Can Connecting Schools to a ‘Smart Grid’ Help India Learn better?
Relieving govt teachers from administrative work is the first step towards reforming our education system. 
Relieving govt teachers from administrative work is the first step towards reforming our education system. (Photo: Erum Gour/The Quint)

Can Connecting Schools to a ‘Smart Grid’ Help India Learn better?

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) on India’s education system has once again highlighted the abysmally low learning levels in the country’s schools. The report suggests that India is creating yet another another generation that can hardly read and write – the only difference being that these children spent some years of their lives in schools.

Our schools, however, are often not places of learning. Not only is the infrastructure provision far from satisfactory (for both students and teachers), but the administrative support system is also not contributing to solving the crisis.

The answer to this crisis, however, must not be despair. Nor is privatisation a remedy. That is another insight from the ASER report. If one compares children from similar backgrounds, private schools in many States are not better than government schools.

Quality & Equity Go Hand in Hand

We, instead, propose a new education consensus. This consensus starts with stating a clear goal. We want all our children to share opportunities and to learn the skills required for the 21st century.

This means we need to tackle both, quality and equity. This is not a double burden. Both go hand in hand as the OECD has pointed out. It is much easier to improve the quality of education if one focuses simultaneously on equity.

For a beginning, we propose three measures as an underpinning for this new consensus.

  • Teachers must only teach: A study by the National Institute of Education Planning and Administration (NIEPA) revealed that teachers spend only around 19 percent of their time teaching while the rest is spent mostly on non-teaching administrative work. This must be stopped. Here is our proposal: employ young people, equip them with a tablet computer and let them be cluster administrators. One cluster of schools consists of around ten schools. The cluster administrators will overtake the administrative tasks and ensure that teachers and headmasters can focus on academic work. We believe that most teachers are good people. Yet, the system in which they are currently working is discouraging and demotivating. Overburdening with senseless reports and administrative workload impedes learning. At the same time, millions of qualified young people are seeking jobs. We can tackle both. It will increase the effectiveness of schools, improve learning, and contribute to a revival of an old and honorable profession – teaching. This will be highly cost-effective. To ensure equity across states and to avoid further burden on State budgets, the Central government should provide the entire funds required.

Go Digital, or Go home!

  • Create a single-window system for infrastructure and mainstream fund-flows: In Bihar, only around 10 percent of the schools fulfil infrastructure norms. A study revealed that files for renovating schools often go on a two-year journey through various departments. That is not acceptable in the 21st century. We can digitalise this process entirely and create a single-window system. The same can be applied for teacher salaries and school funds. These can be transferred directly from the State to the teachers and schools. There is no need to involve the District or Block in this process. In return, this will free the District and Block administration from the boring and unnecessary burden of moving files up and down the bureaucratic hierarchy. Instead, the BEOs and DEOs can focus on ensuring that all children go to school and that the schools function. The cluster administrators will feed their data into a central database. Whenever a BEO or DEO requires an information, she can access the database instead of bothering teachers.
  • Empower School Management Committees by using mobile phones: School Management Committees are largely dysfunctional. Many exist solely on paper. Parents are often not aware of their rights and if they are it is difficult for them to make their voice heard. Corruption and leakages plague the system, undermine its legitimacy and harm the many thousands of honest headmasters and teachers. This must end. We have developed a system that facilitates School Management Committee members by fostering democratic accountability. Social audits have proven to be effective. IT allows us to do this on large scale at low cost. Mobile phones are largely available even to illiterate parents. Text-to-Voice systems can be facilitated for large scale social audits.

Enabling, Empowering Parents at Every Step

“This is the government calling. We got the information that your child’s schools got a roof repaired for Rs. 10,000. Is this information correct? Press 1 for ‘yes’, 5 for ‘no’ and 9 for ‘do not know’. If you do not know yet, we will call you again in a week.” A government querying parents about their satisfaction and facilitating their participation in School Management Committee meetings will be a new experience for many parents.

“There will a meeting of the School Management Committee on next Thursday at 3 pm. We will call you again to remind you of the meeting. This meeting will decide about where the school funds of Rs. 25,000 will be invested. If you would like to learn more, press 3 to hear a tutorial on the role of School Management Committees. If you have a specific question or complaint, press 0 and we will connect you to our call center. You do not have to disclose your name.”

The data collected can help to detect corruption and leakage while giving voice to parents without relying on local middleman. Central call-centers connected to a state-level database can record and track complaints. This has worked in other contexts. It can also work for our schools. Of course, this does also require proper staffing, reorientation and reorganisation of the education bureaucracy at the Block and District level. Technology is a tool, not a panacea.

We believe that these three measures can be cornerstones of a new consensus. It will be welcomed by all honest actors – the clear majority of our teachers, headmasters, and bureaucrats are good people. This system will reward them by taking away the burden of stubborn tasks and allow them to focus on learning. It will give voice to parents who often experienced that State as unresponsive and hostile. And it will overhaul a rusty system that needs to be polished - polished to make India, and Bihar, shine. To make our children shine.

(Rakesh Kumar Rajak (@mannu_rakesh) is a master’s graduate in social work from the Delhi University and is the project manager at the Bihar Education Policy Center. Martin Haus (@MartinHaus93) is a master’s student at the London School of Economics and Political Science and an advisory board member at the Bihar Education Policy Center. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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