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Tutoring and Excellence

15 Jan

Tuition is the underclass of the education sector. I challenge it: they’ve brought quality, accountability, access

It was a gathering of engineers, like many such gatherings. A group of friends meeting after decades. They had studied together, were ranked against each other in the famed JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) for the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology). Amidst much backslapping and ‘abbey-yaars’, came out the stories. Stories of long days and nights spent in preparation. Of books and authors whose names were seared on to their memories including tutors.

And then, one of them said something surprising, “If not for the tutor (named), I would never have understood the concept.”

I stood still for a moment. Tutors are supposed to be those who aid rote learning. They are the lowest in the pecking order of education intelligentsia. They appear everywhere, are resilient, get the job done and are forgotten. And here were people who had used their engineering skills to change the world and were crediting their tutors, not school teachers, for going beyond rote learning to a genuine understanding of the ideas, concepts and their applications.

This was one for the teaching community to reflect upon. This was one for the tutoring system. Flawed as it is, the tutoring system has delivered.

If there is one system that is working to further rigour, accuracy and excellence (of sorts), it is the tutoring ecosystem. Do not mistake this as an endorsement of rote learning, cramming culture, narrow focus on knowledge (rather than understanding) that has been the hallmark of the Indian education system so far. That is a given.

But with that as a given, it is the tutoring system that has added the quality dimension to it. If the goal is better marks, the tuition system has delivered on it. If the goal is smaller classes, the tutoring system has delivered. If the goal is teacher accountability – again, the tutoring system has delivered splendidly.

Tutors are engaged to improve scores. They have a single point goal. As tuition becomes more ubiquitous, one notices a rise in grades too. Often attributed to grade inflation, it is possible, nay likely that this has contributed to better grades. Students are not necessarily becoming dumber or smarter; they are becoming more skilled at taking exams. This is what a tutor does – and they are good at it. Here is the interesting thing: the tutoring ecosystem has delivered on a national goal of improving standards (as measured by marks) without being organised, regulated, scaled or standardised.

There are lessons here for the schooling system – both in the public and private sectors. The tutoring system has been able to deliver much more than a traditional schooling system struggles with on a daily basis. Quality (as defined by goals set), time on task, efficiency, lack of absenteeism – tutoring scores. Tutoring is also a completely self funded system with little pressure on the exchequer. At the same time, the system remains flexible enough to deliver an affordable solution at each price point the market demands – the cost per child is monitored, managed and responsive to the needs of the group they serve. When one looks at delivering to standards, at standardised learning – again the tutorial system makes the grade. Or they go out of business.

The tutorial industry has been written about extensively – from its multi million dollar size, consolidation and branding, near double-digit growth, hot-housing culture, restrictive blinkered learning and much more. There is little to appeal to the educationist or the seeker in a tutorial system. Having said that – it is a tool that turns the machine. When education systems fail (and as I type this, the 2014 ASER report is being released, marking another milestone of failures in schooling) – tutoring comes to the rescue. A raft, not a boat. And it carries people across the certification challenge.

For all the vilification, the tutorial industry has earned celebrity status for some of its teachers. In the far-east many earn far more than they would have in corporate life or in teaching – some boast of a fairly glamorous lifestyle. In India too, a few teachers are spoken of with reverence. The best teachers are able to command a stupendous premium in the market and often scale up to be able to give access to many more (at a more reasonable price point) to their pedagogy. The system does operate more like a shop, and tutors are obviously building their own brands over time.

This is one industry that employs many, provides opportunities for entrepreneurship, and is still growing rapidly. More, it has low entry barriers – and is accessible to all, even allowing for flex working hours. With online and cloud tutorials gaining ground, it could even transcend geographies. One of the strongest features of the tutoring system is the engagement with the community. Not just the students but their parents too, and often their school teachers. Local tutors often know the teachers in the schools in the area and base their tutoring on their weak spots. This feedback loop is constantly reinforced through conversations. Parental engagement in tutoring creates a governance community that often borders on the aggressive – they are purchasing a service and they expect results.

Despite the fact that this is an unregulated part of the highly over-regulated education sector, this has thrived and grown manifold. They have grown in adversity, without support and against the establishment.  To use NN Taleb’s phrase – this is anti-fragile.

The tutoring sector probably deserves kudos for promoting single-minded focus on its goals and accessible economic growth. It is not only the ‘gurukul’ of the present; it is also what the vision of ‘Make in India’ can foster. It will not be denied.

Learning from One Another

16 Sep

“When children teach other, they learn better”. I remember hearing this from a teacher in a simple school in a small town. Then I heard the same last year from Vicky Colbert WISE Laureate – indeed this is what transformed education in Colombia via the Escola Neuva system. Through difficult terrain, poor communities, scarce resources – here was a power to be harnessed – the peer.

