Improving preschool and primary education in India

Via 0-NZFpNE_-P1j8p5vq on medium.com 

A PRESCRIPTION FOR PROSPERITY. 

By Ashok Kamath, Chairman, Akshara Foundation   1-D8PYyg7_HdSnaXXQTlttIw
Photo courtesy of Akshara Foundation

Omidyar Network is supporting Akshara Foundation to scale its programs to improve the overall education ecosystem in Karnataka, India by focusing on community-driven solutions.

In April 2012, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s Regional Economic Outlook report stressed the fact that “India’s demographic transition is presently well underway, and the age structure of the population there is likely to evolve favorably over the next two to three decades.” By 2020, India’s population will include 28% of the world’s working population, ages 15–64, with potential to accelerate the country’s status as an economic powerhouse in ways that can bring direct benefits to its citizens in all areas, from health care to education. This cautious note of optimism, however, hinges on there being a series of reforms. While the IMF argues mostly in favor of trade and open markets, India can reap the demographic dividend only if our education system undergoes significant change. And it is not higher education alone that must be strengthened; the foundations of the education system (i.e., preschool and primary school) must improve in order for children to perform well in tertiary education.

Why is education and, in particular, early education, so important?

India’s economic growth is critically dependent on our ability to manage our transition from agriculture to manufacturing and services. And that means generating enough jobs to be able to absorb more than 10 million young people into the workforce every year for the next 20 years. At Akshara, we share Omidyar Network’s view of the critical importance of education as a direct pathway to opportunity and empowerment. By investing in higher-quality education, we can have a great impact on the future financial security and well-being of young people, securing a stronger collective future.

Developing human capital to scale is not a trivial task. As one can see, even with the available government resources, we have failed to deliver. One of the key impediments to the efficient delivery of quality education to children in the state of Karnataka, and India at large, is the lack of accountability of the entire delivery system. On the supply side, data has shown that over a quarter of the teachers are not in the classrooms during school hours; the monitoring mechanisms typified by a hierarchy of roles have all become mere sign-offs to ensure that “the lesson plan has been done” rather than focusing on meaningful outcomes. On the other hand, the demand for change is not as great as it should be, which to some extent can be attributed to the fact that most of the children are first-generation learners (i.e., the parents themselves had no access to education and do not have a good sense of what is reasonable to expect).

Unfortunately, the focus has been (and continues to be) on inputs — and too little outcome data is available. For example, there is little or no information on the learning levels of children prior to a child’s first “public” exam, in class 10. This means it is too late to make course corrections with respect to quality. About the only data that has been available consistently in the past several years has been from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). This is especially troubling as early childhood and primary education is so critical to long-term success. Children build foundational skills in their early years that affect the rest of their learning and lives.

So, how do we get the supply and demand sides to intersect for optimal performance?

At Akshara Foundation we developed and incubated a framework called the Karnataka Learning Partnership (KLP), which addresses many of the issues. The framework captures data on every child with the ability of ensuring a unique ID for each child linked to his or her school. Each school is geopositioned and tagged with the school’s code (called District Information System for Education (DISE) code) issued by the central government-administered National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA). Assessments on reading, comprehension and math proficiencies are measured and tracked, as are children’s book borrowing habits from their classroom libraries set up by Akshara. We also track perceptions on education from parents and community members in rural Karnataka.

With this structure, we can start the process of ensuring that every child is tracked in the system. Over time, we will be able to define and measure learning outcomes in more sophisticated ways to determine what is working and what is not working, in order to institute enhancements and course corrections.

What is required to create systemic change?

At Akshara we believe that it will take a network of nonprofits and for-profits working across multiple verticals (e.g., education, health, nutrition) to bring their data on children together to tell a story and use this story to galvanize community-led ownership of the public schooling system to drive responsibility, accountability, and change. Civil society can help spur more effective governance through partnerships that are crucial to stimulating innovation, participation, and empowerment.

So how do we engage various stakeholders in a structure like KLP?

