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Anil Swarup holding up a mobile enlarger: ‘The pivot of the education system is the teacher’

‘A lot of work is being done in govt schools’

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Jun. 02, 2017
Updated: Aug. 21, 2018

Interest in government schools has been growing. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has sought to ensure that every child is in class and enrolment is considered to be 98 percent. The right to food movement, through Supreme Court orders, has brought in midday meals. Infrastructure is still lacking but has, in fact, improved considering what it used to be with governments providing funds for basic facilities like toilets and drinking water. Teachers are also well paid.

But government schools are still a long way off from being associated with imparting quality education. Children might be enrolled, yet the dropout rate is high, mostly because teaching is poor. Those who go through the system most often learn very little and can barely read and write.

So, how can government schools be made to improve? Are all of them equally bad or are there those teachers and principals who perform but go unnoticed in the general mess? What can be done to ensure accountability and reward effort? How can a momentum be built to get government schools out of the rut into which they have fallen?

Anil Swarup took over about six months ago as Secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy in the Ministry of Human Resource Development. He has been travelling extensively to see for himself what works and what doesn’t.

Swarup is upbeat about what he has found despite the many problems that exist. He says there is more commitment and innovation in government schools than is acknowledged. He sees NGOs and community groups having an impact. If the dots could only be joined, significant improvements would be possible, he says.

Swarup is a high-performance bureaucrat who is known to be a problem solver. He carries people along and motivates officials right down to the district level. With 14 months left in this job, will he leave a lasting impact on the government school system? Excerpts from an interview in his office at Shastri Bhavan:

You have been travelling across India, looking at government schools. What are your concerns?

First, let me tell you why I went to see government schools. When I took over as Secretary, there was no dearth of ideas and suggestions on how education should be handled in the country. The question that arose in my mind was: why weren’t all these ideas implemented all these years? Nobody had a cogent answer because the approach was theoretical.

So these were assumed solutions?

Let me give you an example. Many people looked at solutions available in Finland. Now, the objective conditions in Finland are totally different from the objective conditions in India. I don’t have to look at Finland for solutions. So, I thought, let me travel across India and see what the scenario is at the grassroots. And I was pleasantly aghast to see what wonderful work was being done by NGOs and government functionaries.

It wasn’t limited to one state. When I went to Bastar and Sukma I saw hostels for girls in the back of beyond and people very satisfied with what was going on. I drove from Pune to Goa and found schools that had adopted lovely innovative practices. I drove from Shimla to Dharamsala and found NGOs doing a wonderful job. Solutions to our problems are all available here.

So what is the challenge?

The challenge is how do you scale up these solutions? Most NGOs are working in one district or a few blocks. Probably, they weren’t recognised or identified or approached to scale up.

So what do we do? We set up seven sets of workshops with around 100 NGOs and listened carefully to what they were doing, whether it was possible to scale up their models and what would it take. A large number of NGOs responded. We then launched five regional workshops. Two have taken place. We have taken the NGOs to states to roadshow what they have done.

I am not trying to invent anything new. If a good practice can happen in one area why can’t it happen elsewhere? I walked into a school close to Lucknow during the midday meal. I was pleasantly surprised to see the high quality of food served. I asked where the food came from. They said, from Akshaya Patra. I called their local representative and asked him in how many districts they were supplying the midday meal. He said, two. I asked him, can you scale it up? He said this decision is taken by our headquarters in Bengaluru. I flew to Bengaluru, talked at length with their managing committee and they have agreed to scale up their operations to 12 districts in UP.

So the idea is to put NGOs in touch with the states. Each NGO has formulated a draft MoU that is circulated in advance to the states. When we go for regional workshops, on the sidelines there
are discussions going on. So this is how we are trying to upscale.

What, to you, seems to be the problem with the education system?

I think our real success story is that we managed to get the child into school. The problem is that learning outcomes are not commensurate with the effort that has gone in. We tried to understand what the issues were. We clearly concluded that the pivot is the teacher. So we looked at the entire continuum of the teacher. Where does the teacher study to become a teacher? What is the process by which he enters the school system? What are the problems he faces in school or the school faces on account of him? Then we worked out a strategy. The National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) has already worked out the accreditation details of all B.Ed and D.Ed colleges. No college that is not accredited by NCTE will be allowed to function.

So thus far colleges were not accredited but allowed to function?

No, they were not accredited but recognised. They filed an application and were given the go-ahead. There were no systems for accreditation. Now, an affidavit has been sought from them asking for certain details. There is a third party that will evaluate them and only then allow them to function. Many of them had come up without adequate facilities. Some sort of racket.

Just 60 percent of them have responded so far. From next year only accredited colleges will be allowed to run.

The second issue is the process of people getting into the teaching profession. We are thinking of running a CAT or SAT exam for teachers. We can give aspiring teachers the opportunity of appearing for a central exam. We will then have a merit list and leave it to schools, including private schools, to pick up teachers from there.

Currently there is a short, unstructured induction course that teachers go through when they join the teaching profession. We are planning an induction course of a month or two to inculcate certain values and methodologies.