Learning from each other is a natural way of picking up knowledge and skills. As children and as adults we learn by watching each other, even more so by copying each other’s actions. The next stage is trying it out – learning by doing. There is an old saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” But there is one more step. A recent study of retention in learning marked out a pyramid where ‘learning by teaching’ showed a retention rate of 90%, compared to a 5% retention rate for a lecture or a 30% retention rate for a demonstration.

What does that look like in a classroom? A class full of teachers will be chaotic surely? If all the students are teaching each other, then what is the role of the teacher? The role of the teacher evolves to being so much more than a passive fount of knowledge. A peer learning class needs to be arranged differently. They are given challenges, tasks and resources. They share their learning journey, nudged and directed by the teacher till all the students have reached basic competence in that learning module. This means that the style of teaching must be very different. Not only is it more participative but also engages the teacher in different ways. The learning resources became important but what is most important is the question asked by the teacher that sets the children off on the adventure. Too wide, and there is chaos. Too narrow and they are merely parroting lines to each other, even copying from each other mindlessly. This is a trap the teacher must avoid – the point of peer learning in classrooms is to encourage students to think and engage with the learning. Not just copy from each other or the board.  Designing the question, organising the class, managing the range, channelling energy constructively – the teacher’s focus moves to these in peer learning classes. And learning levels go up more – not only has each child been engaged, each child has received personal attention from the teacher and has been taught using a pedagogy that improves retention levels.

Changing pedagogies midstream is always a bit daunting for most teachers. Only few would have been trained in peer learning, others will have to figure it out on their own. Unless, they have a peer learning group. What is applied to the classroom can, and does work for teachers too. Teaching and learning is enhanced with peers (or why would schools exist!) and the best teachers keep learning new techniques and sharing them with their peers. Not just colleagues.

There was a time when peer learning was restricted to one’s circle of colleagues and the only peer learning network that was active was in the staffroom. Occasional training sessions extended it for a while to peers across other schools or in the same district. Technology has now removed these barriers. Peer learning groups are being supported by tech companies such as google, by newspaper groups such as the Times (UK based, working in India) and others. Facebook groups are a great way of creating peer learning networks across the country and even the globe. Look up a group to join, or even create one of your own. It doesn’t have to be all serious and theoretical for learning to happen. For example, we used to share little stories of what happened in class with the Facebook group. Sometimes we would share laughter and often it would get responses that were very supportive and helpful. Teaching tips can be shared. Another great tool to create a peer learning network is twitter. Teachers and educators come together and discuss ways to improve their teaching practice or other issues in education. The Indian education chat is called #EduIn where one can meet a community of educators. Others are more global and include groups for new teachers, teachers learning to incorporate technology in their classes, mathematics teachers etc. Shared blogs with multiple contributors work as peer learning for both teachers and students, as do whatsapp groups. Both the flipped classroom model as well as peer learning pedagogies can use these tools extensively.

Whether peer learning is technology driven or not, there is a great deal of value in peer learning groups. In Punjab, STIR and NISA are working in the Rajpura district of Punjab to bring teachers together regularly to speak about in class innovations, teaching practices, solutions and experiences. The teaching community meet at one of the schools in the district on a regular basis and worked together to share and learn. They were able to improve many outcomes in the school district in a short while, but of course there is a lot more to be done. Similar efforts have been in place for decades in Rajasthan and other places.

Peer Learning Networks do not have to be an overly formal construct – each of us can create a PLN where we identify and nurture our sources of learning. While many of us do so naturally it is more of a conscious effort for others. A PLN gives better results if there is a semi-formal structure around it not the least because it ensures that we put in the time and resources required to make it work. A semi-formal or formal PLN will also set its goals, monitor progress and have a community of care that helps it course correct as required. For example, subject based peer learning networks of teachers could be very useful where they share teaching tools, resolve classroom hurdles, share worksheets and quizzes and even create intra-school events. Sometimes only a peer learning network can help – or even understand what the problem is and how to find your way through the maze.

Peer Learning is not a magic wand that resolves all problems but it does form the basis of sustainable solutions. This is where we tap into all parts of learning – previous knowledge, relevant experience and the adventure of sharing to grow our skills together. The PLN grows together as it encourages and supports the whole group to improve themselves.

