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Education Policy: Plug the Leaks or Change the Boat + 2014 Assessed

14 Dec

This year has been interesting for education, not for its grand ideas but for its little fixes. It is time, come 2015 and the Budget, that some significant moves are made

The problems in education in India are akin to a leaky boat. After a while, one counts so many holes that one wonders if the boat itself needs to be changed, or if the leaks could be fixed. The story of education in India is a story of fixing leaks, with the promise of a new boat along the way.

Much has changed, including the Government. However, the principles remain the same — accessible, affordable, inclusive quality education. The goals too remain the same — employability in the short-run while building a foundation for a better person. Here, one questions the goal. Is there a view of personhood, of personal identity that will be imparted via education or will it be a journey of independent discovery through various schools of learning? This is a question that can be answered when a new education policy is formulated and announced ie our new boat.

For now, the only question that was being addressed was the urgent ones — the leaks were being fixed. Many feel that the progress in education has been very slow, many wonder if the priorities are aligned with the national needs and others have commented on the nature of advice and support that is available. The sector is a complex one and it is natural to take a while to come to grips with the inter-linkages. Having said that, a few trends were noted.

The focus on delivery: One of the big decision has been the splitting up of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to carve out a Skill Ministry. This makes sense only if the focus is moving away from holistic solution to seek pure operations. As an operational unit, the Skill Ministry will be focused enough to deliver but one wonders if this will be at the cost of pathways from skill certifications to higher education. This is one to watch.

The need to be above reproach: All the controversial decisions have been defended on the basis of the ‘rules’. The Four- Year Undergraduate Programme of the Delhi University was scrapped on the technicality of one permission not being on paper, the language dispute over German too started off with a contract that would not be renewed. The emphasis on regulations over policies and national goals is a trend to watch.

The escalation of issues: Senior time is valuable and must be used for larger issues. But on a visit to Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to respond to raising a school from middle to secondary. Again, the Human Resource Development Ministry intervened in an issue of a contract between Max Mueller Bhavan and the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan. This lays bare, the gap in the administration and the support system in education — and there is a need for improvement. The gap at tactical level was also exposed when the Government schools consolidation programme ran into difficulties that should have been anticipated by the team. And needs to be addressed.

The outreach from the Ministry of Human Resource Development: This has been its strongest suit. From writing individually signed letters to principals of Central Board of Secondary Education schools commending them for their achievement, to meeting school students and the open conversation on Teacher’s Day, the outreach has engaged the education community directly and has made the hub feel connected. The care shows in responding to issues like the institutional status granted to School of Planning and Architecture to ensure newly minted architects get jobs. Can this be extended further and more meaningfully in the creation of the new education policy as is promised.

This year has been interesting for education in India not for its grand ideas but for its little fixes — but tinkering only takes one so far. It is time, come 2015 and the Union Budget, that some significant moves are made that can power India’s future — by tackling basic issues on a war footing, including teacher shortages, standards in skilling, lifelong learning and alternative models of accreditation. One does hope that these wishes will be granted for the good of the country’s educational system and its stakeholders.

This was published on Thursday, 11 December 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped linked here

Plug the leaks or change the boat?

Thursday, 11 December 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Sanskrit – Build a bridge between the Past and the Present

14 Dec

Sanskrit lessons in Indian civilization

The current controversy about switching from German to Sanskrit will run its course. The bigger issue is: How much of the country’s past should shape its future?

It is not unusual for countries to glorify their own past. Nor is it unusual to include that in the schooling system — one that is normally considered as a quasi-public good, and thus controlled by the Governments. India too has been focused on it’s own past in the curricula that has served an entire generation and more. Yet, it does not seem to be enough. The current controversy on a mid-year switch to Sanskrit from German is going to run its course. It will be debated as a procedural correction, not an ideological position taken by anyone specific. Yet, the bigger issue will remain — how much of India’s past should shape India’s future?

There are good arguments on either side. On one hand, it is undeniable that India has had a glorious and under-researched past in the fields of drama, literature, science, medicine, strategy, economics, architecture and more. It has shared much of it’s knowledge freely in the world; so much so that much of it is deeply embedded in the histories of many countries. Some of it is remembered — such as the work done by Indian artisans in the great Alhambra in Spain, or as India is fond of reminding everyone, the invention of the zero. It is also undeniable that India was a colonised country, and every country that finds itself subjugated for a time, feels undermined. Without going down the cul-de-sac of blame storming, there has been a loss of self-worth, possibly a loss of national pride. Or so it is said, and retold, often by those who have not been able to participate in, or learn about moments of national pride.

