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Beyond resources

Beyond resources
ACHIEVING universal elementary education is not merely a function of availability of additional resources or even an expansion of the school infrastructure. These are necessary but insufficient conditions for making universal elementary education a reality.
After the launch of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the debate on the Right to Education has focused, I believe erroneously, on the inadequate budgetary allocations available for this scheme. Such a lopsided debate detracts from the major issues that need to be addressed for a sustained and result oriented effort for providing quality elementary education. Under the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), which was the biggest initiative in primary education, spending had been much lower than the allocations in the annual work plans each year for the past 7-8 years. This clearly shows that serious issues relating to policy, planning and implementation are constraining the UEE (Universalization of Elementary Education) effort.
It is also a matter of grave concern that during 2003, almost every state seemed to be in a big hurry to demonstrate that it had virtually eliminated the ‘menace’ of ‘out of school’ children. The claim of certain states, viz., Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, of such drastic reduction in the number of out of school children is blatantly incorrect. The sad part is that the states are themselves undermining their efforts of achieving UEE and trivializing the daunting task of ensuring regular participation of all children in schooling. Apart from fudging of figures, mere entry of the names of children in the school admission registers is being treated as ‘children attending school’. The problems of irregularly attending children, those who have dropped out, elder children, especially girls in the 10+ age group has been glossed over in the hurry to be first past the post of ‘near universal’ enrolment.
Since the state governments have the major responsibility for providing education and, therefore, securing the right to quality basic education, I would confine my analysis to the functioning of government programmes. For this purpose, I mainly draw upon my experience of several years of working with DPEP and SSA and the mainstream education department in the Government of Assam.
The context of elementary education in Assam is similar to that of several other
educationally backward states like Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya
Pradesh, parts of the Northeast and disadvantaged pockets in the economically or
educationally better off states.
Educational planning in Assam has been very weak and the provision of school infrastructure, location of new schools, school buildings and additional teachers was not based on actual need. Teacher recruitment, placement and transfers have also been guided by political considerations. Thus, there are serious disparities in school facilities and the SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04 quality of schooling in areas which are remote or inhabited by marginalized groups like tea garden workers, santhalis, certain other tribal groups and the Muslim pockets in riverine areas is very unsatisfactory. These are also the areas and social groups among whom the commitment to education is weak and which have the highest proportion of out of school children.
Thus, the areas where the highest number of children need to be brought into and retained in schools, have schools with the poorest provisioning. Reserve forest areas and flood affected riverine islands have their own peculiar problems that make the task of UEE more difficult. There is not enough political commitment to a progressive agenda for education. The panchayat system has only recently been established. In many areas, schools do not function regularly and the learning levels of students are low.
It is in this context that the work for UEE had been undertaken in Assam. This paper will only highlight a small part of the work with a limited objective of drawing out the major issues and opportunities in reforming elementary education.
I present here four aspects of our work that are crucial to any government effort to provide quality basic education to all children, especially in the context outlined above: evidence and norm-based planning and implementation; ensuring basic learning conditions in all schools; strong commitment to equity that is reflected in policies, fund allocation and implementation; and decentralization of decision-making and accountability at all levels, including schools.
The absence of any evidence-based planning in the mainstream education system meant
that there were serious disparities in education provisioning. For long, the principle of
allocation of resources had been an equal distribution of funds to each block or legislative
assembly constituency, irrespective of real needs. This ‘equality’ in fund allocation had
heightened the existing inequalities.
A participatory mapping and microplanning exercise that included village mapping, group discussion, house-to-house surveys and school surveys was conducted in early 2002. This was followed by a technical survey of school space and building conditions. During visits of cluster and block level academic personnel, school-wise records of students’ attendance and achievement levels (in quarterly tests) were generated.
The analysed databases were used extensively for sensitizing the education bureaucracy
and political executive by highlighting the disparities across social groups and
geographical areas in school facilities, enrolment rates, teacher availability, linguistic
diversity and the disadvantages for some groups of children, incidence of migration, and
so on. This set the tone for making equity the central focus of the UEE programme.
SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04 i) All the databases were made public through newspapers and small booklets distributed to schools, villages and panchayats.
ii) Clear criteria or norms were defined for several interventions, e.g. when does a school become eligible for a bridge course? Which habitation qualifies for a community school? Which school is eligible for a para teacher? iii) These norms were given wide publicity by printing leaflets, discussion in meetings at village, panchayat and block levels.
iv) Databases were regularly updated at village, school, block and district levels. Thus, the information was not ‘one time’ but dynamic in nature. The Village Education Registers became the basis for planning at the village level.