Meeta Sengupta is a writer and advisor on education. She designs institutional interventions to improve learning outcomes and bring a sense of fun and movement in classrooms. She can be contacted at or on twitter at the handle @meetasengupta

Time to Recast the RTE Act

8 Sep
Four years after it became an Act and a year of implementation later, it is becoming very clear that the Right to Education Act (RTE) is deeply flawed. The Act was called a sieve by this author in this very publication in 2010, and much of what was predicted has come to pass. It was a significant piece of social re-engineering where the intent was to bring the rich and the poor to the same classroom.
The RTE Act was a daring piece of legislation for two reasons. One, it implicitly admitted that quality education was being delivered in private schools, so they must be co-opted to serve the poorest despite the availability of government schools in their area. Second, the Act virtually nationalized a quarter of the private sector provision in school education for children, with the exception of those that could be certified as minority schools. It could have changed the landscape of learning had it focused on that—learning. Instead, the RTE chose to be an administrator’s tool to standardize schools to look uniform regardless of what was happening within classrooms. It legislated the trappings of education while ignoring the process and outcomes. While neither policy, nor a law is charged with the onerous burden of implementation, they are written to achieve certain outcomes. If one cannot get a sensible answer to the questions “how will this be done” and “what will it look like in reality”, then the formulation itself is suspect and will suffer from failures in implementation—as has largely been the case here, so far.
The new government has spoken of a fresh education policy, but before that it is clear that the RTE Act itself requires some amendments at the very least. We have seen that even four years after its enactment very little has changed in schools. Teachers are not doing things differently, nor has learning improved. The pressure on quality private sector education has increased—reallocating places does not enhance either quality or capacity. The Act needs to be turned on its head so that it starts to measure progress against its goals. While the popular view is that the measure of success of a school and its teachers must be the learning outcomes achieved, it may be wise to take a step forward and work towards value-add measures. Let us try to answer the questions “how much has the student learnt during the year?” and “how many learning levels did the student advance?” This not only brings the focus back to individual student abilities, but is also more fair to the teacher than an absolute measure of learning outcomes at milestones. Let the reformed law ask for achievement to be measured, not just the inputs as has been the case thus far.
The new RTE Act also must ensure that the implicit cross-subsidization of weaker students does not hamper learning. This shows up in two ways—cross-subsidization of fees and of classroom learning time. The current compensation offered by the government does not meet the cost per pupil for many schools, the deficit is necessarily transferred on to fee-paying parents. The cost of extras is a grey area still, and there needs to be some support to fill this gap. But the bigger gap is the learning achievement gap and that is clear at the very beginning. The Act needs to make a provision to provide remedial support. Without this support, academically weaker students slow down the class, thus lowering learning levels for all. This “learning cross-subsidy” is an avoidable cost and can be remedied in the reformed Act.
Age seems to matter more than learning levels in the RTE Act, and this too deserves a serious rethink as the peg to age has consequences. It means that a child with little or no learning may be asked to enter an age-appropriate cohort despite being several levels behind in learning. It has also led to undermining examinations, and indeed the authority of teachers in schools—since there are no adverse consequences of not meeting any required learning levels. One advances by age, not by competence. The RTE as it stands, stands against meritocracy. Surely, that could not have been the intent and needs to change. The most urgent reform required is in the recognition of schools.
There are many that provide adequate learning outcomes but do not meet the input criteria mandated in the Act. Asking these schools to shut down leaves students with options they had rejected earlier as being sub-par, and certainly not constructive when systemic strategy must be directed towards raising capacity. The Act needs to recognize that some schools can achieve full recognition, others need help to meet standards. Any discussion on recasting the RTE must include pathways via secondary recognition to such learning centres.
The Act discriminates between private and public schools and the amendments to the Act must include equal compliance and accountability. A school report card, school improvement and development plans, school management committees and more must be equally applied to all schools regardless of ownership. Similarly, the requirements for recognition that apply to private schools must be met by government schools too. Parity in operating and reporting must be the cornerstone for providing universal quality education. The new RTE Act must hold all schools to similar standards, rather than harp on standardization as it has done so far.
Interestingly, the RTE Act is a good example of a living Act with vigorous and even discordant negotiations with stakeholders over the past four years. Normally the consultation during the writing of the Act is supposed to create consensus; in this case most of the action happened after the Act was promulgated. But the Act needs more than tinkering, it needs to pivot along with the needs of the nation, and for that, it is time to recast the RTE Act.
Meeta Sengupta is a writer and adviser on education. Views expressed are personal.

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India needs an Education Strategy

28 May


May 16, 2014, 8:12 am IST in EduCable | India, Living

India needs an education strategy

India stands at a cusp today between two governments. The previous one has been serving the nation for the past ten years the new one will hopefully get a mandate strong enough to stand for the next five.

As we stand on this platform between the old and the new (regardless of which party comes back to power, though by now it seems to be fairly clear) it is a time to call for change.

First, it would be graceful to acknowledge what went well, especially in the Education sector. Much was achieved including investments in infrastructure, near universal enrolment at the primary level, acknowledgement of the private sector contribution, the groundwork for the entry of foreign universities to India, the almost universal acceptance of the RTE Act (flawed as it is) and of course the slow but steady entry of technology in education. For each of these I can hear critics harrumphing. I agree, not enough has been done. Progress has been painfully slow. In many cases the slow progress has been a boon because the direction chosen was so obviously flawed. A generation has lost many chances. The current one must not be let down.

