Though India has almost universal enrolment in primary school, learning outcomes continue to be poor, with many children dropping out before secondary school. Anil Swarup, secretary of India’s department of school education and literacy, believes that the key to solving the problem lies in using the government sector to scale and replicate successful models from the private or public sector.

“The government sector gives you the scale. The private sector gives you the quality and that’s where the two should work in tandem to have scale and quality,” said Swarup, previously secretary in the ministry of coal, and director general of labour welfare in the ministry of labour and employment.

India has over 250 million children between the ages of six and 15, according to the latest projections by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. By 2030, India will have the world’s largest working age population--1.03 billion--a demographic dividend that will bear fruit only if the population is healthy and productive, with education playing a key role.

In 2015-16, 87.3% of the Indian primary school-age population was enrolled in school, up from 84.53% in 2005-06. About 51% of the secondary-age population was enrolled in school in 2015-16, up from 41.9% in 2012-13 (the latest available data), according to data from the District Information System for Education.

Though India has been successful in getting children to school, learning outcomes have been consistently poor. In 2016, about 25% of children in grade III could at least read a grade II level text, while 27.7% of children in grade III could subtract, according to the Annual Status of Education Report, a household based citizen-led survey.

Education is on the concurrent list, which means both the central and the state government have a role in providing good quality education.

IndiaSpend spoke to Anil Swarup about the government’s education priorities, the role of the central government in improving education quality, and the role of the ministry of human resource development in helping a child learn from early childhood to adolescence. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.

Q: When do you think India will reach a point when a majority are literate?

I’m not a person who predicts things. I’m more into the present. What needs to be done now, I’ll do that. I have no control over the final results. There are people who project, you can ask them, and then you can question them whether it has happened or not. I’ll not be there then, so I won’t be able to answer. I would rather answer on things I am doing in the present. And I love it that way.

Q: What are your priorities in the education sector for the next few years?

We have looked at the education sector and we believe that we have been able to get the child to the school. The effort now would be to impart quality education to the child. And in doing so, we have looked at the primary cause of it not happening, and we believe the pivotal role has to be played by the teacher.

We will start with the entry of people into colleges that impart bachelor of education (B.ed.) degrees (mandatory for becoming a school teacher up to grade XII in India). Right now, some places have tests, others don’t. So one would be to see if we can have a test for entry into colleges so that only those who are genuinely keen on getting into this profession get into these colleges.

The second is the quality of colleges itself which leaves a lot to be desired. So we are looking at whether we could accredit these colleges to improve the quality of education imparted.

Number three is when people graduate from college. We are looking at how we can have a central exam in the form of CAT and SAT, wherein there is a greater objectivity in deciding who qualifies as a teacher.

Once the teacher gets selected, there is an induction course but it is very short, and in some places there is no induction course. We are looking at a compulsory induction course for a longer duration to equip the teacher to do what we want them to. Once the teacher is in school we are trying to understand how we can continuously upgrade their skills through training processes.

Q: Parental literacy is associated with higher enrolment of students in school, and better learning outcomes. About 30% of Indian adults above the age of 15 years were illiterate, according to Census 2011, the latest available data on nationwide literacy. What is the government doing for adult literacy?

The understanding of adult literacy has undergone a sea change over the years. There was a period of time when children were out of school and so it was essential for adults to be educated separately. Now with most children in school, the approach will have to be children teaching the parents. And I have seen it myself. I have travelled to a place called Sukma in Bastar. I had the occasion to go down and walk to the school where a parent-teacher meeting was ongoing. I was very pleasantly surprised to find so many parents sitting there. I asked one of the parents: “why do you send your child to the school?” He said, “Main to padh nai paya. Ye padh lega thodasa” (I couldn’t study but my child will be able to study a little). Then I asked the second parent who said:“Yeh padh lega to mujhe bhi padha dega” (if my child learns, s/he will teach me too). That’s where I started looking for answers in terms of adult education.

If the parents can be associated with the learning of the child, it serves two purposes: The purpose of the child to learn and the the purpose of the parent to learn from the child. I think the approach towards adult literacy, which was earlier teaching them directly, could now be through the child. As you go along, more and more people will become literate. It’s not an easy job. But with this approach, I don’t have to go to a third party to educate a parent, as was the case earlier in the national literacy mission. We engage NGOs and people who want to teach. That exercise too may continue; but I think the approach now more would be through the child himself.

Q: There is evidence that good quality early childhood education improves student learning outcomes in school (and later in life). What is the ministry doing to ensure that children get good pre-school education, and start school with similar levels of knowledge?