The well publicized norms and databases were used for several interventions including selection of schools for repair and construction, identification of schools that qualified for additional teachers, gradation of schools for providing additional academic support, identification of disadvantaged areas that would be eligible for special compensatory packages, and so on. School and village education committees also made demands for bridge courses and ‘remedial support’ teachers based on these public databases.
Apart from ensuring better targeting of interventions and funds, this strategy had three other benefits. First, the transparency in decision-making and adherence to norms created a trust or faith in the UEE programme among people – teachers, parents, panchayat representatives and even educational administrators – who were totally disillusioned with the functioning of the education system.
Second, it helped to create entitlements or rights to certain benefits which were brought
into the public domain. Thus a village wih 20 non-school going children in the age group
7-9 years knew that it was entitled for a short term bridge course centre and could start
planning for it as soon as the guidelines were issued. Similarly, schools with a paucity of
teachers knew their deficit which had been published (school-wise) in all local
newspapers. They also knew which schools had surplus teachers and would have to
surrender them or at least not be eligible for any additional teachers.
Third, a clarity in the norms meant that decision-making could be decentralized to the district and block levels. In government, the basic problem is that lower levels are never trusted with decision-making that has financial implications. Here, since the criteria were so clear, block level teams headed by the block education officer could take the final decision on several interventions. This strategy completely overturned the traditional system of allocating equal funds and facilities to all blocks within a district.
SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04 Norm based prioritization of civil works
All the 40,000 primary and upper primary schools were surveyed by technical personnel to record the conditions of the building in great detail and also the usable space available for teaching-learning. Each school was photographed and the entire database digitized. These school records have been regularly updated to reflect any change in the building conditions or available space.
Based on the condition of the school building and usable space for the child,1 every school was listed under 12 different categories, indicating a sequential need-based prioritization for repairs or additional classroom construction.
These categorized and prioritized schools lists were then published and widely circulated. Objections were invited to the prioritization and people could consult the detailed school wise records and photographs at the block education office. The schools were selected for construction grants based on their priority in these lists. Thus, allocation of funds was made on a school wise basis which again resulted in preferential allocation of funds to areas that had hitherto been neglected.
Since this process also took away the discretion and nepotism that was being practiced by the legislators in allocating school construction grants, it was vehemently opposed. To assuage their hurt egos, we allowed a district level committee that included MLAs to select schools from within a category, but they were not allowed to move to a lower priority category till all schools in the higher priority category had been selected for construction grants. Later, this policy became the rallying point for justifying a demand for my ouster from the Assam UEE Mission.
While under DPEP a lot of work was undertaken for pedagogical renewal of teaching-
learning practices, it had not been possible to address the problems of disparity in the
‘basic learning conditions’ in schools which we defined as essential prerequisites
(necessary, but not sufficient) for learning to take place. We identified the following
minimum requirements for a school in Assam:
i) Adequate number of teachers (as per norm, i.e. a minimum of two teachers and additional teachers for every 40 students).
ii) A minimum usable space per child (based on usable plinth area and ‘real enrolment’).
iii) Textbooks for all children (which are distributed free of cost).
v) A small school library with at least 100 books meant for children at the primary level.
SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04 vi) A minimum set of identified TLMs (teaching-learning aids).
vii) Exercise books and pencils, pens, erasers for every child.
ix) Minimum instructional time in terms of teaching hours and prescribed school days.
Information on the number of teachers, building conditions and space available per child and the availability of drinking water and toilets was readily available and regularly updated. But the information on the number of appropriate library books and TLMs was not accurate. We decided to work on the minimum requirements of a library and TLM during the year by documenting the gap through regular visits of cluster and block academic personnel and include the requirements in a school-based plan that could be supported through the annual teacher and school grants under SSA. Regarding exercise books and writing materials, we could not finalise a mechanism of funding and appropriate targeting of children.
The cooked, noon-meal scheme had not taken off in Assam and, therefore, we could not
operationalise it as an essential condition. A series of initiatives were taken to maximize
the instructional time in schools. This could not be monitored on a school wise basis to
include it as a minimum operational standard. The initiatives are listed in the section on
accountability. However, our team was clear that all the nine conditions be retained as the
ideal minimum conditions for a primary school.
