100 ml tel aur thodi si sharab

Children in this distant village in Odisha manage to open their books even after sunset. Most kids in cities do so, for one reason- complete some ‘homework’. They are able to do so because their is abundant light, of a CFL or regular tubelights/bulbs. The children i came across in this village neither had homework to finish nor any light that they could make use of. So, it is all the more surprising that they sit down and read and solve math problems at night.

The children have been attending pre/post school classes that help them to bridge learning deficits that are common at their age. The classes have also filled a void, rather a thirst, of knowing more, comprehending the world and doing things they have never done before. Perhaps that is the reason these kids attend the ‘extra’ class, then go to their school and get back to books once the day says good night.

Reading books at night wasn’t really possible for them, till some months back. Now the villagers manage to light a few lamps and help their children spend some quality time with books. These lamps are not lit by oil alone, it is the ability of women and men to believe ‘that there is something  in them superior to their circumstances’. Some village women started a donation drive where 100 millilitre kerosene was collected form each house and the contributions have not been an one-ff event. They also realized that such small contributions can make a significant difference for each child and the next target was liquor. The logic was simple- if the village men can give up liquor, even for2-3 days in a week, they can save sizeable amount of money that can be routed to lamps and more oil.

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The tragedy of being ‘Public’- Can the Education system prevail over its ‘well-wishers’

We call it the public education system- 200 million children, 5 million teachers, 1 million schools* and an administrative workforce that will run  into hundres of thousands. Bulk of India’s children continue to depend on govenrment schools and support institutions for their education. Over the years, right from the time when the English tired hard to screw it to the present day, the Indian education system has been questioned, quashed, ridiculed etc etc.

If we look at where we, as a country, have reached there are reasons to believe something in the education system has clicked and continues to prod it along. A doze of optimism will tell us that the situation is not irremediable. From where we are right now, things can always get better.

The fact that we have a problematic ‘public’ education system means we have to look for ‘public’ solutions or rather public’s solutions. This is where the tragedy begins. Look, who is interested in getting the system back on track? The government, may be because it is constitutionally mandated to do so; Civil society, may be because it is the custodian of whatever is ‘right’ and trusts that it can be done; Parents and children, may be because they don’t have an alternative. Corporates, because they see an opportunity here, to make a mark; CSRs, because they have the resources to make a difference and there are others who might want to get the system on track for varied reasons. Henceforth, i will use the word ‘well-wishers’ for these actors. 

Why is this a tragedy??

The word tragedy was memorably used in the development world in the year 1968 when Garrett Hardin first published the ‘Tragedy of Commons’. The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource (Wikipedia).

In trying to improve the education system, each attempt is being made ‘independently’ and ‘rationally’ and by consulting certain slef-interests. The usual process of improvement starts with problematizing the situation and then coming up with perfect answers. These answers could be exclusive or inclusive, conventional or weird, doable or just try-able. For some well-wishers a ‘just try-able’ or pilot-able solution is the best solution because it is a convenient way to stake a claim in the systemic reform club. For others, like parents and children, the problem is such an overwhelming and stark reality that answers are hazy and difficult to pursue. Whoever the stakeholder might be, it is worth remembering that understanding anatomy of ‘improvement’ is important if one wants to make a definitive impact on the system. Without really understanding what constitutes the system and how each part can be made to work together any attempt at change will be futile. It can be dangerous too, because misled and random actions can cripple the system that they are supposed to improve. As an example take the case of a district or state education office. It is a very promising idea to engage ‘experts’ in improving the practices and prospects of these offices but doing so by taking over their work and hijacking decision making should not be passed off as reform. For those engaged in it, it might be just another wonderful idea but the consequences of such ideas are born by the system. And mostly, these ideas are shortlived and task based. If writing a textbook is a priority, let it be written by someone who sits in his/her home or office and submits a draft within a month. Meanwhile, the state office just waits to hear from the ‘expert helpers’.

Another tragedy with the Public system is that some parts of the system might be ardent supporters of such change. It is not difficult to see why this is so- outsourcing has done wonders and it tends to deliver quick and easy results.  The pitfalls of mass offloading of work are feebly documented and analysed. So, the best way to resurrect a limping system is to to carry it on a vehicle, rather than strengthening its connections and coordination.

