Bhopal, the laid-back, breezy, green, and leafy cultural capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) in the heart of India, offers a unique study in contrast within a short 10-kilometer radius.
In Mira Nagar, to enter the primary school run by the government, one has to hop, skip, and jump over a puddle of green algae and fungus-filled water by stepping on stones carefully placed by the authorities.
Located in the midst of a slum, the school has a few mounds of garbage strewn around - Bhopal doesn’t appear to be following the footsteps of sister Indore closely enough - and has a sad, decrepit look. Inside a large room, four dedicated teachers however are bent over finishing their non-teaching work after the students have left for the day.
This writer spends over an hour conversing with them, in which a torrent of their hearts and troubles pour out, explaining how they attempt to teach 155-odd students from the poorest communities who attend their school, despite all odds.
Although the teachers appear quite vested in what they do, the poor state of the school and the facilities on offer for the students make it an uninspiring space to spend even a few hours, let alone day after day.
Seven kilometers away, in Jahangirabad, the government-run primary school that caters to close to 335 students (Class 1 to 5) and over 1100 in Classes 1 to 12 is a sharp study in contrasts, abuzz as it is with activity on a Friday morning as students trickle in to take the Olympiad exam for which 2 or 3 bright students from each class are handpicked. Neatly attired, students trickle in and take their seats in brightly lit and decorated classrooms with a large projector screen and intact furniture.
The school is a delightful, happy place with a teacher’s common room, a sick room, a well-equipped computer lab, a gleaming metallic dining hall, and a large, open on three sides yoga hall with a striking painted bodhi tree on a wall that makes one feel like jumping straight into Padmasana and meditating below it for the rest of the day! An atmosphere of peace radiates from the spot and a cool light breeze seals the moment.
The Jahangirabad school is one of the 350-odd in the making, to be developed under the “CM-RISE” schools, on the lines of the AAP government’s model schools in Delhi, as part of a massive education reform exercise the state is undergoing.
The school this writer visits happens to be right next to a new and spotless Sanjeevani clinic which was conducting an anemia camp on the day. A bunch of giggling girls from the school were lining up for the shot and the teachers of the school on questioning confirmed that all their medical needs were met through this clinic next door, which was equipped with one doctor, two nurses, and all facilities needed to provide basic primary care.
Health and education at least for this low-income neighborhood seem to be moving in perfect harmony, a rarity by any yardstick.
Bottom of the Lists
Quality education has never been a strong point for the state. MP has over the decades been at the bottom of many lists as far as its education outcomes and parameters go and even today, it is faring quite poorly in education outcome surveys, be it the government’s internal assessments or external.
Two of the country’s districts with the lowest literacy rates, female literacy in particular - Jhabua and Alirajpur - fall in the state. Most of Western MP and the tribal villages are in a similar boat. Although the number of children enrolled statewide in school has risen to 70%, there has been a distinct move out of government schools and into private ones, down from 84% in 2006 to 70% now. So, even as more children are going to school, fewer are picking state-run ones.
There’s a valid reason for that.
Of those who do make it to school, few learn much. Be it private or public, learning outcomes in the state have remained quite abysmal. To cite one instance Pratham’s ASER 2022 report finds that among Standard 3 students, 19.6% cannot recognise any letters, 41.2 percent can recognise letters but not words or anything further, 16.2% can read words but not Standard 1 text, 10.9% can read Standard 1 text but nothing further and so on.
The facility with arithmetic and English too leaves much to be desired although the former tends to be a bit better since some basic arithmetic is picked up by children as they assist parents in their daily chores (buying vegetables, and groceries and calculating what change they need to bring back after they pay).
A more recent scientifically conducted baseline survey conducted by the RSK forced the state machinery to face the grim reality: on average, only 25 percent of the students in primary classes were able to read at grade level and 30-35 percent had a grade level facility with numeracy. Rest were falling behind with sharp district-level variations.
Challenges Abound, CM-RISE, and Mission Ankur
Perhaps one of the biggest problems faced by the state is the unwieldy nature of its government school system where it has a total of over one crore students studying in 89,000 public schools spread across its 53 districts, many of which are primarily tribal. Seasonal migration in search of improved livelihood opportunities is rampant, leading to high student absenteeism.
Moreover, while Hindi is the language spoken at an official level, there are over 7 or 8 local languages and dialects spoken by children at home based on the district and region they live in. “It is fair to say that demographically MP is like 6 or 7 states combined into one”, argues RSK director S. Dhanraju, who has been a student, a teacher, a parent and is now an unusually driven employee in the government school system.
In 2013 itself, district-level efforts to strengthen the system’s capacity began. But it took almost ten years before the reality of the state of affairs fully sunk in.