The next issue is that in several states, teachers don’t go to the school. We even hear of teachers engaging someone else. We plan to use technology to ensure school attendance. In every school in Chhattisgarh we are giving a tablet which will have the biometric impressions of teachers. It will be GPS connected. The teachers will have to give biometric attendance in their schools. Of course, you can’t rule out people getting the better of technology. If it works, we will take it to other states.

The tablet will also house teaching literature for the teacher and video material for students. There isn’t internet connectivity in many places but the tablet is portable. Once a fortnight the tablet can be sent to a location where there is connectivity and data can be downloaded.

Who will train the teachers?

A full-fledged training schedule is being worked out. The role of the DIETs (District Institutes of Education and Training) is being reconsidered. The plan is as follows. We feel that DIETS are spending a lot of time training pre-service teachers. Now, there is a lot of private sector engagement in that field. So we don’t have to spend so much investment and time on pre-service. Our recommendation to the states is to route DIETs into training in-service teachers. Modules can be worked out and accommodation provided for in-service training. Right now pre-service students stay in the hostels and in-service teachers stay in some dharamshala. Training of trainers has been worked out as part of the schedule for training teachers.

Who will train teacher-educators?

It has to be a Public-Private-Partnership. For example, the Aurobindo Ashram trains teachers and leaders. Until three months ago they were working only in UP. Now they have signed an MoU with four states. They are going to scale across northern states because they are into the Hindi-speaking belt. Their focus is on understanding the problems that teachers face in terms of training and while in operation. Teachers come up with their success stories and share them.

We are creating an active enabling environment and encouraging replication. We are showcasing what the NGOs are doing regionally and maybe nationally and by that creating aspiration. 

We had a workshop in Pune. The day before, 50 people from the zone travelled to schools in the interiors where I had gone to see how local technology was being used to teach children. I walked into one school and saw the teacher teaching a child to write on sand. The child was thrilled. It was play for him.

In Pastepara, 120 km north in the forested Thane district of Maharashtra, a teacher was using a Rs 200 gadget as a teaching aid. It enlarges the screen on your mobile phone. Ten teachers spent their own money to come there and learn from him.

I have been spending sleepless nights, thinking of the sheer potential of this sector.

How will quality in education be assessed? 

We have been identifying quality norms and placing learning outcomes on a portal. We are also going ahead with a mass survey based on quality parameters so that learning outcomes are clearly defined. For instance, what do we expect a child of Class 3 or Class 6 to know in maths? Such outcomes have not been defined for the past 10 years. We will measure everything on the basis of learning outcomes for each class and subject. 

There is also a huge number of teacher vacancies with UP and Bihar topping the list. Will those be filled?

That’s the easier thing to do. You work out the details and the vacancies will be filled.

We are trying to replicate the Rajasthan pattern. There were schools with 15 children and two teachers. Rajasthan is going ahead with consolidation. But they are not putting children to any inconvenience because they are going to give them an allowance for travel. It isn’t infrastructure but accessibility that is important. That’s an experiment that is doing very well. In the workshops we have a representative from Rajasthan explaining how they are consolidating. It is catching on.

Several School Management Committees (SMCs) have been formed. How do you propose to involve parents with the school?

Getting parents on board will help us. In Sukma, I saw a crowd near a school. They told me they were having a parent-teacher meeting. They hold it once a month and the school provides a midday meal to the parents as well. One parent said he couldn’t study but he wanted his child to get an education. Another parent said if his child studied he too could learn from him. The engagement with parents is so important because we are handling a generation whose parents did not study.

But to ensure parents assert themselves?

Parents will become demanding if they are engaged. The first step is to get parents to school. Once they see what is happening they will become demanding. That is the beauty of democracy.

We are also considering recruiting a teacher from the district itself for the schools. The teacher spends his lifetime there and will owe his job to the SMC. That single decision will transform many things. The teacher will be beholden to the SMC and the school and not be looking out for transfers. This whole racket of transfers can be dispensed with. I have spoken to several states and they agreed.

But would there be downsides to this?

Yes, you may not be able to get anybody for schools in remote areas. Currently, we engage a local person on contract. If we hire locally the person on contract will get regular employment. His commitment levels will be much more since he belongs there. He can be trained. If I am not answerable, if I have political pull to get myself a transfer, why should I commit myself?

Teachers also complain of being overloaded with extraneous duties...

Very simply, they are being overloaded unnecessarily. When they collect data they first write it down. Then somebody goes to the centre and writes it all out. If I give them a tablet the job will get done in minutes. Some drudgery is on account of the midday meal scheme. If we can ensure that the midday meal is taken care of by NGOs then that too will lighten the teacher’s burden.

There is also a demand for pre-primary education.

I am looking at education as a continuum from pre-nursery to Class 12. But we are structured differently so how are we going to do it? Rajasthan has integrated classes from pre-primary onwards and is doing very well. It’s the states who have to do it. They don’t need me for that.

Is the no-detention policy going to stay?

We will be changing it either by taking it to the Cabinet or through an ordinance. Children must be tested on how much they have learnt. They can’t go from class to class without learning anything.