The good news is that much of the thinking and debating has been done for years. There are clear opinions and choices on most institutional and policy issues. The path forward is known and the structural gaps are identified. There can be nothing better to inherit for a team that knows that actions often speak larger than words. For example – it is acknowledged that Indian universities need to focus on research and international engagement to ride up the global rankings. (I of course advocate a diversified model for post secondary education that does not require all universities to fight for a spot on the same greasy pole). It is also clear that multiple accreditation bodies need to be set up with the blessings of the sector skills councils that represent the employer’s requirements  – these are to guide the content and certification of competencies to fill the skills gap. At the primary school level we know that qualified teacher gaps are a national emergency – this is already a national mission and must be executed well.

Other issues that always get pushed under the carpet are also acknowledged as being awkward – Foreign Direct Investment in education, private sector provision of primary education, the mess that the current community college model presents (when the answer is obvious to some of us) and of course the very troublesome issue of apprenticeships that falls somewhere in the gaps between the ministries of Human Resource Development and Labour. Many of the issues that need to be sorted out are ideological – tradition pulls policy towards treating it as a public good. Pragmatism and resource constraints, and dare I say it – common sense too – negates that view. At the same time one realises that the current structures, behemoths as they are may be flawed, but are the only vehicles for the distribution of the new national policies. These knots will have to be cut before the new government can begin to make meaningful progress.

Of course, some changes are easier than they look, such as the RTE Act that has been attacked by many. It is enough to acknowledge the RTE 2.0 movement that is ready to move past recriminations and chart a path to better education for all. The RTE comes with fundamental flaws that cannot be allowed to continue into the future but has clearly established the principle of social engineering via education policy. Where it fails is in arrogating private property to the state, in discriminating against the majority institutions and in creating a distrust of government aid. These flaws will only strengthen the suspicion that government wants to play big brother and nanny – a creepy thought at best. The RTE itself has many flaws such as the emphasis on input based criteria rather than on value addition during the school year (though activists cry out for output based norms for schools). Many flaws have been patched over, but fundamentally it remains a noble thought that seems to be designed for flaws to show up in operation.

The new government has all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in place. They have all been tagged and sorted too. Now it is up to them to create a the picture that they believe will built a better future for the nation. It is time for a national action plan. What India needs is a National Education Strategy.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

Degrees and Leadership: Smriti Irani and the MHRD post

28 May


In defence of Smriti Irani, India’s new HRD minister

Tuesday, 27 May 2014 – 6:25pm IST | Agency: DNA
  • smriti-irani HRD minister Smriti Irani

Does a leader always need to be an expert? Or is a good leader one who can leverage a wide range of expertise and skills? Ask India Inc, the entrepreneurial and the baronial – and the chances are that their business successes will provide the answer before they need to respond. Of course, an expert in the area will find it easier to process information and will have an easier learning curve when entering the arena. But those who are not experts also prove to be good workers and leaders. Not all good leaders are experts, but all good leaders know how to utilise the abilities of experts.

What about education? Surely in education we need educated leaders? They have to decide on broad issues of education policy, create legislation to revive the sector, identify and clear hurdles to scale and quality. It is a growing nation that must learn to invest in its own talent to participate on the global stage. It might have been better to have a learned greybeard to lead the initiatives rather than the youngest woman in the Cabinet of the Union of India, who, as the cynics and critics point out, has received no higher education. By that logic, no CEO or leader can be allowed to hold a post where they have not gone through the ranks. Nor would there be any conglomerates – for who can be all the things that a GE CEO leads? Or a Tata group CEO?

Smriti Irani, the young Cabinet minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) does hold a complex portfolio. What is more challenging is her inheritance – she faces a wide range of issues that seem to have decided on arbitrary criteria that has had little to do with the broader goals of education. She has to work with policies that impact individuals – and almost every family in the nation. Worse, she has to figure out which of the schemes she now supervises are useful and which ones are actually destroying the fabric of the nation. The nation now looks to her to have the ability to discriminate, to judge and to invest in the future.

So much needs to be dismantled, so much needs to be reconstructed and so much needs to be built. Consider the Right to Education (RTE) Act. Noble in intent surely, when it gave the right to be educated to every 6-14 year old in the country. Yet, so badly constructed that even three years ago, this author called the act a sieve. It is in a shambles today – forcing many budget private schools to close (should they not be supported to improve?), creating incentives for schools to declare themselves minority institutions (how is it inclusive, or even a national act if the it does not apply to a minority institutions) and of course the silent elephant on the table – the nationalisation of private property when 25% of the seats in the private sector were taken over by the act. Does she have the ability to distinguish between a left liberal argument versus a economic right social left argument and decide on the right course of action?

