Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Elephant in the room

Author:- Anurag Behar

The policy of having a school near every habitation has built in a difficult challenge for our schools and teachers.

I am writing this from Shorapur, a 10-hour drive from Bangalore, and I am admiring India's achievement in the past couple of decades of having schools at accessible distances from habitations. In this truly remote block, every village that I have visited has a government school with a decent building.

This is not surprising, because by 2006, 98% of habitations in India had a primary (up to Class V) school within 1km, and 86% had an upper primary (up to Class VII) school within 3km. The numbers have grown since, with a clear focus on "being near every habitation".

This means a staggering increase in the number of schools. At the time of independence, India had about 130,000 schools. Today we have about 1.4 million. About 7 million people work in our school education system. This is by far the largest education system in the world.

Factor in the cultural, linguistic, socio-economic and developmental diversity, and you also face the most complex education system in the world. This system has about 210 million students.

This massive expansion has not resulted in actual learning in those schools. We have lots of schools now, but precious little real education. The causes and challenges are many, this column is about a specific one.

The design of this expansion has inadvertently "in built" a difficult challenge for our schools and teachers. This is one of the hurdles in the path towards real learning and improvement in quality of education. As a result of this strategy of "being near every habitation", the number of students in our schools (especially rural ones) is small. Each school has just about as many as can come from the nearby habitation. Within that small number, the students span all age groups. A school may have 115 children, but the children will span an age range across 6 to 13.

Now, even if this school were to have three teachers, which is more or less at the current national average of one teacher per 39 students, the teachers would need to handle multiple age groups simultaneously. This is called "multi-grade" teaching - in this case seven "classes" would have to be handled by three teachers.

If you talk to practitioners, they say this is much more difficult than handling a class of same age children. It requires special training, different methods and different skills.

And we have built this challenge of "multi grade teaching" into almost all village schools by the way we have handled the expansion. One of the most complex teaching challenges has become a part of the everyday job of most village teachers, who by general admission are inadequately equipped and ill supported to deal with academic challenges.

It's not as though we did not have a choice of another model of expansion. China in comparison has between 600,000- 700,000 schools (including vocational training ones) with about 250 million children.

The Chinese system has about half the schools, and about 20% more students, compared with India. Roughly, the average student number per school in China is 2.25 times that in India. China has followed a route of consolidation; we have followed one of dispersion. The former leads to an exponential drop in the "multi-grade" load of teachers, as is the case in China.

Two factors played a dominant role in the choice we made.

The first was our policymakers' single-minded focus on "literacy", and keeping learning outcomes and quality of education on the backburner. The second was the pragmatic assessment that getting children to travel away from their habitations, with our kind of infrastructure, was not possible. There seems to have been an almost implicit assumption that "let's do literacy first, and then we will see about quality". The whole expansion got designed for that. I would speculate that things like "multi grade teaching" and its challenges were practically overlooked.

Those choices were made under certain circumstances. Sure, these could have been better, but they could also have been a lot worse. What matters is that there is now no way to unwind or reconfigure the system.

We can and must still deal with it. That requires significant teacher capacity development, improved classroom practices and appropriate curriculum. It's these fundamentals that need to be worked on and invested in.

In fact with a capable, well-trained teacher and appropriate curriculum, multi grade teaching can be a learning enhancer. In Machagondal Camp, 10km from Shorapur, I met Uma (in her early twenties), who is a government teacher in the local school. She has handled class 1 to V for the past two years, all on her own, and the children have learnt. She was the only teacher in this one room school till a couple of months ago.

I have seen this happen in other government schools in this block, alive with enthusiastic well-trained teachers, using the "nali kali" curriculum.

There is hope, but to truly address the problem, we have to first notice and acknowledge the elephant in the room, inadvertently let in by having schools in every habitation.

( This piece was published as a part of Anurag's fortnightly column,"Other Sphere", in Mint on January 4, 2011 )‚Äč