The buzz about the budget so far has been whether Arun Jaitley has delivered a big-bang or a low key budget, about the increases in tax exemption, the type of goods that will be more or less expensive and the possibility of the goods and services tax. Hidden in these details is a small glimmer of hope for the education sector and signs that the government may be prepared to adopt a more nuanced and refined outlook as far as schooling is concerned. Budgetary allocations for education this year delineated approximately INR 27 crore for a new activity labeled ‘school assessments’, though the document does not provide clarity on what these assessments could entail. We draw upon our experience of conducting these exercises and highlight two types of assessments – a need assessment for schools and a performance assessment of the school. For either of the two, the aim should be moving beyond the input driven RTE norms to focus on outcomes.
Assessing the needs of the school to steer away from one size fits all approach
Schools do not operate in isolation – each school is a microcosm of different circumstances, culture, attitudes etc. Our experience of assessing schools indicates that many schools have needs that the government is unable to provide for because they have not identified the gaps and even more importantly the root causes behind the same. Conducting a needs assessment therefore helps to understand the requirements of different schools across the country. Many might argue that through the National Achievement Survey conducted by the SSA, the government does measure the learning outcomes of students. However, a need assessment ideally is different from a mere ‘student’ assessment. Any assessment that does not take into account the community, circumstances and conditions of the schools is likely to be incomplete. A comprehensive need assessment will take into account all the stakeholders within the education system including the school principals, teachers, students, parents, influential community members, School management Committee and the government. In many cases, the assessment might identify that there are conflicting views between these different stakeholders and conducting assessment that incorporates these varies views is an acknowledgement that the school does not exist in isolation from the community. For example, the student learning outcomes might be low and the teachers might highlight lack of parental participation and support as a reason. However, parents might feel that they cannot participate either because of their livelihood situation or in many cases simply do not know how to get involved. Through an assessment, these stakeholders can be meaningfully engaged in a dialogue to unearth root causes and secure buy-in from everyone.
Assessing school’s performance in a standardized and comprehensive way
There is substantial evidence from both government and non-government sources to suggest that while India has made tremendous progress in ensuring that more children enroll in school, performance across output based indicators such as reading skills, numeracy skills has generally been low. One of the reasons suggested for this perceived lack of progress in improving the quality of education is that we currently do not have any standardized way of defining and measuring the performance of schools (not just students) across the country and doing so at a disaggregated level. Very little or no information is avilable that can help us understand the performance of different schools and obtain nuanced information in terms of geographies (urban, rural, hilly terrains etc.), different systems of management (government, private, government aided etc.), different types of governments’ involvement (local government, ashram shalas, special centre run schools etc) among others. Having this kind of information can be extremely useful in identifying trends and common features of schools that perform well and schools that are not performing as well. It also affords the opportunity to take targeted interventions that address specific needs groups that are weak.
Assessments are not just an academic research exercise
The education sector seems to abound in different types of assessments and there is wariness around introducing more such exercises. It is important to realize that while we may not need ‘more’ of these, we definitely need ‘standardized and consistent’ ones. School assessments are not just a platform to understand the missing portions but also emphasize positive experiences and best practices. It then becomes even more imperative to share these success stories and positive actions. Some examples include assessing cluster wise performance of schools and having high performing schools mentor their counter parts from low performing schools (as done in Shanghai). Perhaps the biggest benefit that could stem from this initiative is the possibility of greater levels of transparency and accountability among not just the government but all school administrators, principals and any organizations providing support schools in India.
School assessments can be a part of CSR programs
For companies, assessments offer a great opportunity for more effective public private partnership and bring about stronger, data driven CSR initiatives. Education is one of the most sought after and popular causes among those listed under Section 135. Many companies have expressed interest in working with schools around their plants, corporate offices and other branch offices. Having these schools assessed readily provides companies with an understanding of how best they can contribute to the school both in financial and in non-financial terms. For example, if the school assessment brings up concerns about ineffectively pedagogy, the company can support different measures such as experiential learning, ICT in classrooms, theatre in classrooms or other proven interventions based on their strengths. If the assessment reflects the lack of parental involvement, awareness and information campaigns can be run for the parents and the SMC.
Let us consider one of the case studies of our client:
|Sandvik Asia Pvt Ltd – A case study Sandvik Asia Pvt Ltd, the global engineering giant, presents a textbook example of how some companies are taking the lead in implementing informed CSR programs in schools around their plant areas. Through its School Education Initiative Sandvik wanted to address retention and quality of learning in schools and enrich the environment with involvement of community and school. Instead of implementing programs with ‘one-glove-fits-all’ approach that paid little heed to the specific circumstances of each school, Sandvik took the path less travelled and commissioned us to undertake school assessments across five schools in four different states. After painstakingly visiting the schools and engaging with all relevant stakeholders, Sandvik was presented with a list of needs and programs for each school. Sandvik is now in the process of identifying partners who can help the company to address these needs.
In the words of Saharsh David,Head- CSR at Sandvik, ‘the school assessments enabled us to design holistic programs, create interventions and their prioritization.….it has created a sense of ownership and goodwill on the schools’ part, ensuring their commitment and support in creating a long lasting impact’
Going forward it is extremely important for the Ministry of HRD and other concerned government machineries to work with external agencies such as consultants, experts, social organizations and all other stakeholders to come up with a holistic measurement standard that incorporates both quantitative (input measures such as infrastructure, availability of teaching aid etc) and qualitative (pedagogy, school leadership, aspiration levels among students, extent of extracurricular activities etc.) aspects. There has been a lot of research on these issues and therefore leveraging the existing knowledge and creating a collaborative set up to initiate the school assessments is absolutely crucial. This small step offers an exciting opportunity but the usefulness of it all will depend on how it is executed. We hope that the idea does get translated into action well and ultimately helps to accelerate the reform process that the education system in India truly needs.