Engaging the community to make schools accountable for delivering quality education

Via 

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



K. Vaijayanti
Akshara Foundation
vaijayanti@akshara.org.in

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.

CISCO makes Math fun.

We recently pulled out all the contents of Ganitha Kalika Andolana’s big White Box for you. It has a beaded rope, tape, blocks, foamed goodies, measuring tools, and weighing balance etc. In a nutshell, everything a child needs to understand every Math concept in his/her syllabus.

But explaining each concept is no nutshell of a job. It’s creative, challenging, easy and tough, all at the same time. Which is why, we decided to come up with as many ways as possible for the teacher to use as ready reckoners, while teaching Math.

And what made it better, our friends at CISCO Bangalore, decided to huddle together one day and brainstorm for us. Eager yet cautious faces greeted our entire team, as we began the fun afternoon. The sheer magnanimity of the things being pulled out of the box seemed to deter them at first.

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But once they got the hang of the entire kit, the place was abuzz. The entire group was divided into three large groups. Team A had to come up with pictorial representations for addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and number counting using the abacus, beaded rope and base ten blocks. Team B got Fractions and Decimals, while Team C tackled Geometry.

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What followed was a few hours of excited squeals, quiet pondering, hushed discussions and noisy exclamations. Each team further divided themselves, so that they could come up with as many representative options as possible.

“It’s the most interactive session we have ever had” said Blessie, the chirpy and ever helpful team member of the CISCO volunteer team. “But a lot of the credit also goes to our leadership team. They push us a lot, “ she added without being able to pry her eyes away from the coloured blocks.

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It was amazing to see how 30 odd adults became a class of 30 in no time at all. While one team was busy dunking the foam strips in water and having fun, another was busy experimenting with stick figures. And yet another team was deep in discussion, ensuring theirs was the best 🙂

And the most exciting part for us was the fact that we actually got a great number of options to choose from, at the end!

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Soujanya, who has been interning for around 5 months was a little intimidated with the colourful yet unknown things overflowing from the white box. “It took us a while to get the hang of how different things are used, but on the whole, very interesting.” And so she continued adding the finishing touches to her group’s presentation.

A brainstorming session of this kind was an excellent way for this enthusiastic bunch to also experience the Math kit first hand. And a lot of them actually realised how challenging it is, to think at a 4th grade child’s level.

Sachin, who has taught in government schools before, confirms that a pictorial way is the most effective method of retention. He adds, “This sort of system with a pictorial representation of concepts helps schools where teachers are fewer in number, and they multitask. Many of these concepts can also help the kids directly.”

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As the session drew to a close, the teams got busy documenting their ideas.The last team that remained was a particularly interesting one. Khyati from that team, who has been with CISCO for a couple of years now, is from a government school herself.

Her excitement with an assignment like this is definitely above anyone else’s. While she was one of the lucky few to actually get a scholarship from Udyan Care, many don’t get that luxury. “Which is why, I am a part of the volunteer group. I want to give back to schools like mine, where getting a sound education is difficult.”

Reasons big or small, it was heartening to see so many people come together for the sake of education. And we thank them all for their time and effort in helping us take that one step ahead. Looking forward to many more brainstorming sessions. 🙂

You can see how the entire afternoon spanned out here.

Creative solutions for RTE challenges

The fanfare around the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (RTE Act) is dissipating. Soon the reality will hit as the Act has to become ‘operational’. The powers that be are yet to ascertain the exact modalities of how this will work — the resources, the monitoring and tracking, the exact role of the private schools and a multitude of other issues.

Now is the time to take stock of the landscape and see what can strengthen the implementation of the Act.  Equally important is to be cognizant of the challenges that come with this ambitious goal and pre-empt some, if not all of them.

Enabling factors
There is no dearth of innovations in the education sector and many of these can address systemic gaps. Social entrepreneurs behind these innovations have demon-strated that these can work not just in small settings but even when taken to scale.