We were pleasantly surprised to learn that the Fundescola2 programme in Brazil has adopted a similar approach of defining and ensuring minimum operational standards of schools. We wanted to take up operationalisation of minimum standards of only three items that could be easily measured and achieved in a years time: (a) adequate teachers, (b) usable space per child, and (c) drinking water and toilets.
For drinking water and toilets a separate action plan was drawn up by converging funds
available under SSA, swajaldhara scheme, public health engineering department and
Unicef. This ensured that every primary school would have adequate drinking water and
toilet facilities by the end of 2004.
Based on the latest figures of enrolment and children actually found attending school and the teachers actually in position, a list of requirements of additional teachers was drawn up for schools that had a deficit. The schools with surplus teachers were also identified. The lists were printed and published widely, but the rationalization (redeployment) process of shifting the surplus teachers did not make much headway. Community teachers (with the same qualifications regular teachers) were then recruited for these schools by the school managing committees and panchayats. Also, transfers from any school that had a deficit of teachers to any school with a surplus was disallowed.
SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04 Similarly, for school buildings, a transparent process of selection of schools was followed to ensure every school had at least seven square feet space per child in the first phase. This target is likely to be completed by March 2004.
To summarise, the following steps were followed: (i) define the minimum standard for teachers (number) and the space available per child; (ii) analyse available, verified data to identify schools that fell short of these minimum conditions; (iii) ensure that construction grants and additional teachers (regular or community contractual) were provided to these schools on a priority basis; and (iv) keep a constant check to ensure that all schools continue to remain at the minimum levels defined for the above two conditions. Thus, monitoring is to be done on a regularly basis.
Since the poorly provided schools were mostly located in remote, disadvantaged areas, often inhabited by tribal or other marginalized groups, this strategy contributed immensely to our thrust on equity.
The reason for discussing this strategy in detail is to highlight that appropriate and need based targeting of resources is still not a reality in most states. Most programme in-charges in the states feel that such decisions are often taken by public (political) representatives and it is difficult to implement objective, criteria based policies in such matters. Without these learning (prerequisite) conditions, it is inappropriate to talk about better teaching-learning processes and increased learning achievement levels in educationally disadvantaged areas.
Fortunately, education programmes (mainly DPEP) in Assam had developed a
sensitivity towards the basic inequities in school quality and the socio-economic
background of children. The evidence and norm based decision-making process for
selection of schools and villages for construction grants, setting up of bridge courses and
placement of additional teachers had an inbuilt equity orientation.
Our commitment to work preferentially for the disadvantaged took us on a collision course with the tea industry which was partly responsible for the sorry state of primary education within the tea estates.3 Through tortuous negotiations over a year and threat of legal action, an agreement was arrived at with the tea garden managements to ensure that all facilities as per norms would be provided in tea garden schools through SSA funds. Also, all quality improvement initiatives including teacher training, cluster and school based academic guidance, regular evaluation, free textbooks and so on would be extended to these schools.
Special initiatives were also implemented for char (riverine islands/banks mostly
inhabited by the Muslim community) and interior forest areas. SSA Assam also identified
deprived urban children like rag pickers, domestic servants and children employed in
shops, hotels and garages, children of construction and quarry workers, contractual
agricultural child labour and children affected by insurgency/ethnic conflict as priority
groups for inclusion in formal schooling or alternative strategies.
SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04 In the past two years the entire approach for affirmative action in favour of underprivileged areas and groups was formalized and a flexible menu of interventions was developed to choose from for designing ‘compensatory packages’ for specific situations and social groups. Three types of disadvantaged areas and social groups were identified and formally notified. These included remote and inaccessible areas, tea gardens, and educationally backward villages and panchayats with at least 35% children not attending school. These areas were identified based on the available data and fine-tuned in consultation with block and district teams.
Some of the special privileges for such areas were: (i) flexible norms for setting up of bridge courses or community schools (e.g. a village in any of the above areas would qualify for a centre even if there were only 15 out of school children as against the usual requirement of 25 children); (ii) engagement of local community resource persons or motivators for mobilization activities and specific drives; (iii) a special scheme for assistance to NGOs willing to work in such areas for mobilization and school improvement; (iv) a major portion of the Innovation Fund interventions under SSA was earmarked for these disadvantaged areas. A total amount of Rs 50 lakh is allowed to be spent for each district annually for innovative activities; and (v) ensuring intensive monitoring and supervision through regular and mandatory visits of programme and education department personnel to such areas.
