Moving the needle on public school outcomes

By: and |
Published: April 13, 2015 12:37:24 AM

Government schools need to match if not outperform affordable private schools

The results of the recent Delhi elections beg the question: what could the ruling NDA government have done in the last nine months to, if not win, at least prevent the landslide.

One fairly believable hypothesis is that lower classes wanted a government which cared about their development. Not just top-down economic growth but also grassroots, equitable growth.

What constitutes development for the lower classes? What leads to equitable growth? One option can be more freebies—free electricity, free food, more unemployment benefits, free housing, etc.

The other is empowerment. Empowerment to have a better life tomorrow than this one today. Empowerment to have the potential to break out eventually from the poverty that one has grown in. Education is a key lever for that empowerment. Unfortunately, India does not deliver on that front.

The recent ASER report once again brings forth the grim facts around the state of public education in India. Despite close to universal school enrolment in ages 6-14, school attendance still lags around 71%, worse in 2014 than it was in 2009. Among those who do attend school, foundational literacy and numeracy is low, with less than 50% of students observed in Std V able to read a Std II level text. A similar proportion of students at Std V remain unable to do simple subtraction.

Long-term trends on these indicators—the ASER report is now in its tenth year—suggest that government education is going backwards in almost every state. Little wonder that the proportion of students in the age group 6-14 in rural areas enrolled in private schools has grown from 22% in 2009 to 31% in 2014.

What is the reason for this situation and what is the solution?

We believe that, quite often, issues in education have been looked at very narrowly. There are four key issues in public education today. One, schools structures and constructs make delivering quality education difficult. Due to age appropriate admission, there is no detention and universal enrolment—many classrooms are multi-grade and multi-level, disrupting the teacher’s ability to deliver instruction that is relevant to the particular needs of students at a certain level. In most states, about 20% of primary schools are 1- or 2-teacher schools. Imagine a teacher trying to teach 30 kids of different ages and calibres, split across 5 classes—all at one time. Teachers are neither equipped with the skills, nor with materials and processes to be effective in this challenging environment.

Two, there is limited academic capacity in the organisations that administer government schools. A look into the departmental organisational charts reveals many positions related to quality assurance stand empty, and there large vacancies in critical monitoring and support roles, such as block officers. Inside SCERTs, the academic hubs of each state, significant capacity deficits exist, especially in areas of pedagogy, curriculum and assessments.

Three, there is limited accountability in government systems in general. The current systems of accountability are largely geared towards incentivising infrastructure creation and schemes dissemination, rather than learning outcomes for students. Additionally, large government organisations with lakhs of employees are too consumed in administering themselves, spending time managing inefficient HR, administration and data collection processes, unable to sense and hence respond to the challenges faced in schools on the ground.

Four, there are some broader misalignments and structural issue at play. One glaring example is the neglect of early childhood education—crucial to ensuring children get a strong start in their education—which is currently administered under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) managed by the ministry of women and child development. The ministry seems to have limited capability or interest in education and there is little convergence between it and the HRD ministry that manages school education overall.

Hence, the solutions to these problems need to be systematic and integrated.

First, it’s about government systems placing the academic agenda—curriculum, pedagogy and most importantly learning outcomes—front and centre of our efforts to improve government education. It’s about creating accountability in the school system on academic and learning outcomes. We need to make learning objectives transparent and the track the progress of students, educators and administrators towards them regularly. At a practical level, an annual learning levels outcomes survey of students would provide a baseline for measuring and tracking student achievement. This needs to be supplemented by regular assessment of educators and periodic school inspections.

Second, a set of interventions are needed to assist the teachers. Recognising the challenges of a multi-grade, multi-level classroom, appropriate pedagogies and teaching learning materials are needed. Proven pedagogical interventions such as remedial programmes to address learning deficits can make a huge difference. We must also invest significantly in the capability of teachers and school leaders.

For this, we need to strengthen the organisations that administer our schools. Widespread change is required to create academic focus and efficiency. State education departments should look at restructuring their organisations, re-engineering inefficient processes and fostering new talent as a means to build capacity. More than anything else, SCERTs need to be transformed—from lacklustre buildings with demotivated people to buzzing hubs of innovation, knowledge creation and dissemination. We also need a system-wide approach to managing information that facilitates measurement and tracking of student outcomes and educator performance.

Having said that, what should be the goal? What does India’s government education system need to achieve to stay relevant?

It is not good enough to be just improving. One has to be improving faster than the competition to be able to overtake it at some point of time. As long as affordable private schools are able to provide somewhat better and somewhat more relevant education as compared to government schools—and that too at Rs 500-1,000 per month—the migration away from government schools will continue. In a future not too far away, we will be left with a million-plus schools serving not more than 20-30% of the population of this country.

Government schools, hence, need to improve at a pace to at least match if not outperform the affordable private schools over the next 3-5 years. That is the need of the hour if we don’t want to be left with a vast, expensive and unused education infrastructure in this country.

Arindam Bhattacharya is managing director, BCG India. Seema Bansal is director of BCG India’s Social Impact and Public Sector practice

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