Engaging the community to make schools accountable for delivering quality education


Posted On: 21 Nov 2017
Section: Notes from the Field
Topics: Education
Tags: schooling, Karnataka

K. Vaijayanti
Akshara Foundation

While the dismal quality of primary education in India has received considerable attention at the state and national levels, rural communities still seem to associate school quality with parameters such as physical infrastructure. In this note, K. Vaijayanti describes an initiative in Karnataka that involves publicly-conducted mathematics tests for school children, to raise awareness regarding learning levels and to engage the community in holding schools accountable.

While India has been very successful in improving access to primary education, learning outcomes remain poor and need urgent attention. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER)1, brought out every year since 2006, repeatedly highlights the dismal state of public schooling in the country. Some studies (Rosato 2013) argue that besides supply of resources, it is important to identify channels that allow for active participation of parents in particular and the community in general, in improving the quality of school education.

Participatory democracy in education While the supply side of the schooling system in India seems to be strengthening, it is the demand side that needs scaffolding. A sustainable way to improve the quality of school education is an effective decentralised management system. Accountability of the public system is best ensured by directly involving the beneficiaries. Therefore, parents of school-going children need to be involved at the school level in planning, decision-making, execution, monitoring and evaluation. It has to be a voluntary commitment that supplements vigil over public educational institutions by the Gram Panchayats2 (GPs), which needs to be enhanced.

The 73rd Amendment of the Indian Constitution, 1993, contains provisions for devolution of powers and responsibilities to GPs to prepare plans for economic development and social justice, and for implementing the 29 subjects listed in the 11th Schedule of the Constitution, including primary education. People’s Plan Campaign in Kerala, Lok Jumbish in Rajasthan, and the School Development and Monitoring Committees (SDMCs) of Karnataka are some examples of participatory democracy in Indian education.

However, participatory democracy in education may be a challenge because competence hierarchies – as in ‘experts’ and ‘non-experts’ – dominate the sector. It is believed that quality education is understood only by those who are experts and that due to its intangible nature it is difficult to be judged by the masses. There is a need to connect the community with indicators of quality education through simple tools and techniques. A complementary strategy of deliberative democracy may help balance the power relations between the school and the community.

Gram Panchayat mathematics contests in Karnataka Bearing in mind ASER’s results for basic arithmetic competencies in Karnataka, Akshara Foundation, an educational NGO, developed a Mathematics programme called Ganitha Kalika Andolana (GKA) for students of grades 4 and 5 in government schools. The Government of Karnataka adopted GKA in 2015 in the backward Hyderabad-Karnataka region of the state. Community engagement has been an integral part of the programme.

In the year 2016, mathematics contests were conducted by Akshara’s field staff with the help of educated youth (called ‘education volunteers’) from the villages where the children competed. Written, grade-specific, competency-based mathematics tests were administered to children of 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. The tests were designed for 20 marks and the duration was one hour. Education volunteers evaluated the answer papers at the very spot where the test was held and on the same day, thereby ensuring transparency in the whole process. This was followed by a public event involving a prize distribution ceremony to which GP members, parents, SDMC members, donors, and the village community were invited. Top three scorers from each grade were felicitated with financial rewards.

The contests were a way to engage with primary stakeholders by generating awareness of school quality as indicated by learning outcomes. The assumption is that if parents become aware of their children’s numeracy levels, they may demand that the school system delivers better quality education. The experiment also aimed to assess whether such an initiative can be owned by the community so that wide participation is ensured. Contribution of resources in cash or kind by the local community was an indicator to measure collective concern at the GP level around quality education.

Akshara’s data show that 521 contests were held and 70,000 children took the test. On average, about 45% of children across the three grades were found to have acquired grade-appropriate mathematics competencies. Over 25,000 parents, 5,000 SDMC members, and 6,000 youth participated and 9,200 donors contributed Rs. 10 million approximately in cash and kind.