The discourse for greater national pride is often undermined by the very same people who espouse the cause. It is difficult to deal with calls for greater attention to be paid to one’s history when the general level of discourse reflects both ignorance of the past, and worse — a lack of rigour in process. For those who seek to vilify some leaders in history and glorify others often speak from hearsay, not research. Having heard a part of the story, and liked it, they add to the noise. This does not help — any shallow argument is soon exposed and gets little respect. To be able to lay claim to anything one must first build a solid credible foundation before laying siege to current beliefs.

This is not to deny the possibility that India may have invented everything that is great and good in the world today. Of course it is possible. The nature of knowledge is to advance itself iteratively, incrementally. One learns something, shares it across the world. Then someone adds to it, shares. It goes on, often with a few people making the same grand discoveries at about the same time without having collaborated or even known each other. The game for credits is important, sure, but only in a world of patents and trade agreements. This is where one must step carefully and build a strong argument rather than allow oneself to become a mocked nation.

It is easy to leap at the slightest link between current scientific discoveries and similar references in Sanskrit texts — both ancient and recent ones. Sanskrit was one of the languages of the erudite. It had a discipline and process that enabled dense conversation and communication of deep knowledge. So much so that unraveling it is a science in itself. This is where there is a huge gap in our understanding of the achievements of the past. Just an assertion in a text, or a verse from a mythological or literary text is not enough to claim it as ‘Indian’ knowledge. There needs to be a much more rigorous research process that builds the arguments towards such claims.

This was published in the Daily Pioneer on Nov 19, 2014 linked here

Who Bears the Risk of Education Innovation

15 Oct

Eyes shining, a young boy walked into a small school. His hair was neatly oiled and combed. His school bag did not seem to weigh him down as he walked with steady steps to his classroom, careful to note the pathways marked. The school was a small, private institute that was known for its innovative pedagogy. Its first batch would take the class X examination this year.

Reflecting upon the challenge of the examination, I was reminded of another study circle I had encountered. “I take on students to help them know things; I can almost guarantee they will lose marks in the exam. If they want marks, they should go somewhere else.” More pedagogical innovations. The students, I am happy to report did quite well in their exams. But it was they who took the chance.

Pedagogical innovations are touted as the path to solving the education conundrum. And indeed, if we do not try new things we will never be able to change the way our children are taught. The current education system is slowly, torturously moving away from the industrial age paradigm that defined our generation. But every slight move away must go through a test of fire to prove their worth or not. Every step in the evolution is watched for enhanced learning outcomes, for effectiveness, for scale, for humanism, for access and more. The rewards of any intervention or innovation must be consistent and sustainable. It is a wonder that any innovation passes the test and gets adopted on a nationwide scale. The successes then belong to the system. The failures are discarded, and the juggernaut moves on.

The reason for putting innovations through the wringer don’t just lie on the rewards side of the scale-risk has much to do with it. The risk of innovations is high and often borne by students and their families rather than society, education systems, school boards or the government. If the child in the innovative school or the study circle does not respond well to the innovation, it is their measured performance that will suffer. Even if the interventions are good for students in the long run, but have a negative impact on immediate learning outcomes or ‘results’, it is possible that the student has to bear a certain cost that cannot be shared by the innovator.

If an innovation is adopted on a systemic basis, some of the risk is mitigated by being spread across the entire cohort. An example of this is the DelhiUniversity cohort that signed up for the Four-Year Undergraduate Programme that was subsequently scrapped. The larger the scale of the implementation, the more diversified the risk-as is true for any systemic risk. For most students at school, different examination boards represent various risk-reward profiles. When you choose CBSE, IGCSE, ICSE or your state board, what you are doing is playing one systemic risk against another to decide which fits your risk profile the best. As one grows older, we keep making choices based on our risk appetite.

There is a joke doing the rounds about engineers in India. It is said that one first becomes an engineer and then decides what he or she wants to do in life. This again is nothing but risk mitigation-an engineer or doctor for that matter is broadly assured of an income stream for life. The choice made between the ‘streams’ in India is often based on risk mitigation strategies.