Here are a couple of examples: On the KLP website, we created a module called “Share Your Story” to allow community members to visit schools and voice their opinions. We expect that this will enable us to get individual community members to be more involved in the process of improving education where they live. Additionally, we are making reports with information pertaining to individual constituencies available to elected representatives and government officials — who can be influential, which is essential to making positive changes.

However, we recognize that much more needs to be done to inform the parents of children who go to government preschools and primary schools. A majority of these parents are illiterate and have never been online due to lack of electricity, computers, computer educators, internet connections, local-language content, and illiteracy. This is clearly a constituency that has “no choice and no voice.”

We are, therefore, creating a flexible mash-up of interactive voice response systems (IVRS), live voice, internet, telephone, and Android-based apps on mobile phones to bring the right information to people, on demand, no matter their level of technological literacy. We are adapting and leveraging ubiquitous mobile phone technology to create local language voice systems that any community organization can administer to make their resources and information accessible. We have piloted this approach and are scaling this up this year.

What do we expect in the future?

If we are able to leverage and coordinate the energy of various stakeholders and strengthen the pre-primary and primary school education system in Karnataka, we can demonstrate the power of a model that can be worthy of national adoption, forming a stronger basis for future learning and progress. As the recent editorial comment in The Economist magazine suggested: “India’s century is not an inevitability. It is a giant opportunity that India is in danger of squandering.” It is only by doubling down on improving education solutions that we will make Indian prosperity a reality in the decades to come.

The way forward for ‘Early Childhood Education in Anganwadis’.

Organised by Akshara Foundation, the national seminar on `Early Childhood Education in Anganwadis – Partnerships & Opportunities’ highlighted the need for quality early childhood learning in government-run anganwadis. DSC_0641 The seminar was inaugurated by Smt. Umashree, Hon. Minister, Women and Child Welfare and Kannada &Culture, Government of Karnataka. On the dias were also some of the staff of ICDS- an AWW, a supervisor and a CDPO rubbing shoulders with the Minister and the Trustees of AF. The Minister in her inaugural speech seemed very open to a discussion regarding ways to implement effective ECE through the system. DSC_0659 _DSC0048 This was followed by a very thorough talk by Prof Venita Kaul, (CECED, Ambedkar University, Delhi) on the importance of early years and the necessity for good quality preschool education. _DSC0060 Soon after, a panel discussion on the role of NGOs in partnering with the government followed. The panel discussion concluded with a consensus on enhancing collaboration between the Government and non-Government sector to realise the full potential of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) policy 2013, in the government run anganwadis. _DSC0150   Click here to view the entire seminar, in pictures.

MAKKALA HABBA

 It was a day that made everything about it festive and brought a smile on your face, right from the confetti-coloured dhurries lacing the floor to the waving greens and gorgeous sun. Yes. It was the perfect day to celebrate the happy shrieks and riot of expressions exploding all around – the kids that revolve around our life and work.
The pre-school field team at Akshara Foundation recently organised a Makkala Habba, which literally means Children’s Festival. It was held at the Haragadde Anganwadi Centre, part of the Anekal ICDS project.
Children, their mothers and workers from three anganwadi centres formed the core of this celebration. In addition, we were joined by the Panchayat president, CDPO , health workers and the Head Master of the nearby government school, taking it to a whole new level.
The day-long festivities included sports activities for teachers and mothers & a cultural programme for the kids. This was followed by a Lego bricks competition for mother-children duo teams that brought out the best of the creativity.
It was the perfect occasion to bring community mothers, local leaders and the education department together and stress on the importance of pre-school education.
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Coverage by Vijaya Vani
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The winning mother-daughter duo
– Bhagya Kumar

Akshara’s efforts to better Anganwadis in North Karnataka

Steady Progress

The team reports state that steady progress is being made in the 109 anganwadis in Hubli and Dharwad in Akshara’s model anganwadi programme. Their efforts continue without let up every month, with regular monitoring visits, handholding of anganwadi workers, meetings with Bal Vikas Samithis and parents, and community interactions, and all this is having an impact. The community is more responsive and anganwadis are performing better.

