in all schools whereby the building becomes a bright and happy learning tool for all students.
·         Sending all students from Standard 1 upwards on a local tour to parks, historical sites etc. within Delhi.  
·         Sending Standard XI students on out station tours to places like Agra and Jaipur to learn about their country.
·          Developing animated curriculum in house called Caltoonz.
·          Tying up with the British Council to provide high quality English language training to all teachers.
·         Conducting capacity building programmes to upgrade the professional skills of teachers.
·         Providing motivational and leadership training to teachers, principals and officials.
·         Making learning joyful in the classroom through a host of initiatives like theatre, music,song, dance, debates, skits, puzzles and mental maths.
·         Promoting sports and games for all students including self defence for girls.
·         Launching mobile schools for out of school children.
·         Starting the Kitabi Magic Movement to upgrade all libraries, and many others. These can be viewed in the Department’s Quick Report (Updated) 2008 and the Preview to the YUVA School Life skills Programme, at the official website.

There is still a long way to go but I am confident that the Department has found a path which really and truly makes a positive difference to the lives of millions of children.

By  : Rina Ray
        Senior Civil Servant and  was Secretary Education
        in the Delhi Government.


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