A high degree of risk aversion is often observed in education, which makes any kind of change difficult. Ask a teacher to do things differently, and there is a high probability of a push back, at least initially. Even if the teacher is willing to try on a new pedagogy or technology, he or she is going to be held responsible on the previous criteria for success. Then why take the risk? They have evolved an efficient method of achieving success in examinations, then why change that. Rote learning has resilience precisely because it is optimised to efficiently deliver the goals of the assessment system while minimising risks along the way. In that sense, rote learning has won the race-its risk-reward profile meets the needs of the mass education system we seek to deliver and maintain.

It is of course up to every free agent to choose his or her own levels of risk in line with the rewards they seek. There is more variety in pedagogies at the nursery and kindergarten level in India than at other levels. Many children go to experimental schools where innovation in learning has often even been codified. But most parents are willing to take a risk in the early years, steadily moving in to more conventional ‘mainstream’ education by the time the child reaches the age close to the national/board examination. Clearly, the risk-taking capacity is higher when the stakes are lower and there is more room for innovation. Flipping that over-one needs to reduce the stakes in order to create an environment where innovation can thrive.

Ultimately the only fair question is-is there a reward for participating in innovation risk? For the designers of interventions, for schools, for school boards, for the system as a whole, there is an expectation of higher learning outcomes. But for an individual who participates in the process, there are few rewards. For them, it is probably more like being the subject of an experiment-where all the upside belongs to the system while the downside belongs to the individual. This skew in the risk-reward naturally pushes students (and parents) to choose the more traditional options in education.

The current mismatch in education is a result of this risk aversion. The reversion to the traditional mode has left students unprepared for the future. The industrial age classroom to examination hall complex survives because the rewards are skewed in favour of the education providers and the risks pushed to the consumers, the students. To break through this, one will have to ensure that the rewards for participating and succeeding in innovative educational practices are shared with the students. Until and unless that happens, we will remain trapped in tradition, unwilling and unready for the brave new world.

What Should we do to Improve Learning

15 Oct

There is a deep dark elephant on the table in education, but we do not like to talk about it. The fact is that after at least two centuries of writing, theorising and researching education, we still do not know what works. We do not know how people learn and how to measure the impact of learning except in very myopic ways.

Of course, we recognise the elephant and keep working to identify the beast. The current deployment of technology, the optimism of big data analysis combined with the various sciences is the next hope. This time we expect to crack it so that we can finally answer the question: What should we do to improve learning?

The question is the root cause of billions of dollars spent on education-policy, practice and research. In India, we have not invested enough in understanding the process of education and therefore so much of our education discourse is based on global research, as are the theories of education that are taught to teachers in their B.Ed courses. Almost all theories and views have been debunked at some time or other, and then revived as fresh evidence supporting it crops up in another study. The sorry point is that very little of it is evidence from India (though some excellent theoretical and practical research has been undertaken successfully). For example, the very famous Bloom’s taxonomy. It is a classification of learning styles, and based on this, a teacher is exhorted to design their lesson. So, a teacher needs to identify learning styles in the batch they are working with, and then teach according to the dominant style, and manage the activities and interactions according to the range of styles in the classroom. This is the way research directly impacts the classroom. While this taxonomy may have its supporters, detractors and derivators, the fact remains that we have made no major attempt to understand learning styles in India. How do we know what works? Unless we know that, how do we know what education policies need to be pushed and what must be left out?

One of the large global debates in education is on whether there is a role for the private sector. Many strongly believe that this is a public good and must be supplied by the government. Others, in an even more extreme position, advocate that education must be supplied only by the government. There is enough evidence to note that the most prestigious high achieving schools have been in the private sector while the best of government and government-funded schools (Kendriya Vidyalayas etc.) have at best achieved competence. We have a large study done in India by the famous Dr Karthik Muralidharan that shows that public and private sector provision provides similar learning outcomes with a very different resource allocation model. Private schools are cheaper (also because they pay their teachers less) and achievements rise in areas where they spend more time compared to government schools. What does this mean for the education policy that is being drafted now? Does it mean that private schools will be recognised for their achievements? Does it mean that parents get better value for money from private schools? Does it indicate a change in resourcing for government schools?

