An Integrated Scheme for School Education – One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back

The Ministry of Human Resource Development has announced that it is merging Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA/elementary education), Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA/secondary education) and the Teacher Education (TE) scheme into a single scheme called Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SMSA/”An Integrated Scheme for School Education”). As the draft has been made available on the official website, we have analysed it to give a first comment about the changes it entails. However, this should be read with caution as it is based on a draft from April 5 and the final version might have some changes or clarifications.

Implications For The Fundamental Right to Education

Taking a general look, many things remain the same. The Right to Education Act is still the legal basis for elementary education for children between 6-14 years and the concretisation of the fundamental Right to Education as under Article 21A. There has been no amendment to the act for including pre-primary or secondary education under its purview. Therefore, only education in classes I to VIII is an enforceable right and must be provided for free to all children.

The new scheme is meant to add flexibility to states to decide upon which sections (pre-primary, primary or (higher) secondary) they want to spend their funds on. Yet, the scheme provides several guidelines curtailing the freedom of the states. The fact that elementary education is a fundamental right has to be considered in this context. The RTE Act mandates a separate budget for the Act. So far, the MHRD had argued that as SSA is the vehicle for the implementation of the Act, a separate budget is not required. This has changed and thus it will have to be observed whether the MHRD provides a clear budget for the RTE Act which seems rather unlikely given the design and stated objective of the scheme.

The Overreliance On Technology And Measurement

The scheme emphasises the role of the “two Ts”, teachers and technology. This puts technology on par with teachers and thus illustrates a major policy shift which can be observed throughout the more than 200 pages long document. The focus on technology is a generic feature of what Pasi Salberg called Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and not specific to India. Multinational technology companies and the connected venture philanthropies have for long pushed aggressively for more technology reliance to “deliver learning outcomes” and “ensure efficiency”. A multi-billion dollar market has been established and more and more venture capital is put into this market segment. While there is little academic evidence suggesting that a heavy reliance on technology will increase learning outcomes or improve education in more general terms, the controllable deployment of IT-“solutions” is a popular offer to policymakers who have adopted the New Public Management ideology of “delivering education” rather than fostering the creation and debate of and about knowledge with a vision of democratic education.

In line with the above-mentioned reliance on technology is also the increased focus on observable outcomes and “performances” in the form of learning levels measured by standardized testing. Not only shall this inform policy, but fund distribution to states will depend on whether they improve their scores or not. This is a highly ill-informed policy decision that contradicts the idea of a fundamental right of quality education for all children and is based on a narrow and undemocratic definition of education. Teachers’ “performances” shall be “tracked” as well, probably based on the learning outcomes of their students. This negates the evidence that teachers have only a minor influence on students’ outcomes and it puts in place an extremely narrow definition of education and the work of a teacher. With such a measurement, those teachers who provide emotional support to children whose household is plagued with domestic violence or who work overtime to persuade parents to support their disabled daughter in her educational endeavors are not considered “high performing” while those who do not bother to care but teach for the standardized test are considered “high performing”. The assumption that business-like management and “performance tracking” makes sense in schools is outdated an ill-informed. To link payments to states on such arbitrary performance indicators is condemnable.

We would like to stress that this idea of tracking and performance-based fund allocation is deeply authoritarian and anti-democratic. Standardized testing diminishes schools to places where “knowledge” are “delivered” like commodities. The “success” of education is measured in a “banking education” fashion by testing how many of the “knowledge delivered” have been absorbed by the consumer (the student). This is in sharp contrast to democratic education which is not based on “knowledge delivery”, but knowledge creation. In democratic schools, knowledge creation is facilitated by the teacher as a public intellectual and not delivered by a staff member of the school. It is rather meaningless to know for instance names and dates of India’s independence struggle without giving meaning to this struggle and by building analogies to our present days. Yet, standardized testing is not allowing for flexibility and intellectual debate.

The Importance Of Free And Open Source Software In Classrooms

Positive aspects of the scheme are the streamlining of fund-flows and IT-based fund-tracking systems, an IT-based teacher posting system and the preference of opensource and free software, although the latter is not mandatory. We encourage the MHRD to make all software used in the administration and classroom mandatorily free and open source to ensure accountability, transparency and innovation. Our country has plenty of talented software engineers and programmers. We can easily become the world leader in educational software and be the champion of a new public good in the 21st century: IT-based learning programs. We do not have to depend on foreign, profit-oriented ‘solutions’ by multinational companies. The result of allowing for-profit, proprietary software was illustrated lately by the case of Pearson where they conducted experiments without student’s knowledge or consent.

The Bottom Line: What About The Money?

What is lacking is a clear plan and commitment to ensure that the minimum norms and standards that are laid down in the RTE Act are realised at the highest priority and in a time-bound manner. Here, little new things are suggested which makes it highly doubtful that the status quo of massive legal violations by governmental schools will be improved. We appeal to the MHRD to consider various orders by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India and to finally deliver these legally binding entitlements.

In this connection, it is crucial to point out that for the merged scheme for FY 2018-19, GoI has allocated for Bihar a total of 2954.78 crore. In contrast, for FY 2017-18, GoI had allocated Rs 2546.6 crore for elementary education in Bihar alone. The allocation of less than 3000 crores now is for pre-primary to higher secondary. The way that GoI arrived at this calculation is elaborated in a letter from 24. April. For instance, 30% are allocated based on NAS scores of class III, V, VIII and X (7.5% for each class). The exact formula is yet not known to us.

We would also have appreciated a penalty system for State governments if textbooks are delayed or infrastructure provision is neglected. Instead of punishing children by slashing State budgets, entitlements of ministers or bureaucrats such as car parks, allowances, ACs etc. should be considered to punish those responsible instead of punishing children who are victims of neglect by the political class.

Conclusion

To summarise our analysis, we see little serious attempts to compensate for the neglect of education since independence. The overreliance on IT and measurements might seem appealing, but has proven to be a wrong promise and is far from a panacea. The idea to link State funds with arbitrary and narrow ‘performance’ indicators is an ill-informed policy decision that should be reversed.

The silence of mainstream media and the lack of public debate around this policy change is yet another manifestation of the negligence of issues that matter to the bottom half of the socio-economic strata. This trend is worrisome.

What we have now with this scheme is a like a car. Whether we reach our goal will depend on the fuel and driver, that is budgetary commitments and political will. The route currently selected should also be optimised by avoiding the trap of standardised testing.

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