A time-tested example is what Rama and Padmanabha Rao have developed through the RIVER (Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources) project.  As we know, most rural schools are single-teacher schools and have no choice but to take up multi-grade teaching, thus limiting a child’s ability to learn well.  RIVER has been able to re-design the teaching methodology so that single teachers who are teaching different grades at once are able to do it effectively.  Their success has already been demonstrated in 75,000 schools that are using this model in 13 different languages, and nearly 1,20,000 teachers have been trained to use this approach.  Beyond this, the Raos have been able to help develop teaching materials involving the local communities.  This makes it low-cost and the children can easily relate to them.  All this put together has addressed issues of teacher and student absenteeism, made learning a joy and filled the disconnect between schools and communities.

There are many such innovations, which when coupled with the existing infrastructure, can do wonders.  Technology can play a pivotal role too — empowering teachers and students alike.  An extensive mapping of these innovations and integrating the truly promising ones into the mainstream is the need of the hour. 

Quality and metrics
Efforts like Read India, undertaken by Pratham, emphasize quality and not just the number of children in school. Tracking and monitoring results is integral to the success of what the Act hopes to accomplish.  Pratham is also behind the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in order to assess the national success:  the numbers as well as the quality of education attained by the children.  ASER has served as the proverbial mirror revealing what has worked well and what has not — including the geographic disparities.  Pratham also conducts bridge schools for children who are out of school to prepare them to re-enter mainstream schools.

Porous system
Then there is the issue of those children who fall through the cracks despite the best of intentions of all stakeholders. A case in point is children of migrant labourers.  Millions of poor rural Indians migrate from their villages in search of work for up to 8 months every year. They work in brick kilns, sugarcane plantations, salt pans and other labour-intense sectors to provide for their families. Typically, their children migrate with them.  Such migration usually results in these children dropping out of school at a very young age and starting work, often under hazardous conditions.  The LAMP (Learning and Migration Program),run by the American India Foundation, reaches out to these communities and their children and ensures that they have access to education.  Children can stay back in seasonal hostels in their native villages and continue to learn or attend site schools where their parents end up working.
 
Lessons to learn
While it is a totally different issue, there are some interesting parallels with another major Act passed recently to deliver another social good — employment.  The NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) has had mixed results.   While some states have been able to access close to 50 per cent of funds available under NREGA, other states have used less than 10 per cent of the funds. RTE could go the NREGA way if not handled well.

There are voices of dissonance being heard in the context of resources.  On whom does the burden lie?  The centre or the state?  What kind of micro-planning is needed?  For resources to be allocated, village level planning is needed and aggregated information from villages has to flow upward for allocation of funds.  How realistic is this and how will this be executed?

Teacher recruitment
The challenges are many and being cognizant of them is the first step.  The Act has not mapped out a plan to address the gap in the number and quality of teachers. Large numbers of teachers must be recruited instantly, trained and retrained adequately, placed rapidly and monitored regularly.  Partnerships with private schools can help with setting up such training facilities. The second challenge is incorporating the voice of the marginalised communities in the resource allocation process.

Many of these people are illiterate themselves and therefore unaware of policy changes and unable to comprehend their rights.  The government must take steps that include these communities and the civil society must provide a platform for them to be heard.  Social awareness is what will close the final gap.  Many communities do not see this as an investment in their children’s future.  ‘If my child is going to eventually work in the fields, what is the use of years of being in school?’  This is the question posed by many remote rural communities.  Other stigma and challenges need to be addressed — such as keeping the girl child in school.

The key is for the government not to reinvent the wheel, but to form partnerships with the stakeholders to replicate, build on and scale up models that work to overcome some of the challenges.

As one leading educationist in the country put it, ‘Stratospheric debates on education and RTE alone are not enough’.  Governments, philanthropists, the citizen sector, businesses — all have a major role in enabling India achieve its educational success.  It will take lots of resources and many creative solutions to ensure that the children are actually able to exercise their right that the Constitution of India has now handed them.

Source : Deccan Herald