There is no point denying she does not have the academic grounding – but the argument here is precisely this – she does not need to have that if she has the ability to channel good advice. As a leader, her task would certainly have been easier if she had experience in the field of education. At the same time she would have the disadvantage of ideological baggage that would influence her decisions. And the critics would have carped about that. It is true, again, that the ministry of HRD is trapped in the middle of complex legislation and the entire sector is moribund due to regulatory messes. Higher education institutions cannot hire or fire the faculty they need to, talent cannot be nurtured or showcased due to hierarchies and tenure based structures. Research languishes, as does the quality of teaching. Does Smriti Irani have the ability to judge which area of science should receive more funding? Can she chair a meeting of the directors of the IITs and IIMs?

Certainly she can. She is a politician, and is not in that chair to provide the academic expertise. That is the job of the other people in the room including her ministry and advisors. She is tasked with a politician’s role – one of persuasion. Of getting support for ideas that drive through to results. Her leadership will be judged on her ability to get the job done. And the job at the moment is about managing the negotiation between different ideas and priorities. Her task is to involve more partners so that education can leverage the skills and resources that are available outside the government, and indeed the nation.

If this was a personal defence of the minister, one could call on her past achievements too – these are in the public domain. This is not about the person. This is about the sad conflation of degrees and competence when degrees themselves are not designed around competencies. Degrees may be the proof of certain learning but they do not represent the sum total of knowledge, skills and attitudes – each of which are required to be successful in a job.

For long the elitism of degrees has influenced choices in India regardless of talent. And this fascination with a linear education pathway that culminates in more degrees has made it difficult for individuals to follow their talent and aptitudes. Worse, teaching and learning are reduced to the tests that seem to deny that there are other pathways to success, not just academic. And academic pathways need not map to a certain age-line.

There are many who have become successful without following the trodden path, many whose learning has been honed outside academic hallways. There are skills that a Harvard and Ahmedabad cannot teach. Let us give the new minister a chance to step up and show what she has learned. Her competence will be tested in the public eye. The least one can do is be supportive and helpful. After all, we are on the same side if we care for a better educated nation.

One last question remains – would we all not have been happier if, say, Arun Jaitley had been appointed the minister for HRD? Yes, certainly. Erudite, well spoken, a sharp legal brain, proven intellect, the ability to negotiate in tricky land – it would have been ideal. Given the huge challenge in human resources, an experienced hand would have been useful. All the more reason to support the young minister, and call on others, including the cabinet mentors, to help her learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.


Meeta Sengupta is a writer, and an advisor an consultant in education. She tweets at @meetasengupta.




This was published in the DNA newspaper on May 27, 2014


Who Will Pay the Skills Premium?

7 Mar


Who Will Pay the Skills Premium?

03/06/2014 | 

The market doesn’t want your skills training. That, Sir, is the first and only problem we need to face. The market doesn’t want to pay for the training and does not want to pay a premium for your trained folk.

Does this say something about the product or about the market?

The ‘Skills Gap’ has been discussed for over a decade in various countries across the world. Almost all have come up with some sort of white paper that declares how bad the skill levels are, why these are going to lead to economic decline, why they represent an inherent gap between industry and academia, and how awful it is that their graduates are not employable. India is not alone in this regard.

Nor is India alone in acknowledging the fact that there will not be enough jobs for the sheer volumes that will continue to flood the job market. India used to call this surge the demographic dividend. It is now teetering on demographic disaster. A truth that few wanted to acknowledge publicly was that India would almost inevitably have to export its unemployment problem. There will never be enough jobs per square inch of land in India to feed its teeming millions. (Till the population surge dies down as it is expected to in three decades). Not only does India have to fill a skills gap to meet the expectations of national employers, but those of global employers too. In an economy, that is not quite booming.

This is both a troublesome and a blessing. The best skilled people will be weaned away to better jobs globally leading to a “skills drain” as was seen with the brain drain phenomenon of the sixties. At the same time we can hope that the larger cohort will be trained to global standards, leapfrogging a generation of incremental quality discussions in the production of goods and services. But this is precisely where India is stuck at this point in time: the leapfrogging does not have a defined value. And therefore many are unwilling to pay for it.

Very simply: Why would an individual pay for a certified training programme if they are not convinced that it will significantly improve wages? Why would an employer pay a premium for a certified worker if they are not convinced that they will improve productivity?

(An aside: Who should answer these questions with proof?)

Maybe it is just a question of riding out the storm as we wait for the structures that bring order to be built. Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) are in place and growing. The National Skills Development Agency and National Skills Development Corporation are doing their bit. As we speak, the national skills qualifications frameworks have been drafted and a five-year plan for alignment created.