The power of information The information pertaining to learning status is a critical quality indicator to ascertain the effectiveness of schooling. Typically, the understanding of educational status of government school children in rural areas is centred on physical infrastructure, facilities, and the number of teaching staff. The community often tends to equate quality with functionality, as represented by these parameters. The mathematics contests lifted the veil of public perception and became a tool that enabled the community to understand the actual status of learning in schools.

While it is early to assess the impact of the contests, most of the participating GPs experienced an immediate effect. Instances were reported of groups of parents visiting the schools the next day to question the authorities. Elected representatives said that the results were an eye opener and the ‘all-is-well’ myth was destroyed. Preliminary evidence indicates that the initiative is gaining visibility in terms of GP members visiting schools, quality of Mathematics learning being discussed in GP meetings, circulars being sent by GP heads to parents on measures taken to improve school quality, and so on. Within a fortnight, the results were also shared with SDMCs, Taluk Panchayats (block level) and Zila Panchayats (district level) to facilitate discussions on the status of learning in government schools and take follow-up action.

Besides, this intervention was a step towards closing the gap between the ‘experts’ and ‘non-experts’ with regards to education, and strengthened the community and local agencies to push for corrective measures to make schools more accountable.

Concluding remarks Participatory community action is an urgent need of the hour. Efforts such as this can create public spaces for stakeholders to engage; erect a bridge of communication between the school and the community; and enable an environment for development. The contests worked as an instrument to raise awareness among the community regarding children’s learning status, and generate a common resolve to make schools accountable to functioning in a manner that ensures quality primary education. This is especially important in the absence of robust institutional arrangements for accountability.

While quality of education has drawn a great deal of attention from policymakers at the national and state levels, there is still a need to inform local stakeholders regarding the issue and to strengthen them to participate locally to find solutions. GP-level mathematics contests may be a mechanism to enhance the capability of decentralised institutions for local oversight and support.

Notes: ASER is the largest citizen-led survey in India that provides information on children’s school enrolment and basic learning levels across the country. A gram panchayat is the cornerstone of a local self-government organisation in India of the Panchayati Raj system at the village or small-town level and has a sarpanch as its elected head. In 2014, only 11.8% and 20.1% of students from grades 4 and 5 respectively, could solve division-level problems.

Further Reading ASER Centre (2016), ‘Status of Education Report (Rural) 2016’, Pratham. Avritzer, L (2002), Democracy and the Public Space in Latin America, Princeton University Press, New Jersey. Baiocchi, G (2005), ‘Participation, activism, and politics: The Porto Alegre experiment and deliberative democratic theory’. Drèze, J, A Sen (2013), An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, Princeton University Press, Princeton. Govinda, R and R Diwan (2003), Community Participation and Empowerment in Primary Education, Sage Publication. Hadenius, A (2003), Decentralisation and Democratic Governance: Experiences from India, Bolivia and South Africa, Elanders Gotab, Stockholm. Heller, Patrick (2012), “Democracy, Participatory Politics and Development: Some Comparative Lessons from Brazil, India and South Africa”, Polity, Volume 44, Issue 4, pp. 643–665. Nylen, WR (2003), Participatory Democracy versus Elitist Democracy: Lessons from Brazil, Palgrave Macmillan, New York. Johnson, C (2003), ‘Decentralisation in India: Poverty, Politics and Panchayati Raj’, Working Paper 199, Overseas Development Institute, London. Pillai, PP (2006), ‘Democratic Decentralization, Participatory Development and Civil Society: The Story of People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning in India’, World Society Focus Paper Series, World Society Foundation, Zurich. Rosato, L (2014), ‘School ‘Quality and Effectiveness’ and Parental Attitudes towards Education in Rural India and Insights from the Alice Project’, Working Paper. UNDEF (2013), ‘2013 State of Participatory Democracy Report’, United Nations Democracy Fund. Vaijayanti, K, MN Suma and A Mondal (2016), ‘The Impact of Akshara Ganitha: A Longitudinal Study 2012-13 to 2014-15’, Akshara Foundation. Available here. UNDP (2000), ‘Decentralisation in India: Challenges & Opportunities’, Discussion Paper Series, United Nations Development Programme, New Delhi.