It is important to pin down accountability, especially in the case of such partnerships because finishing a few tasks and declaring ‘significant’ changes is the easy thing to do. What is difficult, and most needed, is to leave a memory with the system that can regenerate ideas and replenish the gaps. If the promise is to transform the public education system it cannot stop at mere replacement. First step is to understand the difference between the two- transform or replace, and then to understand a simple fact- you can transform only if it is alive and if it is alive, it can change itself.

When everything else shall be laid to rest, there will remain a set of children who will walk to a government school each morning in the hope that one day they will achieve what they desire. Everyone else, almost everyone, would have moved on because there is always a new cause waiting for support, a new ‘program’, a new set of deliverables.   

* For exact numbers please see DISE- www.dise.in

A teacher and his mobile

This conversation took inside one of the three rooms of this school. Located far away from anything, the school at Sookha Semli was almost like an oasis in a desert. Within an area of 2-3 kms we could only see bushes and trees and motorcycle tracks. The headmaster, while answering my questions on how often he has to visit the block office, said ‘block me soochna dene ke liye motorcyle leke 12-15 km duur jana padta hai. Main us din school nahi aa pata. Pura din nikal jata hai kaam me. (I have to travel 12-15 kms to submit information/data to the block office. I am not able to attend the school on such days).’

Having said this he took out his mobile ph0ne and showed it to me. He found it hard to believe why this instrument could not be used for sharing data and information between teachers and block offices. Every teacher in India doubles up as data collectors for the education system. Sometimes the same data is collected more than once and reported to different authorities. Multiplicity of data also means more  work for teachers who spend considerable time in collating and communicating this data. And data is not data alone, it brings with it considerable stress to meet deadlines and the fear of rebuke and criticism.

Coming back to the teacher’s question- can we use a mobile phone to submit data to a common repository which can be accessed by different departments in the government as per their needs? There are issues here-

  • Only certain kinds of data are amenable to this medium- numeric data or very short status updates
  • How to prevent data theft? One way could be to give every teacher a password which he/she can prefix to the data message
  • Schools could be recognized by their individual codes, which too is suffixed to the data
  • The syntax of the data message could be shared with schools and teachers in advance

There is a lot more that a mobile phone can do- used for opinion/information sharing; for teacher professional development; for accountability etc. More on it later.

Schools Schools everywhere, which one to choose?

The title of this post is almost an irony for most parents. Going by present times, it should have been- How a school chooses you? Nonetheless i decided to write this because i continue to feel, strongly as days pass, that one of the best investments anyone can make is picking a school for their child. There is a reason i call it investment. Most of us spend awful lot of time and energy in deciding what to wear, where to eat, how to live, how to spend the annual holiday etc etc. A lot of parents also pay a fortune to get their children ‘good’ education. People do all of this, but my point is limited to this- a true investment is preceded by careful analysis and judgement, something that completely misses when (most) parents decide which school to send their children to. Here lies the meat of my argument. What i write henceforth in this post would mostly be focused on urban schooling.

Let us look at how decisions with regards to school education are made-

  • Hearsay
  • Ease of access (distance and/or connections)
  • Financial wherewithal
  • Ideological reasons
  • Random tries

No one ranks schools on the basis of the ‘goodness’ of education that is provided. No one looks at the school-ness of a school- does it even make sense to attend a school that is a display of architecture, more than anything else? In the absence of any sort of calibrated information parents end up convincing themselves of the decisions they make and follow it up with supplements for the child- tuition classes, hobby classes, summer camps etc etc. The hope stays the same- everything will fall in place in the end. Perhaps it does, perhaps schools work, whatever be the quality.

There is a lot that can be said about the kind of education that a child needs in our times but i will put that away for another day. I have always believed that education is an experience (a characteristic experience, as Prof. Krishna Kumar would say) and if a school is not able to give that to a child, then it is missing the game completely. There are certain things that each parent would want for his/her child- happiness, a joyful childhood, safety etc etc. everything that ensures to a jolly good adulthood. Some parents want more, some might want less but everyone has expectations from as a child grows and it is only fair if some of these expectations reflect in the choice of education and school.

