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An agenda for school education

Education, Quality


Live Mint & The Wall Street Journal

While school education is largely a state government subject, the centre can do a lot to create an enabling environment for government and private entities, ensure accountability and shape flagship programmes.

Access to and enrolment in school education in India have grown significantly in the last two decades, to over 90% now. This should be celebrated. Quality, however, remains a serious challenge. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2013 shows 53% of class 5 children in rural India cannot read class 2 text. Two Indian states participating in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2011 ranked second-last and third-last of 74 countries and states globally. Learning is an issue not only in government schools but also in most private schools (notwithstanding high retention and completion). Lack of training in employable skills during secondary school is another challenge.

As India goes to the polls and political parties visualize the next central government, we suggest a five-point manifesto, focused on school education, with two objectives: significantly improved learning quality (from an average 50 out of 100 to 80 plus on tests of conceptual understanding) and employable skills by the end of schooling.

1. Assess conceptual learning through an independent agency annually and celebrate improvement: Standardized, annual, national assessments are present across the world’s top 20 school systems and increasingly, also in emerging economies such as Brazil and China. India should test a sample of students in classes 3, 5 and 8, across government and private schools, for their understanding of concepts. While these should be low stakes for the student (no pass or fail), they could give the system valuable feedback for improvement, help design initiatives and provide performance transparency. A few state governments are already conducting such assessments through private entities.

The human resource development ministry could understand the needs of each state better and even link part of the funding from programmes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) to improved learning levels. It could push the top three states to undergo PISA to understand the global competitiveness of our students. India’s National Assessment Survey could perhaps be refined and evolve into the suggested annual assessments. Over time, board exams also need to be reformed towards greater focus on conceptual understanding.

2. Catalyse teacher education reform through: One, centrally manage B.Ed and D.Ed colleges through outcomes. Accredited private agencies could administer an enhanced version of the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) to test subject-specific conceptual understanding and practical classroom skills, during recruiting. While 70-80% of candidates may not pass these assessments currently, institutes producing a greater pass rate should get financial and technical support for quality improvement and scale-up. For example, China has over 100 larger-scale teacher training facilities, compared with 14,000 plus teacher training colleges in India with only 1.1 million seats. Managing through outcomes can also allow more flexibility in programmes and alternative accredited certifications, as in countries such as the US.

Second, set up 20 to 30 national institutes, as public-private partnerships, with independent governing boards and high quality CEOs to run benchmark teacher and school leader development programmes. With a collective high quality annual output of, say, 50,000 teachers and 5,000 headmasters, these could be like the IITs or IIMs of education. Once proven, this model can be used to set up future district institutes of education and training and reform existing ones.

3. Integrate employable skills into schooling: Most countries with high quality vocational systems start skills training in school. Vocational skilling across manufacturing, services and self-employment trades, should start in class 8, with a recognised model for passing classes 10 and 12 with a mix of vocational and academic subjects. High quality private entities should deliver the vocational programmes, with students certified by industry-led sector skill councils.

4. Leverage private expertise to run high quality government schools that can be examples and resources for the system: Incentivize and encourage state governments to run, say, at least 20% of government schools in the next five years in public-private partnership mode, combining government infrastructure with select private management bringing their teachers, principal and methodologies. These private entities can be performance-managed through third party tests of learning.

Experience of charter schools in the US, the UK, South Africa and Pakistan show that quality selection and evaluation norms are critical. Equally important is a financially viable model. In cities, an annual payment of Rs.18,000-20,000 per child at 2012 cost, preferably through vouchers to students, can create competition among private schools, leading to quality.

5. Accelerate the use of technology for education: Technology can play several roles in education—interactive and customized learning models, increased reach of high quality teachers in distance mode, tools for supporting teachers and principals, and administrative tools for efficiency. However, the effectiveness of technology in education is not fully proven. The Union government could set up an Rs.500 crore fund to help seed innovations, evaluate effectiveness and scale up high impact experiments.

This five-point agenda could catalyse a school education system that provides India’s children the best learning opportunities and provides the country a skilled workforce.

Ramya Venkataraman is the leader of McKinsey’s education practice in India.

Shirish Sankhe is a director and senior partner, and leads McKinsey’s public sector and infrastructure practices in India.

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