STARS OF HOPE – Impact of Progressive Communities on Learning

The Government Kannada Lower Primary School in Marasandahalli, Hosakote block, Bangalore Rural District, has not changed in all these years that Akshara has been working here. It looks like a little village abode even now, an overhang of foliage framing the veranda. Around 25-30 children, classes 1-5, poorly equipped as before, two teachers, and under-resourced.

In a small, half-lit classroom, one of only two in the school, teacher Shyam Shankar directs a Mathematics class for grades 4 and 5 with Akshara’s teaching-learning materials (TLMs) – the square counters, base ten blocks, fraction strips, decimal set and much else making for random choreography on the floor. Shyam Shankar would not have it any other way in his Mathematics class.

Akshara’s Mathematics programme, Akshara Ganitha, ended here two years ago. But this dedicated teacher, who took up Mathematics as his discipline midway into his 15-year career only because he was inspired by the programme, preserves its TLM kit with respect. “I use it every day. Absolutely,” he says.

It shows. Many of his students are achievers. In 2016-17, Chetan gained admission to class 6 in Navodaya and Monisha to Morarji . In 2017-18, Tanushree and Varshini made it to Navodaya. Not many children move meritoriously from government schools to quality-conscious Navodaya and Morarji schools for secondary stage education. The passage is arduous.

“They were able to score well because of the Mathematics coaching with Akshara’s TLMs,” says Shyam Shankar. “Children get a good foundation because of it. Their skills become stronger.”

In September 2016, Tanushree bagged the 1st prize and Varshini the 2nd in the Gram Panchayat Mathematics Contest Akshara Foundation held, in which the Marasandahalli school was one of the 9 participating schools. Close to 100 children from classes 4, 5 and 6 contested. Tanushree and Varshini had already crossed the threshold to bigger things in Navodaya, but represented their old school, holding aloft its flag of merit.

This is not the only banner flying high. As enlightened teachers, Shyam Shankar and his colleague know the value of engaging the community. Akshara’s community engagement team says, “There’s cooperation between the teachers and the people. Parents visit the school regularly to ask about the progress of their children. The teachers have the mobile numbers of all the parents. There’s trust between these two stakeholders.”

The team also acts as a catalyst, bringing together villagers, parents, teachers and students to sustain the momentum for education. In a progressive village like Marasandahalli, it is not hard to do. It has 483 people and a literacy rate of 60.80%, not too high, comparatively. The educational impetus, however, is strong in a village which has hardly any transport connectivity, and where the livelihoods are dairy, silkworm rearing and small-scale trade. “The important thing is the villagers have the enthusiasm to educate their children,” the team says.

Chetan, Monisha, Tanushree and Varshini are the new generation, their aspirational urge nurtured by a good government school, supportive teachers and an education-oriented community.

– Lakshmi Mohan for Akshara Foundation

STARS OF HOPE – Rakshita’s Perfect Scores!

On 27th  September 2017, Chinchanooru village in Aland taluk, Kalaburgi district held a school level Gram Panchayat math contest. This was just one of the scheduled GP contests, similar to the ones Akshara Foundation has been facilitating all across the state, this past year. So what makes this one stand out? Read on.

The Govt. Higher Primary School, Chinchanooru played host to the competition this time around. Four government schools come under this Gram Panchayat, and the total number of children who participated in the contest that day was 203.

After the fanfare of an elaborate inauguration ceremony, the question papers were distributed and the contest finally began. When the education volunteers evaluated the answer sheets and the results were announced, the winners’ marks were also disclosed during the prize distribution ceremony.

Rakshita, daughter of Jettappa, a daily-wage labourer, had scored 20 out of 20, pleasantly surprising everyone in the crowd. Now that’s an amazing score to have, considering some of the numbers that come up.