Private sector enables education in many ways, and not just by setting up schools. One such movement has been supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has had its share of strong and vocal opposition too. Philanthropists and think-tanks have long tried to improve the quality of education by designing institutional interventions and funding their implementation. This has caused much protest from other activists who do not like the ‘experimentation’ with schools and students. It is true that academies and charter schools have not given the education returns that were expected, but then, neither have government interventions done too much either. Educational attainment and employability levels remain an area of concern for most countries.

The line that is drawn between private sector and public intervention in education is a false and harmful one. Neither has a monopoly on the Holy Grail that is the perfect education system. Each has access to some information on systems and pedagogies that have been tried, and on interventions and their respective success. They have access to the same (small) pool of experts. And they share the same goals-to improve education. What neither of them know, however, is how to improve education at scale. In a self-sustaining manner.

Where does this leave those of us who invest in education? And I include those who invest time, money, resources in this pool. It includes the government, philanthropists, NGOs, educators, educationists, investors and more. It includes all of us who have known good teaching, brilliant moments in education achievement, and yet have to turn to each other and acknowledge-this is hard. It is hard, often impossible, when you want to take the success of a class of 20 and make it work for 20 million students. It is hard when you have little to back you up when a solution that worked for one district struggles when you transplant it to another district (even with contextualisation). It is hard when you know that education technology should have transformed and energised students by now, but are faced with feedback and data that often sends you back to the drawing board.

The solution often offered is to leave it all to the public system. But in chaos, it may not be the smartest thing to allow a monopolistic giant to be left alone to discover equilibrium. Nor does it make sense for smaller players to flounder in the deep. We know that price discovery in markets comes from a large number of suppliers and buyers. This is an analogous situation-where it is a dynamic equilibrium and constant deal flow. If we do not accept monopolies and restrictive trade practices in free markets, why should we accept them in the policy market? How can one body, the government, know it all? How can smaller efforts have enough resources to even discover it well?

If I were a portfolio manager in finance, I would have been taught to manage risk by creating a diversified portfolio. As an investor in education (as each student, parent, teacher, school and policymaker is), I find it daunting that we are expected to solve the learning outcomes puzzle without a diversified approach to education. The only natural solution to arriving at an understanding of what works is to try different approaches by different participants. This of course works well in free markets where both suppliers and buyers are able to exercise choice according to their risk-taking capacity. The solution is not to restrict solutions to one megalith, but to create both transparency and synergies between the outcomes of all the players so that they can work in tandem for good, building on each others’ good work. Simply, practically what it says is: Share every success so that every one gets a chance to have the best education possible.

An incredible story from Newark that illustrates how it pans out when they do – (Zuckerberg did it)

Education and the New Government: 100 Days

8 Sep

The first 100 days of a government are usually about signalling what comes next. For the Narendra Modi government, the first 100 days were about learning the business, and big announcements have been postponed to the 100th day and beyond. Their actions however have been watched, and this is clearly a government that recognises the last mile problem and seeks to address it. There is a distinct if subterranean movement towards pragmatism which can only be lauded since the greatest need in the Education sector now is good implementation of grand ideas.

There seems to be a will to make education relevant and accessible in ways that meet latent aspirations. Skills have been separated from education with a separate budget and a minister – a clear signal that the government means to press on with the skills agenda and give it as much room as the rest of education. Similarly for schools, there has been little action on fundamentals yet, but a strong signal sent to achievers. The education minister sent personalised letters to CBSE school principals when their students performed well in the examinations. Higher education has borne the brunt of some regulation-mongering leaving many wondering about the future of innovation and indeed pure sciences. Even the seven goals that were given to the IITs were all about innovation at best, with nary a mention of pure research or even invention. The push is towards creating pragmatic solutions for the common man. 

So far so good, let us wait for some real action in what we hear of primary education. The government has had to begin its initiatives with building toilets, a basic necessity for schools. Sanskrit Week received its own share of criticism. All Indian languages do not have Sanskrit roots, nor is Hindi the natural language of transaction for everybody. Massive outrage on supplementary texts that have dubious credibility was brushed aside – this was a state matter anyway. States with surplus teachers in some areas have been asked to transfer teachers to areas with shortages. Should this not have been happening already?