In some areas of ‘deep poverty’, with difficult livelihood situations and low parental commitment for schooling, more holistic interventions including formation of women’s self-help groups, literacy, health and micro-credit have been planned as small sub projects. Special programmes for supporting second language (which is the medium of instruction) acquisition through bridging strategies using primers, workbooks and teachers sensitization have been initiated in tea garden, tribal and some Nepali speaking areas.
Decentralisation was pursued in two separate dimensions. First, certain powers were
vested in school committees, village education committees and panchayats for specific
activities under SSA. These included the power to select teachers for community schools,
bridge courses or contact teachers in formal schools. Funds for school improvement,
running of bridge courses and alternative schools were also transferred to these people’s
committees. In almost all activities the gram panchayat was given a special role. It was
heartening to see the initiative taken by a large number of gram panchayats in
implementing enrolment drives, bridge courses, organizing summer camps, and so on.
Second, significant administrative decentralization was introduced in the implementation
of the UEE programme including financial delegation and powers of taking decision.
Thus, the district and block education officers were given responsibilities to approve
location of schools, bridge courses, selection of schools for constructions, preparing
proposals for disadvantaged areas etc. This was possible because the norms and criteria
for various activities were well defined and there was considerable transparency in the
whole system. One result of such delegation is that the lower education bureaucracy has
SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04 become responsible, with a feeling of self-worth absent so far, since the education department functions in a completely top-down, instruction-based approach where most approvals are centralized at the state level.
The unfortunate part of the effort was that the entire thrust on decentralization remained programme-driven and we could only decentralize activities which were a part of the UEE mission. The state government did not transfer any powers to the panchayats as mandated by the 73rd Constitutional Amendment. Therefore, it was a case of the cart trying to drive the horse. Our initiatives did not have legislative backing. This is a reason why some progressive decisions can be reversed, though the panchayats and school committees will resist any move to withdraw powers already delegated to them. The MLAs of course opposed such decentralization as they saw their disempowerment (informal powers of teachers’ selection, selection of schools for construction grants) as a corollary to the empowerment of panchayats and other people’s groups.
Another key dimension of our work was to make the elementary education system, from
the state to the school level, accountable to the people. This meant changing mindsets,
which was not an easy task and we made limited progress. A three-pronged strategy was
used for this purpose:
a) Sensitisation of education personnel from the Directorate to the school level on the right to education and its implications. Issues of equity, right to learn of all children, answerability to the parents and community were discussed and debated in orientation programmes.
b) Transparency in programme implementation: For every activity, detailed information was provided through meetings and distribution of leaflets, radio and newspapers, advertisements, so that the panchayats, school committees and village education committees were clear about their role, the norms and funds to be released to them or spent by the block or district office. Such measures also helped to check misuse of funds, which was a common practice in education department programmes. Since the guidelines were well known to the community at large, the panchayats could not take arbitrary decisions.
c) Making reporting and collection of feedback from the field units including peoples’ bodies mandatory: The schedule for such meetings was fixed for the entire year. Also the discussion on the feedback received and the meetings held was made an essential part of the review at all higher levels. Every district was ranked every month on a set of pre-defined indicators which included a few that related to their performance on sharing of information and meetings with panchayats, school committees, etc.
The UEE mission in Assam functioned with a set of non-negotiable principles that were binding on the mission personnel. These non-negotiables reflected the commitment to transparency, bottom-up approach, concern for the disadvantaged and the importance of people’s involvement. There has been a distinct shift in the working of the district and block education offices who now feel more accountable to show results to people rather SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04 than merely reporting to their superior officers. Some of the measures of transparency, the decentralization of decision-making and empowerment of school and village based people’s groups to incur expenditure for purchases and recurring expenses for schools and bridge courses also helped in reducing misutilisation of funds.
At the school level, the thrust was on emphasizing accountability of the school for
learning by all children. The first step was to ensure that schools function regularly for
the prescribed number of hours and days so that the instructional time is increased. This
was a crucial intervention in remote and educationally backward areas. For this purpose,
a series of steps were initiated: (i) Intensive school supervision and academic support
visits through block and district level core groups which included inspecting and
academic resource persons. (ii) Officials of the district administration and other
development departments started visiting schools to observe teacher and student
attendance, classroom teaching and to meet parents.