We have so far focussed on grades one to eight under the Right to Education (RTE) Act. The RTE doesn’t talk about pre-school. So we are now thinking how we can bring in anganwadis (courtyard shelters) under schools. This experiment has already started in some states. I have seen it myself in Rajasthan where it is working wonderfully. They have shifted anganwadis and pre-schools in the same premise as the school, and it is having the desired impact. Let’s see how it evolves. In five workshops that we had with state governments we took the Rajasthan model and told other state governments about it, and many states are very seriously considering it.

First you physically get the anganwadi to be a part of school, and then see what other additional inputs are required before students come to grade I. I mean there is no ‘cut and dry’ formula that is ready, you put it there and it will happen. So Rajasthan is doing this experiment, let’s see how it works.

In terms of parents not taking children to an anganwadi, it is more of a social problem. But I think it is changing quite substantially, especially in the context of education. People have become much more aware about child learning. They want them to be educated.

But we are still concerned that if we don’t take care of pre-school, there can be problems later. Suddenly when children come to grade I, they don’t know the things they should already be aware of.

Q: What do you think the government can do to bring children, already in school, to the same level of learning? Some studies have found that children in one grade can often span several grades in terms of learning levels.

There are schemes through which you address such issues of bringing a child to a particular level, and many states are implementing schemes too. Even within a class, you don’t have every child of the same standard. Teachers assess the child, form groups based on the level of the child, and then provide different inputs to different groups. That’s how the pedagogy has evolved. You don’t shout the same thing to every child. There would be few things same for everyone but select children would be given a separate set of inputs.

Q: One survey found that about 29% of students enrolled were absent from class on the day of the survey. What do you think can reduce absenteeism?

It’s the same issues of quality. If there is joyful learning and if you improve the quality of education, the child will come. For example, I have seen both types of schools--where there is poor attendance and where there is cent % attendance--on surprise visits. All the difference was the quality of education and the manner in which education was being delivered. I drove down from Pune to Goa for 10 hours and kept getting down at schools and I was pleasantly shocked; children were involved in the education process because they enjoyed what they were doing. For example, in one school, I saw a container of sand and this child was learning how to write in sand. He was writing letters and there were other children standing around. It’s fun for them. There are many such examples. It’s a question of whether we are making learning a joyful exercise.

Q: Government figures show one in six teaching positions in government schools is vacant, a collective shortage of a million teachers. How is the government tackling this problem?

You can’t pick a single institution where you would say all the seats are filled. There could be some shortage of teachers but it has more to do with deployment of teachers or redeployment of teachers. I don’t foresee a situation where I can say all teacher posts are filled. There are some states, I won’t name them, in which a large number of teachers are attached to headquarters doing nothing. There are other states with schools where there are hardly any children but teachers are deployed. There are lots of steps like consolidation of schools so that the same number of teachers could be used more fruitfully.

I don’t think availability of teachers is that big an issue though it is still an issue. The point is that the teacher that is available and the infrastructure that is available, how best it can be put to use. That’s what we are looking at.

Q: A recent study across four states found that teachers were absent more often because of official duties than because of truancy. What are your thoughts on that?

That study may have been conducted but it’s fact that, it’s truancy, it’s not work. So we are trying to handle that through a project that we launched in the entire state of Chhattisgarh. We will supply tablets which will be GPS-linked and biometric attendance of the teacher will be taken. We will see the impact, whether it improves the attendance of the teacher in the school. Because until the teacher is present you can’t do anything about education.

We are also looking at reducing the burden of the teacher in terms of sending information so that he or she has more time to educate the child rather than filling forms. The tablet we have in mind would also be used for housing and sending information from each school which will be much less cumbersome than the present way.

We would also use the tablets to upgrade the skills of teacher by using audio-visual, pre-recorded material.

Q: One study shows that between 2010-11 and 2015-16, student enrolment in government schools across 20 Indian states fell by 13 million, while private schools acquired 17.5 million new students. Why is that the case, and what is the government doing to keep students in government schools?

It was simply on account of the perception of people that the quality of education provided by the private school is better than government schools though data doesn’t prove that. If you actually see CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) results, government schools have performed better than private schools. (In 2017, 82.2% of grade XII government school students who took the Senior School Certificate Examination across 10 districts succeeded, while 79.2% of those in “independent” private schools did, and 25.4% of those in schools classified as “private” did.) So it’s a perceptional issue. Other historical issues exist in terms of our understanding of the language English. It is somehow assumed that a private school teaches English, and English will give people jobs. It may not be totally correct but that’s a perception.