An essay competition has been mooted for the Teacher’s Day named “Guru Utsav” which is being monitored by the human resource development minister Smriti Irani herself. At one level this could be called personal attention to details – and some of the nation’s biggest industrialists do this on a daily basis via great teams on the ground. At the same time, this degree of micromanagement, almost centralisation, is difficult to parse.

One, how does this work with the overall strategy of increased federalism, especially in a sector that is already on the concurrent list? Second, do they have the supportive teams on the ground to enable such initiatives? Should they not be focusing on urgent strategic needs such as increasing the size and quality of the cadre of teachers, or indeed on increasing the capabilities of the administrative teams on the ground?

Many would have liked to see action on the core issues troubling education – teacher shortage, slipping learning outcomes, violence in schools, paucity of lifelong learning in schooling and research capabilities and delivery in higher education. Announcements have been made to plug some big gaps such as learning opportunities for the lesser-abled and the provision of broadband and WiFi networks, each of which resolves some last mile problem. Expanding the network of IITs, IIMs and AIIMS are all worthy goals and will need years of ground work to bring results. Indeed, India does not have a pipeline of soft resources to be able to carry off this expansion.

But some actions in higher education makes one wonder about the quality of the advice they are getting. It started with scrapping the Four Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP) of Delhi University. A technical glitch in the permissions process forced the University to back down and revert to a three-year program, which was a terrible thing for a worthy, if badly implemented innovation. But the government and the UGC chose to stick to the letter of the rulebook and insist on a 10+2+3 model of education for all. In a country as diverse in India, one size does not fit all.

Sadly, once having insisted on that rule, this was applied to other successful programs including a prestigious research university and a range of private universities. Each had brought value to students through their program design, yet were forced to conform. The juggernaut travelled to the IITs even though they do not fall under the purview of the UGC at all since they have an act of their own. The only way to put a positive spin on this is to laud the attention to the rule book, but then the niggle really is that the rule book itself is outdated. Program design anyway should be an operational decision left to a university and not subject to a central rule book.

Modernisation is not mere digitisation, though that does increase efficiencies and is almost a hygiene factor. Modernisation is about increasing possibilities to meet the standards of a global market. To make the responses nimble, relevant, timely and reliable, institutions need operational freedom.

The imperatives for education are clear – the school sector needs a stronger backbone of mentoring and support to improve quality and bring more people into the teaching profession. Higher education needs to continue and grow the journey of collaboration in addition to improving its global reputation via rigorous original research and better quality of student outcomes. Lifelong learning institutions need to be built to create bridges between skills and education.

These are massive goals in themselves, and the first 100 days have seen mere tinkering at the edges of the big issues. This may well turn out to be a good thing if the time has been invested well in understanding the opportunities that must be delivered. A new education policy has been announced and everyone looks forward to both the process of its formulation and the policy itself – hopefully it will be a declaration of a strong strategic vision on education for India.

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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Five Tasks for a School Safety Commitee

28 Jul

“But how could it happen?”

The school in question this time denies responsibility. Then accepts it. More reports are printed – of there being a dark room for punishments in the school. Of painkiller injections being given to children without parental consent. A girl was raped in school by staff. The horror and disgust – and disbelief is overpowering. What is worse is that it could happen anywhere. Unless we step up.

Parents now reveal that at the time of admission they sign on a document that absolves schools of responsibility for the safety and security of a child.

How can this be legal?

Schools are first places of safe learning before being anything else – certification agencies or funnels to higher education or anything. They are safe places. They exist to provide safe environments to children to explore, be curious, to learn, to be taught. This is why schools have walls, fences and gates – to keep their wards safe. This is why access to schools is restricted – only people who have been authorised to work with children, having been tested for their competence and abilities are allowed into the fenced area where children play freely.

Schools cannot run away from their responsibilities. They cannot simply shrug and walk away.

Enough lazy governance, schools. It is time you step up and did the job you were hired to do. Simple. Safe Learning Spaces. This is your business.


The current case has occurred in a private school in Bangalore, there have been others previously in government and private schools too. Our children’s safety does not seem to have become part of the daily concerns of either schools or parents. How many of you as parents accept the fact that you have to jump over an open ditch or walk over half made steps to get your child into the school? How many of you have checked the police verification certificate of the transport operator that takes the child to school? As teachers – do you react in shock that children are not supervised often on the school premises?