“Akshara Always Comes up with New and Innovative Ideas”

The notable event of the year was the training. Akshara’s resource group trained Supervisors of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in the model anganwadi curriculum and LEGO activities. As Master Resource Persons, the Supervisors cascaded the training to all 109 anganwadi workers.

The team observed that the cooperation and participation of anganwadi workers was quite exemplary. But Supervisors who were the master trainers were busy with official work and the Akshara team had to put in additional effort to see the training through.


Day One opened with a discussion. Anganwadi workers were invited to talk about their experiences with the programme’s teaching-learning material (TLM) and how Akshara’s intervention was influencing them in their way of working. Most of the anganwadi workers said that they were reporting to work on time. Earlier, they used to be apprehensive of the Akshara team, but now they look on them as friends who unfailingly support them. This led to a frank interaction. The training team then conducted group activities as specified in Akshara’s Model Anganwadi Training Manual.

Day Two was all about LEGO – training in LEGO activities.  Anganwadi workers participated like little children, said the team. They prepared models and created scenes that reflected the concept of preschool. Everyone had a lot of fun. The team distributed LEGO kits to the anganwadi workers and gave them instructions on how to conduct activities for children in their centres.

Shaila Teminkoppa said “Akshara always comes up with new and innovative ideas. The LEGO kit is very attractive and children will enjoy it.”
Rhanath from Dharwad said “I did not know how to assign corners for different preschool skills or divide the teaching-learning material and facilitate activities for children. Initially, it was difficult, but now it is interesting.”
Shivaleela from Madarmaddi Circle said “Parents and children were attracted by the TLM provided by Akshara, but now everyone will be excited to see LEGO. Children will become regular in attendance.”

Community Interactions
The team held parents’ meetings in anganwadis in the presence of the anganwadi workers to demonstrate by example how to lead such engagements. The team introduced themselves and Akshara’s work. The teaching-learning materials were displayed and the team informed them of its uses in furthering learning. This was a strategy, and it worked – some of the parents came to realize the value of preschool education and ascertained from the anganwadi workers how they use the TLMs in the classroom and requested them to teach their children properly.

Household visits are forums for communication with the community and the team lays down a target every month. Their target was 300 households, and they visited 200, a 67% achievement rate. The message of education is seeping in, the team says.

Bal Vikas Samithis are slowly gearing to their function as community guardians of anganwadis. The team engaged Samithi members, holding 88 meetings, 88% of their target, making them realize their responsibilities towards anganwadis. They also held 5 community meetings and 42 self-help group meetings.

The team notes that their work in the community had to be scaled down in September as they were busy collecting the pre-test answer sheets from anganwadis and involved in the training.

A Room of Their Own

Saroja Patil from Jiddi Oni, Dharwad, has been running her anganwadi in a temple for the last five years. Devotees frequently streamed into the temple, creating a lot of disturbance, distracting the children and making it difficult for Saroja to conduct preschool activities. Akshara’s Cluster Facilitator, Suvarna Guthal, intervened and spoke to Bal Vikas Samithi members and parents.

She took it a level higher and met Shivanna Badvannavar, the Corporator of the area, and explained to him the anganwadi’s acute problem of space. She requested him to provide a room where Saroja could run her anganwadi. Suvarna did not stop there. She followed it up with the Corporator and took community members with her to advance Saroja’s case. Shivanna Badvannavar yielded and allotted a spacious room near the temple for the anganwadi.

Parents are happy, and as for Saroja and the children, they are revelling in a space they can finally call their own. The Department of Women and Child Development, under whose mandate the ICDS runs anganwadis, expressed its appreciation for the efforts put in by the Akshara team.

Generating Impact
Ratna, the Field Coordinator, has been holding regular community meetings in Bengari in HFWTC Circle, an area she is in charge of, and it has been impact-generating on a scale that took the team by pleasant surprise.

One of the days, Bal Vikas Samithi members and a few parents locked up the anganwadi in Bengari because the anganwadi worker and helper always arrived late. The community appealed to them to come on time, failing which they said they would repeat what they had done, lock them out of their anganwadi, and report the matter to higher authorities.