To rectify that, the attempt is to improve the quality of education. Here again, both Maharashtra and Rajasthan have clearly demonstrated that, if the quality of government schools improves people start coming back and there the trends are absolutely amazing. I have seen it myself--how children who had gone to private schools have come back. It is happening in isolated cases but it’s a good case case study to be replicated across states.

(Enrolment in government schools in Maharashtra fell 4.1% between 2014-15 and 2015-16, while private school enrollment grew 1.2%, according to DISE data. In Rajasthan, government school enrolment grew 5.5% in the same period, and private school enrollment reduced 0.1%.)

Q: What is the government doing to reduce dropouts from school, especially before secondary school, given that enrolment in secondary school is much lower than in primary school?

A number of studies give a number of reasons. For example, girls drop out because they are required at home to take care of their younger siblings. The other reason is when a child grows, he doesn’t like what is being taught in the school, so he drops out. Then, health issues are there. So there are variety of issues and all need to be addressed.

Fortunately, a lot of NGOs have been working to reduce dropouts. For example, Educate Girls has launched a campaign in a number of districts in Rajasthan to reduce dropouts which is going very well. We are looking at that and other models, and making presentations in other states, and some of them are engaging these NGOs to see how they could be used. Similarly, there are NGOs looking at out-of-school children, and how they can be brought in. So we are trying to demonstrate that there are models where such problems are being solved. But it is being done in small pockets.

We have held a seven-day long workshop here interacting with more than 100 NGOs--what they have done, how they have done it, what is its impact and how they can replicate it, and in replication or scaling what exactly do they expect from the state and central government. And believe me, this scaling is happening at a much faster pace than expected. So they are going to other states, they are signing more schools. What has actually happened is they have started believing that they don’t need to restrict themselves to a particular area. Other states are willing to have them because they have seen good work being done. So as I often say: The government sector gives you the scale. The private sector gives you the quality and that’s where the two should work in tandem to have scale and quality.

Q: How does the schooling system ensure that education can help students be more employable?

What we are talking in terms of study in grades I to V or I to VIII is not employability. We are making him a student who learns. Employability will come from what he does in grades IX, X, XI, XII and after. So that’s where we are trying to get vocational training as a part of curriculum that has already been done. The approach that we are now trying to adopt is that vocational training should be suited to the requirement of that area. So, like in Delhi, we feel that if you train him in some IT (information technology) application, they will be employed. Doing that in a remote village in Keonjhar district, that won’t happen.

What we are trying to do is--and Wadhaani Foundation is helping us here--a survey with regard to what is the employment requirement of the next five years. And accordingly structure the vocational training. So it will be demand-based rather than supply-based. You train anybody in something, and he is not employed. So probably in hospitality sector it will be more beneficial in Odisha than in the IT sector. Geriatric care might be something that is required. New sectors are emerging, and through the survey we get to know what is the requirement. So now we are trying to do this, and a couple of experiments have succeeded in actually determining what the requirement is.

Q: What is the central government’s role in bringing innovative methods of teaching to schools?

My job, when I travelled to the states, was to find such models. We launched five national workshops where these models were displayed for states, so that they could be scaled and replicated.

My job is, as I call myself, of a principal facilitator. Identify, recognise and road show the good work. And once other states know, they can adopt it. I’m creating platforms where they can see the models. You know a guy sitting, say, in Rajasthan would not know what is happening in Maharashtra. But I know that’s happening in Maharashtra so if I do a workshop in Pune and call the Rajasthan guys over and take them around, there is no reason why they will not adopt it. Similarly when the Maharashtra people, say, see the anganwadi in Rajasthan and the children coming to school, they will adopt it. These ideas are not imported from Finland, England, Swaziland or Poland, they are homeland ideas where these models are implemented. Nothing else can carry more conviction.

For example, I drove about 120 km north of Thane to a place called Pastepada. There was this teacher--32 years old--in a school with no electricity, and he has digitised the whole learning process. There are tablets, digital smart screens. He has raised the funds from around the school. And that’s not the story. The story is that it’s not one school, but that it’s being replicated in 47,000 schools in Maharashtra. That’s the story. So it’s a replicable model, it’s a scalable model. We can have a great thing at one place but that’s not it. The challenge is whether it can be scaled. That is our role.

(Shah is a reporter/writer with IndiaSpend.)

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