Vast distances, regional languages and dialects, a migratory population, a poor road network, lack of virtually any public transport, and the diktats of the Right To Education (RTE) Act, 2009 - well-intentioned but poorly thought out - all culminated in a situation where the state had close to 89,000 poorly equipped schools with minimal infrastructure and practically no resources for anything after paying salaries. A majority of the schools are single or two-teacher schools.
“When we looked closely at why we were so far behind on most education parameters, we realized our resources were too thinly spread over too many schools”, says Rashmi Arun Shami, principal secretary, of education, who has been working in the state since 1995 and more closely on education since 2012. She argues that the RTE is a very “sensitive” act with its heart in the right place but at a practical level, delivering quality with limited resources over such a vast area was near impossible at least in MP’s context.
Moreover, unlike many states, online efforts and their delivery are not an option as penetration of both devices and broadband is low. “We also realized that the MP of 2020 was very different from the MP of 2009: the rural road infrastructure was better and students could afford to travel some distance in search of better learning”, she explains.
That’s when they presented the problem before the chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who came up with the idea of creating a few big, well-resourced schools that were as good if not better than private counterparts and decided to put his heft behind the whole reform effort. Consequently, a total of 350-odd CM-RISE schools are currently in the making with an investment of Rs 15,000 crore so far.
To distinguish these from the regular, the yearly school grant to these schools has gone up from around Rs 1 lakh to almost Rs 30 lakh a year. This allows the school to outsource security and cleanliness to agencies, which Shami says has made “all the difference”. In addition, the schools have seen an infrastructure facelift, staff hiring through a statewide competitive exam that filters knowledge and motivation levels, and an almost “constant” handholding and support through training for school leaders and teachers, which she argues, will be MP’s distinguishing feature: that sets the reform effort apart from others.
Even as CM’s pet project marches on with gusto, officials remained conscious of the fact that not all students can join a CM-RISE school right away and that many students were still falling off the grid due to a weak foundation. To tackle this, the state launched Mission Ankur in 2019-20 - a bit before the NEP made it a nationwide priority - a wider push to improve foundational learning through a new teacher handbook and student workbooks, designed with the help of TEA and its partner NGOs.
In April-May 2022, just before the roll-out of the new material, 1600 master trainers trained 80,000 primary school teachers in the use of these at Bhopal. Dhanraju says that by cutting two levels by cascade and ensuring that 1600 master trainers trained the teachers directly, they have done their utmost to make the training more effective than usual. Teachers, he argues, hold the key to any reform in MP but like everywhere, the state has around 25-30% self-motivated teachers, around 50% who are fence sitters, and 20-25% who refuse to discharge their duties as desired or expected.
Intense school leaders training is on in the hope that a motivated leader will tilt the fence sitters into the first cohort. Although Mission Ankur is a microcosm of the wider reform effort, it is by far the most critical aspect of it. “If a student doesn’t learn to read, how will he or she read to learn”, points out Dhanraju, or as Shami puts it: “agar hum neev mazboot kar dae toh bacha bahut kuch khud kar sakta hai”.
Ashutosh Pandey, a product of the public school system, has been a teacher in various state schools for the last 33 years and after taking the CM Rise exam is now headmaster for the primary school at Jahangirabad and whose own kids have studied at the Kendra Vidyalaya offers another insight into why the state has been beset with poor learning outcomes. “Goals of parents and by proxy their wards are very short term. Many parents send their children only to take advantage of the freebies the school system offers rather than focus on learning to lift themselves out of their situations”, he argues. But as the state develops, livelihoods improve and aspirations grow, this could and is likely to change.
Feet On The Ground: The Depth and Breadth of Change
In a state the length and breadth of MP, those sitting in Bhopal can make only so much difference. Cognizant of this and to make the effort effective and lasting, the state education department, which has 3.5 lakh staffers including teachers, has pulled in close to 30-35 NGO partners who are assisting and acting partly as its “feet on the ground”.
The academic support and monitoring unit for CM-RISE schools is being run by Delhi-headquartered NGO Peepul, which has a team of 50 staffers in MP while Delhi headquartered The Education Alliance (TEA) with a team of 11 members based full-time in Bhopal is leading the project monitoring unit of Mission Ankur (the foundational learning component of the reform). A clutch of NGOs including the Central Square Foundation, Room To Read India and Vikramshila Education Society are supporting TEA in this.
Bringing energy and vibrancy at the ground level will be 52 recently hired young NIPUN fellows, a majority of them girls, who have been placed one in each district to oversee Mission Ankur at the ground level for the next two years. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has partnered with the state and brought on board youngsters who are between 25 to 32 years old with varied experience across sectors but have now chosen to base themselves at pretty remote and rural locations across MP to gain ground experience.
Foundational learning or Mission Ankur is the focus of Vandana Sahu and her peers at the Jahangirabad school where she has divided the 36 students in her class into four categories: Tarun and Ankur 1, 2, and 3. 25 students (Tarun) are at grade level and 11 are in the other three categories. Ankur 3 has two students who still struggle to recognise letters and receive their maximum attention post the end of school hours.
