The biggest problem in school education in India for a decade now is whether universal access to elementary education after Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in 2000 ensured the delivery of quality education as well.
But Haryana, has undertaken focused reforms to improve learning outcomes in government schools and address the grave learning crisis India faces. Through a combination of academic and administrative interventions, Haryana has sought to qualitatively transform its government school system.
Why education is absent in political campaigns
The complexity and structure of the government school system is such that little can be improved without the backing of the state leadership. And yet, one hardly sees education getting the political attention that economic, employment or security matters get, even in states.
Why is it that education almost never features in election campaigns or political debates even though ASER data has repeatedly shown that school enrolment is up in the 6 to 14 age group but a majority of our students still can’t comprehend course material appropriate to several grades below.
First, unlike many development issues, qualitative improvement in education doesn’t offer instant, tangible gratification to people. The promise it holds is that if a child is educated till school and beyond, she will eventually ‘stand on her feet’. Most families that send their children to government schools, have pressing current financial constraints, which weigh more heavily than the vague allure of a future job. As a consequence, politicians don’t expend political capital on making education an election agenda.
Second, the number of stakeholders in the education system makes targeted action-oriented messaging complicated. Besides the state, district and block officials, reforms have to include other stakeholders such as students, teachers and parents. This implies that any education reform measure cannot have a single call to action for all stakeholders. For example, in Swachh Bharat the call to action is maintaining cleanliness, in Jan Dhan Yojana it is opening bank accounts, in Ayushman Bharat it is registering for health insurance. In contrast, education requires teachers to teach better, students to attend classes regularly and focus on academic performance, and for parents to be more involved in their child’s education by keeping a check on her progress and regularly interacting with teachers.
Third, in the absence of any education reform model in India that has substantially improved learning levels, there is little reason for a state’s leadership to believe this is a problem that can be tackled during its term in office. The size and complexity of the challenge, therefore, seems too daunting to even attempt a solution.
There are, however, a few outliers. Delhi being a prominent one. Over the last few years, the Delhi government has carried out several interventions focused on improving infrastructure in government schools, parent-involvement, pedagogy and mentoring for teachers. Each of these are critical levers that have some direct or indirect bearing on the quality of classroom interactions. However, the impact of Delhi government’s interventions on improving learning outcomes is still an open question.
School education reforms are, perhaps for the first time, featuring in the Delhi election campaign this month.
What Haryana did
In June 2017, the M.L. Khattar government of Haryana set an ambitious target for itself: making more than 80 per cent of students in elementary classes in government schools Saksham. That means they would acquire specific competencies corresponding to the grade they are in, as defined by a third-party assessor (such as being able to do two-digit addition, read a complete sentence in Hindi etc). This was the beginning of the Saksham Haryana campaign.
But the question was how does a state with 11,000 government schools, 72,000 teachers and more than 15 lakh students generate momentum across the board to achieve a common goal? A challenge that all states face.
To this end, the state government created a Saksham Haryana Cell, housed in the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO), which works closely with the Department of Education. An official from the Department of Education is responsible for designing and monitoring the implementation of each key intervention and progress towards the goal.
Interventions include shifting focus from syllabus-completion to acquiring competencies, conducting structured state-wide remedial classes to help students bridge learning gaps, enabling training and mentoring support to teachers, ensuring timely availability of textbooks in schools, reforming assessments, driving data-backed decision-making based on student performance, and designing robust cascaded reviewing and monitoring mechanisms to track progress from the state to the district, block and school level. Chief Minister’s Good Governance Associates, posted in each of the 22 districts of Haryana, act as representatives of the CMO and catalyse the on-ground implementation. Most importantly, the collective action of district and block education officials as well as school principals and teachers is critical to the success of the programme.
How Saksham Haryana works
But what do all these interventions add up to in Haryana, given these have been tried in other states as well?
The Saksham Haryana approach stands out because besides adopting a systemic lens to transform school education system, it introduces an element of gamification to motivate each stakeholder and unit within the system to do well. Through a competitive framework called Saksham Ghoshna, a sense of healthy competition is created among blocks to be declared Saksham, based on the results of an independent, third-party assessment.
Ownership and accountability towards achieving Saksham status is completely given to the blocks. If all schools in a block implement the necessary interventions rigorously and can see an improvement in academic performance through internal assessments, they nominate themselves for the third-party assessment.
On a pre-defined date, all such blocks in the state undergo the assessment. Once results are declared, if more than 80 per cent of students in a block are found to be meet the cut-off defined by the third-party, the block is declared Saksham and felicitated by the state government. Through constant messaging campaigns and regular reviews, Chief Minister Khattar signals to the entire education system that this a priority and all stakeholders should work towards realising this shared vision.
Haryana is a unique case of a state publicly articulating a quantifiable goal to improve its academic performance and systematically pursuing it with the backing of the chief minister.
The early results
Since December 2017, when the first round of third-party assessments was conducted, eight Saksham Ghoshna assessments have taken place. After two years, 90 per cent of the blocks in Haryana (107 out of 119 blocks) have been declared Saksham while 86 per cent of elementary school students have been declared Saksham.
While results from Saksham Haryana have demonstrated that it is possible to improve learning outcomes at scale, these are still early signs of success. There is further need to build on this model, strengthen it and improve it based on best practices.
The necessity of improving the quality of education delivered in government schools cannot be overstated, neither can it be denied that this is a challenge that requires immediate attention. The promise of a developed India itself rests on how fast and systematically states respond to this challenge.