All this sounds very good but are people really putting efforts in realizing their expectations? I would leave you to answer this question but before that i would like to share a small ‘to do’ list that might help you in deciding, or atleast in thinking how to decide.

  • The child’s education has already begun even before she awaits the Principal’s nod to enter a school. Her parents, her friends, her family has already started shaping her thoughts. So the first thing to do is to be alert of what you say, what you do and how you treat your child before packing her off in a school bus.
  • Do not enter a school with the ‘lets go and get you admitted’ mentality. Rushing through this process will have repercussions.
  • Start early by making a list of schools you would like to try out, based on whatever criteria you want. Keep your list broad, i.e. don’t be a stickler with regards to status of a school etc. include lot of schools.
  • Judge the value of a school by the fee it charges and you are bound to end a bankrupt- financially and emotionally.
  • Insist of classroom observations in the schools on your list, talk to the teachers, listen to the children, see them spend their spare time. If the Principal tells you that allowing parents in the classroom is against policy, you might as well leave the campus.
  • Visit a rural school whenever you get a chance, see what they are upto. Be the judge of what is it that teachers and children should value.
  • Feel the environment, the school should embrace the child.
  • Focus on the necessities- love, inclusiveness, camaraderie. Any form of discrimination should be on your zero tolerance list.

(I’ll keep adding to this list)

Last but not the least, be physically and emotionally involved in your child’s education.

The Education Puzzle

This is a Guest Post by Ashutosh Tosaria. Ashutosh spends his time solving the puzzles that the education sector is muddled with. In his spare time, he works with an organisation which supports initiatives which seek to strengthen the elementary education sector in India.

Every child in school, getting quality education. The simple statement packs in itself many questions and confusions, some of which I would try to highlight here.
Let’s look at the supply chain of schooling. As is true with supply chains elsewhere, school education also lends itself to a demand and supply side relationship. Between the demand and supply are a host of actors, institutions that provide education or support provision of education. All of this is governed by rules (both said and unsaid) and choices, which shape processes and the quality of the service on offer.
The demand for education comes from children and parents. Civil society too can be counted with these two but for the moment lets just focus on the real beneficiaries or rather the first tier benefeciaries- children and parents. Often, this demand is made amidst serious information asymmetry. How good a school is, what is it that my child is doing in the school, why is education important at all? These are some questions that help a parent decide if he/she wants to send the child to a school. Choice of school is slowly becoming a reality for parents in rural India, thanks to the spurt in low cost private schools that dot the landscape. On one hand we have the government schooling system which offers (almost) free education (there are certain costs incurred by parents) and on the other a private school that charges a fee and is mostly staffed with unqualified teachers. No doubt that the government school system is often found crumbling but the choice of a private school is made based on notions because kosher information is missing.
Now lets look at the supply side, which is dotted with autonomous, under funded private schools and reasonably well funded but non responsive government schools. The latter is situated in an byzantine education support system that fails to be the watchdog, leave aside being a support system. The constraints for a private school are related to unavailability/costs of funds, unviability of sustaining the business at human salaries (for employees) and absence of academic support. The quality of education in such private schools is no where close to comfortable levels. A lot of these schools are unrecognized and offer the owners a good opportunity to rob the parent and squeeze the teachers to make whatever ‘profit’ that is possible. The government school system does not offer much respite. Their are pockets of excellence in villages and districts but delivering quality in learning is still a long way away for most. Unionization of teachers, vested interests of education babus (from cluster to state level) and indifference of the elected representatives makes it difficult to hold anyone accountable. One could go on and on about what doesn’t work or what does but we would leave that for a later day and jump to the important constituent of this chain- the teacher.
A teacher connects the child to the world as well as connects the school to its audience (parents and children). Drawing the idea of a keystone in a distribution system (from another post i saw here), a teacher in many ways is the keystone in the system. She anchors many the classroom and manages the expectations and demands of various stakeholders of the education system. strong anchors go a long way in keeping things nicely coupled and ensuring robust flow of services.
What is needed to ensure a secure and efficient supply chain?
– Informed participation (the recipient knows the quality and the provider is responsive)
– Transparency (resources and contraints are identifiable, practices are questionable, solutions are possible)
– Responsibility (the buck should stop where it’s supposed to)