Amidst the cheers and jubilations, one of the GP members, Mr. Shivasharanappa Sajjan objected to the marks scored by Rakshita, saying it is impossible for this girl to score 100% mark in this contest, while many others have scored far fewer marks.

The 2nd and 3rd prize winners were at a considerable distance in terms of marks scored. He insisted that the prize distribution ceremony be stopped at once and Rakshita be made to answer all the 20 questions once again.

And so, a different question paper was given to Rakshita. She set out to take the new test. Scoring a perfect score again, Rakshita put every objection back in its place, and rightly so!

The entire crowd was overjoyed and so were we, at Rakshita’s math prowess. The standing ovation that followed resounded thunderously in the grounds, and went on for a while, amidst bells, whistles and claps, of course.

What followed afterwards was something no one expected.

Not only did Rakshita get the GP contest prize of Rs. 1,000/- which was anyway due to her,but she also got another Rs. 1000/- from the person who challenged her math abilities, Mr. Shivasharanappa Sajjan. Such a  great sport!

The vice president of the Gram Panchayat gave another Rs. 1000/- prize, another GP member Rs. 500/- and a village youth education volunteer Rs. 500/- and the School Head Master  further added Rs. 500/- to this kitty.

Instead of going home with a 1st (cash) prize of Rs. 1,000/- , she mopped up Rs. 4,500/- at the end of the day!

It was a truly memorable GP contest, especially because of the kind of support Rakshita got from the entire village.

Congratulations Rakshita! You are without a doubt, one of our stars.

Please see: All images are a reference to a GP contest held in schools, and not of the one talked about.

Testing the level of math in children, the Gram Panchayat Way.

An entire academic year has just gone by after the grand launch of Ganitha Kalika Andolana (GKA), the innovative support programme rolled out in June 2015 by Akshara Foundation, in collaboration with the Karnataka State Government.

During the course of the year, the programme was implemented in six districts of the Hyderabad Karnataka region namely, Gulbarga, Koppal, Bellary, Raichur, Bidar and Yadgir. Around 8,000 teachers, 682 Government Resource Persons and 718 Cluster Resource Persons have been trained on the methodology, so that 300,000 children in 7,515 schools could benefit from this programme.

In an attempt to understand exactly how much the programe has benefitted the students and how much they have been exposed to it, Akshara Foundation was a proud facilitator of a one of its kind math competition for the children this summer.


This competition was organised and spearheaded by the Gram Panchayats themselves. (A gram panchayat is the cornerstone of a local self-government organisation in India of the panchayati raj system at the village or small town level and has a sarpanch as its elected head – source: Wikipedia) Many villages come under a single Gram Panchayat. And Akshara identified around 250 such gram panchayats, spread across the 6 districts of GKA.


Out the 250 identified Gram Panchayats, the team managed to conduct competitions in 216 of them.

Covering concepts on the Number System, Arithmetic Operations, Geometry and Measurement, the question papers were set by Akshara Foundation .

A total of 18,085 children showed up over the course of six weeks to participate in these competitions. This mammoth project involved around 2,000 youth volunteers and 20,000 odd parents, taking the ANDOLANA (meaning a Movement) to a whole new level. Many of the parents were exposed to the impact of interactive-based learning and in turn, the importance of math, for the first time.

So how does something like this work? Easier said than done. Akshara Foundation set each question paper with painstaking care, to cover all the major listed concepts equally. They were then couriered to each Gram Panchayat in sealed envelopes.

The Gram panchayat members would then begin the competition by opening the sealed envelopes on the day of the competition, in front of everyone. All the participants were given a paper each, and had to solve all the questions within the given time. Our youth volunteers would then huddle in a room and and correct the papers themselves, once all the papers were collected from the children.


Once done, the results were announced in a grand closing ceremony, where the child who bagged the 1st prize was awarded a cash prize of Rs. 1000/-, Rs. 600/- was awarded as the 2nd prize and Rs. 400/- as the 3rd prize.

All this (excluding the setting of the paper) took place over the course of a few hours, right in front of everyone. There were no hidden rules or blanks left to fill in by the unassuming audience.


