Are we digging in the dirt or is there really a way out?

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R Govinda, Vice-Chancellor, National University of Educational Planning and Administration
R Govinda, Vice-Chancellor, National University of Educational
Planning and Administration Photo: Ankit Agrawal

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Your university National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) collects data on education from every district in the country. Is this data collected by the district administration and state governments? In that case, won’t the states do their best to ensure the data looks good?
Yes, it is the state machinery that collects data. But we’re talking about 1.5 million schools. How many people will you send out every year to collect data? Only schools can fill out the data and send it. That’s how it’s done all over the world.

How do we know what we’re getting? For instance, the government of Rajasthan claims in your data that 93 percent of the girls in primary schools have functional toilets and 92 percent of primary schools have drinking water facilities. But when we go to these schools, it’s difficult to believe this data.
I went to Nagaland a few months ago. In the city area, around Dimapur itself, the school had been given money under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for toilets but there were none. So this kind of data has to be seen only as broadly indicative. The basic problem is really the reliability of the data at the source.

So what do we do with this? We’re sitting on false data.
The real issue is that the schools don’t maintain any data of their own. It’s difficult to falsify data if each school maintains its records. It’s when they don’t do that the State can easily manipulate the numbers. That’s how data is maintained across the world. We have recommended to the government that we should develop a model set of school records, which include enrolment, teaching data, finances, etc. And these should be maintained by each school.

Speaking of records, your data for 2010-11 (the DISE report) throws up some surprising numbers. For instance, it says that in Kerala, 78 percent of the primary schools work less than 200 days in the year, the worst case scenario of all states in the country. Isn’t that surprising, considering how Kerala is widely believed to be one of the better performing states in education?
It’s possible that Kerala is telling the truth and others are not.

Which means it’s very difficult to use your data.
You have to look at the macro indices, not individual items. I think we need to investigate much more to find out what the deeper causes are. If children are taught, they will learn. This may mean they are not being taught.

If we look at some macro indices from your data, it shows that the OBC enrolment in primary schools in the past three years has been stagnant more or less. It was 42.15 percent, and it’s become 42.8 percent. And the percentage of Muslims going to schools has been stagnant for more than a decade. It was 13.43 percent in 2001 and now it’s 13.31 percent. Are these indicators believable?
These indicators are indeed all believable. Not just macro but even micro-level studies and research done in the hinterland show exactly this. Both, about OBCs and Muslims.

Since the 1960s, your institution has been engaged in not just collecting data, but also in writing policy that should be followed by the states and the Centre. In the past decade, how receptive have various Human Resource Development ministers been to your recommendations?
It’s been very inconsistent. There is never a direct relationship between research and policy-making. Certain portions of the data we collect get used and other bits do not. School enrolment data gets picked up to show that things are happening. But when it comes to learning data, it may not be used. Or when it comes to girls’ participation or dropout data, it may not get used. Certain indices are more difficult to use because they require much greater adjustments to be made.

The Centre will always deflect this problem onto the state and then the district. So who should lead us out of the dark, and how?
Leadership is no doubt required at all three levels — national, state and district. The bureaucrats and politicians’ engagement on the critical failures in primary education is lacking. What is really needed is not macro-level policy but a few million champions in the field.

Where will these few million champions come from?
We at NUEPA are developing a national centre for school leadership, which is a thinking body that strategises, develops programmes for states and facilitates their implementation. It has a transformative agenda. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, we have 1.5 lakh schools. If all of them have to start functioning, we need 30,000 people. And that might not be so hard to find if we look with an open mind. There might be 5,000 retired people living in the vicinity of schools who might be willing to pitch in. There may be others in the schools who may be interested. We need to find local champions.

Alongside that, we have developed a leadership curriculum. And it’s very disaggregated and varied. What does it mean to work in a single-teacher school? What does it mean to bring change to a semiurban school, to a school in a metropolis, a school with 100 children, another with 3,000 children and yet another with 30? We want to develop leadership academies in every state that are thinking institutions.

What will these local-level leaders do?
It’s about creating local resource centres for such leaders to use and fall back on. Once, I met a man, a lecturer from the district institute of education who is training in Tamil Nadu. He teaches till 1.30 in the afternoon. After that, he goes around the villages in his district on his bicycle. He has created a veritable revolution by just doing small things — talking to teachers in schools and helping them prepare plans. He figured the urban kids in private schools were ahead of these school kids because they have general knowledge. So he prepared general knowledge cards and tied up with a local shopkeeper to have these cards printed for all those kids.

He also introduced something called the morning breakfast in the area because he found the kids come to school hungry at 8 am and need something to eat before the mid-day meal comes at 10.30 am. So, the schools developed a breakfast programme of their own. There are such people around, they just need to be encouraged. They are all champions in my reading.

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