Granted, accidents happen and mistakes get made – there is no system that is 100% foolproof. But the lack of a safety system for school age children is an abdication of responsibility. Building the conversation and seeking action on school governance is a mission – this is the only way such episodes can be minimised.

There is much parental anger and disgust now because of the horrible incident that has occurred. This needs to translate to better parental engagement in schools – and please – not just the mothers. The best schools are able to engage parents in school processes in meaningful ways. Some have a parent escort in school buses, where parents take turns. Some have parent reading programs, parents help with changing for swimming, with supporting remedial sessions, some play sessions, school book fairs, fund raising activities and more.

The engagement of parents in school boards is vital – if the school does not have a formal mechanism for parents to be part of their management committee or board, then parents could make a start by creating a parental advisory board that engages with the school. No, this is not like a trade union of yore where you go and fight for your rights – this is about creating constructive engagement with the school to improve the safety and learning that will help our children. All children.

The RTE act mandates a school management committee – and this should be taken up by all schools, not just the ones that have been forced to by regulation. The composition and powers of the school management committee are crucial – the SMC must have community engagement. Parents, teachers, senior local community members, staff from peer schools and subject matter experts based on the needs of the school. The SMC sits above the school management and has the power to advise and instruct the school leadership.

Start small – start with a School Safety Committee if the SMC and the school governance structure seems too tough to do (it is easy, really)

And what should this school safety committee do?

1. Assess the risks that are facing the school. (For example physical risks to children, non availability of good teachers which will hurt learning.. etc.)

2. Ask the school high they mitigate those risks. (Do they have a school safety plan? Are drains and ditches being covered? Is the canteen checked for hygiene regularly/ Is the food from the canteen and water in the tap tested for safety? Are teachers and workers police verified? Is there a safety training system to make sure that at least one person per floor is trained in first aid, fire safety etc.?Are school toilets cleaned regularly so that they don’t spread disease? Are they inspected to ensure that unsavoury activities are not going on in closed spaces?  Are there fire extinguishers in every zone, sand buckets easily accessible? Are wires all taped up? Are electrical inspections done regularly? Is the school building safe? Does the school guard check entry authorisation? And so on. (Comprehensive list available))

3. Ask and verify how the school safety checks are documented and reported by the school. Every school is responsible to a number of people for doing the job it promised to do – and therefore must have proof of having done so. This responsibility – indeed – liability- cannot be wished or delegated away.

4. Create a system for inspecting the school in a friendly, informal and comprehensive manner to verify the truth of the reports, and to report anything untoward. Parents can report to each other informally and document whatever they find at the school and have a civilised conversation with the school to agree a plan to resolve the issue. Good schools will always agree to make things better and will appreciate well mannered support from the parents. Bad schools may not like it and will call it ‘interference’ – and then a parent knows that they have to make tough choices about feeding a monster or finding alternatives.

5. Ensure that the school environment is open and transparent. Let there be lots of dialogue between schools and parents, let everyone in the school know that they are watched all the time. Ensure that supervisory rosters are visible, and that parents, students and school managements can check on them every time.

Is this creating a police state inside the school? No – this is creating an atmosphere where we look out for each other and create a chain of care. If one person – say the poor girl who was hurt and abused at her school – is missing, then her buddy, their chain buddy, their teacher, their supervisor, the visiting parent – all must create an instant alert. Some one in the system will care enough to make the right thing happen. Someone must care to keep our schools safe.



This appeared in the Times of India blogs on July 21, 2104 and is linked here

India needs a National Education Strategy

24 Jun

With the demographic bulge upon India, there can be little room for discussion on the purpose of education. While good citizenship, personal growth and good values are essential, it is clear that for the most part, education will be about employability.

Surely philosophers and thinkers are valuable for society, but they too need employment. As do the wage labourers and the talented and the less able. There is a whole generation enrolled in schools waiting for teachers to show up in classrooms and do the job they were hired to do. Researchers are wondering how they are going to make their meagre grants deliver global impact, while students in higher education are wondering whether their Indian degrees are worth much after all.

There are shortages everywhere—teachers, faculty, researchers, laboratories—and these are reflected in every assessment of education that has been done, be it the Annual Status of Education Report, the Programme for International Student Assessment or various higher education rankings. The good news stories lie buried under the sheer scale of the challenge ahead. Clearly, the battles need prioritization for the war to be won.