(iii) A significant role was assigned to the school mapping committee and village education committee in the affairs of running the school. (iv) All government orders regarding school timings, holidays, teachers’ responsibilities were printed in local language and discussed in the SMC/VEC meetings. (v) Shiksha Nyaya Manch (Shiksha Adalat), a quasi-judicial forum has been initiated as a grievance redressal mechanism for people’s complaints relating to functioning of schools. (vi) Teachers’ orientation on the issue of fundamental right to quality education. The teachers’ associations were also involved in this effort.
To actually promote accountability for children’s learning, the Learning Assurance
Programme was initiated with the twin objectives of (a) involving parents in issues
related to learning of children and (b) getting teachers to frequently evaluate and analyse
children’s performance with the objective of taking remedial measures to support the
weaker children. As a first step, a Reading Guarantee Campaign was launched to assure
the community that each child would develop the basic skills of reading with
comprehension in the next one year.
For this effort to succeed, the focus on learning has to be gradual and relentlessly pursued. Such accountability will take a long time to establish, its success related to the extent of involvement and demand generation among the parents and the response of the education system. It would require a sustained effort over several years with a ‘rights based’ perspective. Also, unless the quality of governance improves across all sectors and arms of the government, it will be wishful thinking to assume that radical and sustainable changes can be brought about in the education system alone.
If the UEE effort has to succeed in such states or areas where the quality of educational
governance is presently unsatisfactory, there is a need for a long term vision and
sustained action to promote people’s involvement. Equity must be the cornerstone of the
entire effort since, in most states, the challenge is to work with the most disadvantaged
groups and areas and reduce inequalities in school quality.
SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04 Our effort in Assam to ensure regular attendance and continuation of children in formal schools after completion of bridge courses, made us realize the intensity of community and school based effort that is required to help such children and parents adjust to the demanding and rigid school system. The education system has to be sensitized to understand the nature of the comprehensive process required to ensure regular participation of children.
Devolution of powers to panchayat raj institutions and also to people’s groups like village education committees and school committees is the key to ensuring greater involvement of people and accountability of the education system. Alongside, it is important to develop and publicize clear norms and criteria for implementing various programmes to ensure that resources are used efficiently and the worst off areas, groups and schools are benefited on a priority basis.
During the past two years, the education system in Assam has been slow to respond to the rights based approach and the emphasis on accountability for results and to people. Transparent and equity oriented action is yet to become well established as a usual way of work. Currently, there is great pressure from the overall spirit and dynamism of the mission and the response of the people which will need to be sustained. The education system at various levels also lacks the managerial capacity to carry out a large number of activities and spend the huge amounts allocated to each district under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
Corruption, which is rampant in the education system, needs to be checked. The pursuit
of a norm based approach and effective decentralization requires a high level of political
commitment on a sustained basis to weather the opposition to change and build
consensus. Our effort in Assam failed to reach the next level of consolidation because the
consensus for these changes was lacking amongst the political executive and legislators.
While the panchayats, peoples’ committees and a large part of the education bureaucracy
felt exhilarated and were greatly supportive of the thrust on improved functioning of the
system and the measures for decentralization, transparency and accountability, the
political system felt threatened. The legislators saw their formal and informal powers of
arbitrarily doling out largesse that they have enjoyed for decades being eroded.
We need to appreciate that universalizing quality basic education is a huge challenge which will not succeed unless far reaching systemic changes that question the present pattern of work and distribution of powers are introduced. The biggest disservice to the cause of the right to education is to trivialize the challenge to one of merely providing more resources and ‘swelling up’ the number of children who are receiving basic education.
SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04 Footnotes:
1. We did not use the usual criterion of number of rooms available in a school because they are often not in good shape and overcrowded. The most appropriate criterion therefore is the usable (good condition) space available per child, which should ideally be eight square feet. In the next stage, the target is to increase the space per child to 10 sq. feet.
2. The Ministry of Education in Brazil is implementing a big school improvement plan (Fundescola) partly financed by the World Bank that aims primarily at overcoming the constraints of (a) inadequate school quality and (b) ineffective schooling. This is a school based development approach with several dimensions of work – one of them being ensuring that ‘minimum operational standards’ are achieved and maintained in every school. For this purpose, funds are transferred to individual school as per their costed need to meet these standards.
3. The tea garden management would take responsibility for ensuring universal enrolment and continuation in school.
SEMINAR, Vol #536, ARE WE LEARNING, April-04


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