But what is equally gratifying to see is how Sahu is bringing about a tiny behavioral revolution in her cohort by introducing the star of the month (students who are least absent, wear clean uniforms, and so on) and a monthly behavior tracker chart (to discourage physical fights, abusive talk and so on). Students are now vying to be top of these charts and parents - daily wage laborers, auto drivers, vegetable vendors - say that their children ask the parents in turn not to abuse at home. She argues that “children are like pots of clay and can be molded as we desire”.
Sahu’s own two children are products of the KVs in Bhopal and she herself taught at a rural school for ten years before clearing the statewide competitive exam to join the Jahangirabad CM-RISE school, a tour of which she takes this writer suffused with pride and joy, highlighting tiny details that most visitors would overlook like framed and displayed class photographs of students to give them a sense of identity and belonging. Three hours spent by this writer at the school were enough to glean that the reform effort runs far deeper than just a remarkable paint job.
The Goalposts: Getting There Versus Staying There
This whole mammoth exercise is aimed at a couple of main goals: one, to create 10,000-odd well-resourced, large public schools and 15,000-odd smaller ones with infrastructure and facilities akin to private options and as close to the new CM-RISE schools with the eventual aim of improving learning outcomes. And while the aim is to provide better quality access to all, Dhanraju points out that even districts like Alirajpur and Jhabua with some effort had started producing students who entered the IITs and the government medical colleges - in one year the figure went up to double digits - so there was no reason why MP government schools across districts can’t do the same over time.
The baseline surveys done by the state have given the authorities an idea of how much ground they need to cover to achieve foundational goals. From the present 25 percent who can read at grade level, the state is pushing to reach 40 percent within the first year itself and for numeracy to cross 50 percent (from 30-35% currently) and to gradually achieve 100 percent by 2026-27. Although government sources do not confirm this, the intention is to bring down the total number of schools to a more manageable number statewide, providing education as good if not better than the private counterparts.
Reaching near the goalpost and even scoring once is easier than keeping the ball consistently in your half: any football aficionado will tell you that. State after state in India has shown that education reforms are no different. Many governments or a clutch of driven bureaucrats start, lead, or drive a reform effort and the opposition or a clutch of lackadaisical babus often come and reverse the gains made.
Pandey, whose father, grandfather, and sister have all worked in MP’s sprawling education machinery, says that his state has experimented almost incessantly in a bid to improve education delivery and outcomes but with very limited success due to a variety of reasons including the lack of overall development of the state. This time, he feels, at least two things have been done right: a sharp lens on strengthening the foundation of students, and two, at least the CM-RISE schools have become welcoming, well-resourced spaces where all stakeholders feel like putting their best foot forward.
Nonetheless, the final deciding factor, he like Dhanraju argues, will be whether the teachers buy into the effort. “If the teacher’s mindset and attitude changes and goes beyond looking at their involvement as more than just a job, things can fundamentally improve”, he argues.
Post the chance meeting with this writer at his Jahangirabad school, he sends a series of photographs of the old school premises over WhatsApp to illustrate his point He remembers coming to this very school in the mornings and often finding broken locks, alcohol bottles, leftover food at the decrepit, run-down structure, routinely used as a night “haunt” for dubious activities by local hooligans. “My own mindset has seen a sea change as we have now seen what is possible if someone puts their mind to it”, he explains.
Amitav Virmani, the CEO of TEA, which is working actively on education reforms in five states including Tripura, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and Punjab besides MP currently, says that he finds in his experience that the tenets of the reform effort despite government changes - and MP is headed for elections later this year - remains largely unchanged even if there is a change in nomenclature. “That the structure of a foundation needs to be strong to sustain, no political dispensation will dispute.
So, at most CM-RISE or Mission Ankur may be renamed but the basic philosophy and attempt does not vary”, he finds. This gives him confidence that at least some of the efforts that are currently in progress will deliver results, regardless of which party is in power. Moreover, as an organization TEA hopes to work a minimum of ten years on every reform effort so that it can ensure that repeated cycles of reform establish a “new normal”.
Although it still has a very long way to go, other factors that offer hope for MP’s effort include a war-like zeal by those at the top of the reform pyramid (Shami, Dhanraju, and their teams), a slightly less politicized and more sincere teacher community when compared with states like Haryana and Uttar Pradesh attempting similar reforms and a lower level of cynicism in the system than one finds in metro cities like Delhi or even Mumbai.
Meanwhile, cynicism is the furthest thing on the minds of Pandey, Sahu, and others who at their Jahangirabad school, in the midst of a not-so-salubrious surrounding, find even the air is suffused with hope.
(Anjuli Bhargava is a senior writer and columnist based in Goa.)