Where does one start? With a mantra: Unbox. Unbind. Un-entangle. Unite.

Unbox learning: While the investment in classrooms and schools is great, it is time to release learning from the tyranny of classrooms. Learning should go to the student and must extend way beyond the walls of a classroom. Build on existing programmes to push content via multiple channels, create open libraries, let village school buildings become community learning centres after school time with open access to solar-powered connected computers. Commission science and reading vans, convert bus stops into educational game corners. Invest in creativity and research attitudes from the very beginning. Let learning be open to all, not just those who wear uniforms. Allow certification of prior knowledge when proven, so that the skilled are not burdened with schooling again. Create and support channels of knowledge flow to build communities of learning.

Unbind: The education sector is bound by regulations all the way from nursery to higher education. Capacity is restricted because of the binding constraints of impractical and often contrary regulations. The right to education law that was supposed to provide schooling to all children (6-14 years of age) has led to several schools closing down. Central and state universities cannot hire faculty from abroad despite shortages. Unbind the education sector from these regulatory constraints, allow the private sector to participate and compete, and take on the role of good governance via agencies to ensure relentless focus on improving quality.

Unentangle: Build synergies between ministries. Let the digital literacy mission be integrated with the teachers’ mission. They are essential to building efficiencies and scale in teaching and learning, thus freeing up teachers to improve quality. Vocational training and employability are inextricably linked with the labour ministry. The apprenticeship programmes that have revived other economies remain moribund here due to legal tangles. Untangle the threads that do not allow student finance to flow freely, whether as loans, scholarships or vouchers. No able and talented student in India should be denied the education she is willing to work for just because the rules are too complex for delivery.

Unite: The phrase we grew up with in India was unity in diversity and this applies to education too. There is no reason for all universities to be copies of each other. Some may do more teaching, others more research, depending upon their funding and abilities. Standards need to be harmonized for teaching and research quality across nursery to tertiary education. This does not mean creating identical standard units. Students must be able to choose their paths to learning depending on their capacities—offer lifelong learning opportunities and pathways across skills and learning. A plumber can become an economist, an actress may choose to study politics and earn a doctorate. Unite the education ecosystem in a network governed by rigorous and supportive frameworks and agencies. Credit transfers were mooted years ago. Implement them to allow every Indian to add value to their earning capacity.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto and speeches spoke of maximum governance, minimum government. This is what education needs. Let the government provide oversight, not necessarily run operations. “Sabka saath, sabka vikas (progress for all),” thundered Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech in Parliament. This translates to inclusive education with equal opportunities for all to improve their lives via education. This government comes with expectations of better implementation and a better grass-roots understanding of the people. The skills shown in the election campaign need to be demonstrated here too, with a national education strategy that reaches every student in the land. Meeta Sengupta is a writer and adviser on education. Views expressed by the author are personal.
Read more at:


This was published in the Mint newspaper on July 24, 2014 and is linked here:

Delhi University – Three or Four Years

24 Jun


(This was written hours before the DU Vice Chancellor resigned over the issue) (Link to previous background at the end of this article)



Fine, give them both the three year and the four year degree options and see who does better for their students in a decade!

Yes, this was an impulsive reaction and has not been tested for pragmatic things like capacity, demand and transition design. The noise against the Delhi University four year program is enough to drown out a reasonable discussion on it with the very stakeholders it needs to engage.

Of course change is difficult. Of course students will weigh the short term before they are able to see the long term benefits of a four year program. Of course students can judge only on the basis of what they have received – a half baked program that has almost been scuppered by faculty who are resisting change. Faculty will obviously resist a change that they see as unnecessary. They will have to work harder in the new system and much of their previous material that is regurgitated every year may even need to be reworked. They have tenure, and more importantly – they are a scarce resource. They also have strong unions and are the force that will have to deliver on the program. If they are not convinced it is a good idea then there is every likelihood that the implementation will be flawed, even if a proper design can be started off.