Without this foundation it is almost impossible to create a clear understanding of value. How can there be one till there is clarity on what the certificate really means? The meaning and value of the certificate can only be proven in the market when the pioneers and the crusaders work together. This must be given time to run its course and the market must be allowed to arrive at a true and fair price. Any prescription at this stage will merely be setting it up for failure. If a level 4 plumber must be paid so much by diktat and a level 5 plumber is paid an additional (fixed) sum, the entire system collapses — it cannot perform two basic functions of price. To give feedback to the supply system (trainers, curriculum developers and creators of operating standards) and to be responsive to demand (employers).

The challenge in the skills arena is the tightrope between standards (not standardisation) and speed. It is a about designing a scaled up system designed to be nimble. About creating a network of moving parts that do not clash with each other. Yes, it is complicated and the hard slog remains. As every start-up knows, the idea and the organisation is much easier than proof of the product in the market. This is where skills certification stands now. It needs to prove its value to customers and investors. It is a start-up that cannot be allowed to fail. The price of failure is the dignified livelihoods of at least one generation.

The question in skills used to be: Who will pay to fill the skills gap? As this has been resolved, the question that now needs to be answered is: Who will pay the skills premium? I am looking at you, employers.

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How are admissions decided: Access Alogirithms

7 Mar


Access to education may have become a right. However, access to education of choice and quality is clearly not a priority. There is a certain loss of dignity in the process

The nursery schools debacle is not just about Delhi. It is about the principle of access. While the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, that unilaterally carved away 25 per cent of private school seats, is being implemented willingly by the progressive private schools, it does mean that there are fewer places available to ‘normal’ parents willing and able to pay for their wards’ education. It is also about a high stakes hurdle game that is being played with the lives of an entire generation. It is about choosing one kind of fairness over another kind of fairness in the name of equity. It is about centralising control in the cause of mistrust for education outside the state system.

The situation is dire. Parents are traumatised. School principals are forced to spend time and resources in litigation when they would rather support school examinations and planning sessions. Children as young as four know what uncertainty and insecurity means, what fears a form can bring and become acquainted with the term ‘unsuccessful’. High-stake hurdles come to them young — for lives can be made by going to the right school. A good school nurtures knowledge and confidence, a mediocre school can only breed mediocrity.

The situation in Delhi is a mess. The steady centralisation of admission criteria probably has just the last step left — a centralised lottery. Given the confusion and distress at this stage that may well be the only acceptable option left right now. First they removed the management criteria — so schools now have no choice left in who they choose to include or exclude as students. They have to take them as they come by the points system. The points system then became a composite of proximity to school, transfer credits, sibling premiums and alumni scores, with proximity being given the highest weight age. While each of these criteria are pretty standard across the world when deciding admissions they may not necessarily work in the context of this city. Indeed, any access criteria have to be adapted to context. Further drama ensued when the lottery was run, names selected and when the transfer criteria was tipping the balance against locals, the criteria was changed after the lottery. A new rubric emerged following persuasion by noise. The lottery for the 25 per cent category reserved for the Economically Weaker Sections was not without its own drama as it emerged that neighbourhood criteria applied here too with a one kilometre radius being given priority over others. This criteria had not been made clear earlier, it appears.

All in all, a shambles and a clear lesson on how not to run any selection process. Especially one that is created due to paucity of quality places, which in turn is caused due to an over-regulated system that makes it difficult to open or expand private schooling capacity. Government schools of course are too dire for most middle-class people to contemplate sending their child there. A better performing Government school system could have helped lower these barriers, but sadly, that is one that will take much work to cross.

Access to education may have become a right, but access to education of choice and quality is clearly not a priority. There is a certain loss of human dignity and self-worth in this process which alone should be a reason for a serious rethink. The holy grail of all admissions systems is a balance between fairness, equity, choice, ability and affordability. A system that does not provide a steady and transparent navigable path to these goals is clearly a failure and needs to be redesigned. Some of these current tangle will be arranged by the court orders when they come in.

The issue of access criteria to limited resources feels anachronistic and takes one back to the old days of bread lines and rations. But if this issue is not resolved it will lead to parents seeking choices outside the system — either this will breed corruption or a further brain drain. Unless there is more capacity in quality schooling, quibbling over admissions criteria is merely shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship is doomed; we need a rescue flotilla.


Thursday, 06 March 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Education Quality: Equity or Achievement

2 Mar

“Who is the best doctor here?”

The question echoed down the hallway. I could understand the need for wanting to be treated only by the best. Then I wondered about all the rest – peers to this best doctor. Were they substandard? Clearly not. Would it not be less stressful to know for sure that all doctors were of the same calibre and one was safe wherever one went for treatment? Wasn’t it better for all if equity of output was the goal of all education?