All this sounds like a picture perfect new method of assessing children, but how did the children actually fare?

Of the 18,085 children who were tested (4th standard, 5th standard and 6th standard), the overall performance of those in the 5th standard was found to be relatively better, with a marginal increase in the percentage of students in high grades when compared with the performance of those in the 4th and 6th standard.

Some stark figures that need to be spoken about: 72.3% of the children tested could perform 4-digit addition, but when it came to 4-digit subtraction and multiplication, only 55.6% and 30.9% of them could manage it.


While 23.8% children could do 4-digit division, only 17.2% children could solve division problems conveyed through a practical scenario.

Overall, the children of Raichur and Yadagiri districts scored the highest (14% and 18% scored above 75% respectively). Bellary and Kalburgi districts exhibited the lowest performance scores (where only 9% and 7% of the children scored above 75% respectively).


The children’s performance, good or bad, has definitely started many a conversation amongst all the stakeholders. We are happy that this initiative has motivated the community to take a keen interest in their children’s education.

And to ensure this dialogue opens up in all the areas of Ganitha Kalika Andolana, Akshara Foundation will help organise around 400 more Gram Panchayat competitions, similar to these 216 over the course of the academic year.

Links to images and press clips:



Winds of Change

In an isolated area marked by far and few passersby, sits the Government Lower Primary School (GLPS), in Kilaratti Tanda village of Kushtagi district. With not many sounds breaking the silence of a hot afternoon except for the occasional honking of the state roadway buses – collective voices of children reading an English rhyme comes as a breath of cool air and as much a surprise. Over 40 boys and girls sit on the ground studying together in hope of raising their literary levels and a better future.

Primarily, a home to the Lambani Tandas, Kilaratti village is sequestered in the remote area of the state where the inhabitants continue to be a close knit society with limited interaction with the world outside. Often victims of frequent migration and displacement, educa¬¬¬tion was never a catalyst for change until recently. Today at this school, for the children of Lambani Tandas, learning is a joyful experience and education a meaningful process. However, the attitudinal shift and the resulting transformation did not occur overnight. So what changed? How did GLPS, become a nurturing school for the tribal children where potential and promise is emphasized as opposed to problems and challenges? How did a tribe, neglected for years came to recognize the culture of education and sustain it in a tribal milieu? Here are some answers to these questions…

Common Goal 
Addressing an issue as complex as socio-economic development of tribal children through education requires a collective vision and effort. The seeds for change germinated once the Lambani Tandas, the school staff, partners like Akshara Foundation and the local community had a common goal that clearly articulated the need for educating the children in the village. The same goal now works as the much needed inspiration and generates motivation among the Tandas to not only send their children to school but even track their progress.

Let’s Connect
One of the key drivers of change, for this school has been the willingness of the school reps and the community to connect for meaningful outcomes. Moving beyond limited resources, numerous collaborative partnerships with a gamut of stakeholders were formed to catalyze comprehensive community-wide action leading to transformational change. A clear indication of a participatory approach towards education which engages even the seemingly unlikely partners generates a renewed sense of what is possible and can be achieved.

Surprising… but support flowed from various quarters to drive the desired change at this school. To boot, it came in multiple forms. The teachers at the school were trained by Akshara Foundation in English and Maths skills. Training and learning material kits for Maths and English were provided to the teachers and children. The community including Dist coordinator, Taluka coordinator, the CRPs, HMs, SDMC , Gram Panchayat and the local youth also came together to organize camps for the school children. In addition to this an over-riding element of support that fuelled the transformation was the shared willingness to usher in change. The vision received the support of everyone.

Last but not the least a critical element in driving this change has been an increased level of acceptance rather than resistance on resentment. A culture of education now runs through this village inhabited by the Lambani Tandas with an acceptance of responsibility of having to educate their children.

 For a tribal community reticent towards the outside world, sending their children to school indicates openness to the winds of change. In the days to come the love of learning among the children will help them achieve a lot for themselves and their community.