But the FYUP is not all bad. It is a clear step away from the rote learning system that has beset university quality for decades. Students come in to the university system totally underprepared for it – most of them do not even have independent study skills having depended upon tuitions, past examination papers, and a stack of notes that have been handed down the generations. They are replicators. Few, if any have any research capability or even analytical skills. University is about independent thinking and living – the foundational year must be about building those skills. If the schools and the examination system will not do that job, somebody has to – and Delhi University is only trying to prepare its students for success by ensuring they are not unemployable replicators as they have been called in the past.

Four years does add to costs and is a year away from employment. Again, a good design allows for opt in and opt out within this system. Do your diploma, earn a bit, come back and finish your degree. Modular learning and certification is daunting at first but eminently practical. Take your time to figure out what you really want to study, allow yourself to breathe easy and learn for success, follow your interests and talents, try it out in the job market and then come back and complete what you began. If you are really good, your employer or potential employer may even sponsor you – they do that often if they think you bring value.

The fear is understandable. The FYUP asks people to have faith in themselves and invest in their future in a way that abandons the hyper-efficient race to the certificate and the salary cheque. It is a leap for all and will need everyone to step up and do the right thing for the students. Where does one find that trust in a traditional university system that has let down its students so many times? Can one trust the lecturer to have invested in new material, to bring energy and verve into the classroom and help students grow in their hearts and minds while they expand their knowledge horizons. We know some lecturers will certainly step up. But we fear that most will not be able to change. And if they cannot step up, the new plan fails with them.

Change is never easy. Faith in oneself at a vulnerable age is not easy. Investing in oneself without a clear sense of the gains from it is never easy – indeed  – why would one do this? And yet we all know that students are rushing through content with little sense of curiosity, of exploration or even of internalising the content. What are they really learning? The three year degree is of little worth (not just for admissions abroad) in the job market without another masters degree. Maybe three years is not enough for most, even as it may be enough for efficient achievers. But for those of us who like to do things well so that we can actually use it later on – maybe we need more time. More time to know some philosophy even if we are training to be accountants. Or a bit about physics even if we want to graduate in political science. Maybe some Sanskrit for the economists. They do connect up and help students develop in ways that only the multi-disciplinarians can see, it seems. To be able to see structures and patterns in various disciplines is an education in itself – to be able to use them across contexts is true preparation for life. We call it learning how to learn.

Ideally there should be choice for each student within the course to do the full degree or diploma in three or four years. The choice built in so far does not allow enough free choice of modules to complete the diploma or degree. The efficient ones can march their way to quick certification, the explorers should be able to take their time and do the same at their own pace, probably with richer knowledge. Will this payoff in the first salary? Probably not – but this is an investment for life that will make everyone richer.

What stops this? Complexity? Of course it is complex. Faculty? Certainly – where do you find enough people to teach to such complex timetables? And this makes it totally student centred, which is as it should be – but then imposes the cost of good tutorials for undergraduate students on the university. Some colleges such as St. Stephens have a strong tutorial system that has stood its students in good stead over the generations.

It is easy to give up and say – forget it, lets just carry on as we were! It does retain the old power structures too – as the current UGC-DU standoff shows clearly. University autonomy has always been essential to quality. Great learning institutions are built on independent thought, courage of convictions and intellectual horsepower. Delhi University now also stands at the frontline for the autonomy of all central universities and the negotiation will have implications for all.

Colleges are deferring admissions till the face off is resolved. Students suffer uncertainty in admissions. What happens to those who signed up for the FYUP last year? Do they graduate at the same time as this year’s intake (if it is a three year program?) Do students know for sure of the intent and ultimate design of the FYUP as they vote for or against the change? Or are they voting against phase one of the implementation? Are they protesting the FYUP or the fact that they are being subject to a partial implementation of the proper FYUP design? All the criticism points to the latter – the halfway house FYUP is clearly not popular. Even if it might be the right thing for the students.

One wonders whether this is being fought over administrative necessity or the true interest of the students. This needs work – good design, good communication, modular construct and phased implementation and so much more to succeed.

Published in the Times of India blogs on June 24, 2014 and is linked here:


A previous post identifying the issue of capacity constraints and marking the FYUP as a probable solution is here:


And how the high cutoffs in Delhi University actually are a symptom of deeper problems:





Does a Minister need Domain Knowledge

6 Jun

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

Wednesday, 28 May 2014 – 4:25pm IST Updated: Tuesday, 27 May 2014 – 4:25pm 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.

Originally published on 28 May 2014