Is that the desired goal of an education system or institution? Do we seek excellence, differentiation or do we want everyone in the class to perform to a certain standard? True equity in education could equally be measured in terms of outcomes.

Is it even fair to expect everyone to perform to the same level? This has been the key question in the equity vs. equality debate. Is it fair for a school or university to educate people to exactly the same level? This denies merit, talent and extra hard work that some candidate manage to invest. Many agree that excellence is fostered by competition, and without competition the result is likely to be a slide beyond mediocrity. It is the differentiation, the need to win that motivates us to work harder and evolve.

Image: Shutterstock

The question matters now in India as we come to almost a universal acceptance that the quality criteria as defined by school inputs under the RTE (Right to Education Act) will certainly need to be changed. A school is not good just because it has the right amount of land, or because its teachers received certain certificates. A school is good when its students learn and achieve. We all agree so far, but this is when the troubles begin.

First – what do we mean by student achievement. Average scores in examinations? Should that average reflect the achievement of all the children – does a good school ensure that all students get similar success? Or should a school foster excellence and invest in those who show greater potential? Is a school that has a few super achievers better than a school with many average performers? Equity demands that all students be given an equal chance and equal attention (inputs again!) but the achievement focus helps a school work towards maximising every student’s potential. Both high up in the fairness rankings.

Choosing between those two is not easy. Can both not be attained? Of course every honest teaching institution tries to make sure that equity and achievement are both fostered. Excellent schools achieve this with large monetary and non monetary investments. But even the best schools will only be able to give assurance that their basic minimum standards were maintained – no one can guarantee equity in outcomes. Everyone would have achieved to a certain standard, with outliers. This is how we judge the institution, do we not? By the success of its students – outliers and average.

I hypothesise that the institution gains a reputation not because its graduates perform to the same predictable level, but because it has a consistent record of excellence. The demand for admission to that institution depends upon this reputation. When we choose a school for our children we want the best, a place where they will be given a chance to shine. Not just one where everyone will achieve to a common standard.

When it comes to designing a measure for judging school quality, one cannot deny that input criteria are important too. Inputs do affect outputs, but these are not solely a function of inputs. It is not just your resources, but what you do with them that matters. The best schools are often accused of cherry picking at the time of admissions which accounts for their excellent results. A school with a better playground, better trained teachers, laboratories and libraries is clearly superior. But a qualified teacher who spends their class contact time knitting or catching up with administrative tasks will probably count as a great school input on paper, but it is highly unlikely to have much impact. What matters more to a student is the quality of school time.. what did they learn when they were at school? Did they learn to be confident? To communicate well? Did they learn to learn? The value add that the school provides is a better measure of quality than either input or output measures. This can be further refined to allow for consistency over time.

The real debate begins here – does the value add of the school get measured only in student achievement in standardised tests? Or should it be a more holistic measure that includes a wider range of achievements? Does one include benefits to wider society? These are questions for policy makers to ponder on as the next five years in education in India promise an emphasis on quality.

All the discussion on quality and equity is at its peak at the time of admissions. For now, I have a simple rule of thumb – ask the market. The school with more applicants per seat available is judged to be doing a better job. The task now is to tabulate and articulate this sense of value into a rigorous metric, so that we students of education, can understand what true value add is in the eyes of its consumers and seek to embed that value across the spectrum.

This very battle between quality and equity is being played out in admissions in Delhi again this season. Schools that are much in demand have a very high number of applicants. The state has legislated on entry criteria with no discretion given to schools. Centralised criteria seek to deliver on equity but end up effectively restricting choice both for schools and students. Schools would ideally like to be able to focus on quality while still offering fair access are forced out of the dialogue. The battle between equity, access and choice continues real time in this arena.

Teacher Connect

2 Mar


Teachers should be in tune with times

Thursday, 23 January 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

The technology and teacher inter-connectivity boom in India is still at a nascent stage. It needs to spread for results to be evident

The tide has silently risen — and teachers are better off because they join. I speak of the conversations between teachers across schools, networks and geographies. Teachers are acknowledged to be at the centre of improvements in education — they are the single factor that determines the quality of teaching and learning that happens in a classroom. While much of these have been measured by student achievement, a teacher’s contribution is a lot more in terms of the values, the team skills and the emotional support that they offer to their classroom. Teaching is an act of transformation — it takes a lot out of the teacher and they too need validation and renewal.

A decade ago, the only place where teachers gathered would be in teacher-training sessions organised by their authority or in consultation meetings — where only the senior teachers had access. Training sessions were designed to be top down, and were often honoured in the breach rather than in actual renewal. Teacher training often became just about compliance. The past year has seen significant changes because of sterling work done by many to address the systemic issues that teachers face on a day to day basis. The first being isolation.

It is not only single-teacher schools in far-flung rural areas where teachers feel isolated. This can happen in a large, populated urban school too. Teachers who wish to innovate in their classroom, or have an idea that they think will work for a school, or maybe an interesting activity or lesson plan do not always find support within their schools. Every teacher has much to share based on their experiences and efforts. But for such sharing to happen teacher communities needed to be enabled both within and outside schools. One of the positives about team-teaching is that all teachers share materials and plans, which makes them effective support systems for each other. The downside is that it takes an initial investment of time from the teachers who will see benefits only once they make a success of it. Team-teaching has been seen to be effective only in schools that are technology enabled and where the teachers themselves naturally integrate technology with their teaching preparation and practice.

It is this technology boom that has enabled teachers across the world to connect with, teach one another and share what they can. This change has been slow in coming to India — many of the schools here barely see electricity, let alone have computers. Those that do find the journey as digital immigrants varied — the schools that have been able to enable open access with well- designed content have benefited the most, other schools find ‘computers’ to be a chore since it is seen as a separate subject and task. Teachers lead the change and those who have had support and are able to adopt it for use as seamlessly as a textbook or a blackboard are those who have more to share.

The technology and teacher inter-connectivity boom in India is nascent. Some of it is via Government networks such as those that link universities across the country. Many of these are enabled via email groups, Facebook and other social media. Large newspapers with significant education supplements have invested in developing communities of teachers across the country, as have social entrepreneurs who help create social learning platforms for teachers to share materials within school networks. The most ambitious of these is the open education resources programme that encourages teachers to share their teaching resources with others, for free, and to access and use other teachers’ shared resources.

Second Chance for Adult Learners

2 Mar


Second chance for adult learners

Thursday, 06 February 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Regardless of where you are on the education ladder, even if you are not on it, there should be a window of opportunity to improve

Two Hundred and Eighty Seven Million. People. Adults. This is the estimated number of people who are denied the dignity of literacy in India. These are people who are dependent on others to read their bank balance, to understand what they sign, and are unable to comprehend the laws they are held to, they cannot read the names of the medicines they ingest. They are handicapped when it comes to seeking opportunities because they cannot realise it. They cannot read. Four in 10 people in the world, an estimated 37 per cent according to the recently released UNESCO Education for All Report Global Monitoring Report, are illiterate.

This is not about the children who have had schools built for them; this is about the adults who are too old to go to school. And they have few other options. Yes, there are designated adult education centres, there are NGOs and there are programmes. Despite that India dominates the world in adult illiteracy. A visit to my local adult education centre revealed that it did not have admission forms, did not know when these would be available and was unwilling to commit to an annual cycle of admissions, if there was any. Being illiterate is a stigma that these people carry through their lives like an illness where seeking help is a matter of privilege. If you are lucky, you are rescued from this, for there are few systemic solutions for your plight.

There has been much invested in school infrastructure and capacity in the last Five Year Plan, and enrollments are said to be at 99 per cent at the primary school level. Without debating the quality of the capacity built, let us look at its utilisation. These buildings are accessible to living clusters. They already have roofs for bad weather, space outdoors and basic learning material. They are also not used for three quarters of a day. Allowing for poor electricity connections, there are at least three hours in a day when school buildings can be used as community learning hubs, specifically for adult education classes. If India wants to solve its literacy problems, it has to start using its resources better in addition to making targeted investments. Again, there is no real need to restrict school learning (and admissions) only to children. People can work according to ability sets, rather than age, which would bring other advantages of scale and opportunity too.

The current definition of school is narrow, and education is seen as an isolated bubble limited to books, examinations, teachers, tutors and buildings. These bounds do not allow in outsiders — such as the adult illiterates who were left behind — nor do they allow students to interact with the rest of the world. It is only in some excellent schools that students work on projects that engage the local area around them. Both groups suffer. Neither do the illiterate people get access to learning and opportunity, nor do the ‘literate’ students begin to understand the real world of life and work. Schools create barriers to engaging with real life problems when they should be doing the opposite — preparing the students for life, not merely examinations.

Schools and the education community need to open up their portals to engage with more sections of society to foster a culture of continuous learning. Regardless of where you are on the learning ladder, even if you are not on the learning ladder, there should be a chance to improve yourself. India needs a caring community college network that engages the local community in disciplined ways and engages the learning communities in ways that work for them.

This is an uphill battle — those who were unable to learn to read and write in their early years may not be suited to the traditional ways of learning. They may not be used to using memory and may need to see results soon. A daily wage labourer is used to instant results. Literacy requires patience, iteration, care, commitment and the resilience to fail and try again. Those who missed out by choice or circumstance in their childhood deserve a second chance and a life where they can live with true independence — that is a life of dignity and informed choice.