Mumbai: The children, in blue and white uniforms, sit in groups of six, with their desks arranged in circles. They compare the sheets they hold and amid whispers and giggles, they tick off the right answers with pencils. This is how the students of Class 1 at the Hutatma Prabhakar Keluskar (HPK) Urdu Medium School 2 in Kurla answer their evaluation questions.
“They are not scared of exams anymore,” says the headmistress Chand Sultana with a smile. This is the method that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is betting on to improve the standard of learning and teaching in its 1,400 schools in Mumbai - an initiative that is the first of its kind in more ways than one.
This is the first instance of a municipal authority taking up an initiative to improve learning levels in its schools, with interventions at various levels. It is also the first time that a municipal authority, UNICEF, McKinsey & Company and a range of not-for-profit and for-profit organisations are pooling in their funds, resources, skills and infrastructure to implement a programme of this nature.
Education is a complex subject and the government is the largest service provider in the sector. If these methods meet with success in Mumbai’s municipal schools, they can be replicated in other government and private schools, across different languages of instruction. This can prove to be the means to raise learning standards that have been blunted by years of rote learning and ineffective teaching methods.
“Legislations like the Right to Education focus on infrastructure and enrolment. They don’t focus on the standard of education,” says Ashish Kumar Singh, secretary to the chief minister of Maharashtra. Singh was the person who spearheaded the School Excellence Programme in BMC schools during his tenure as assistant municipal commissioner between September 2009 and November 2010. “This programme is about improving what happens within the four walls of a classroom, rather than simply building more of those four walls.”
Given the bureaucracy within the municipal education system in Mumbai, this is a very ambitious attempt to get all the moving parts in sync and work together.
Tejinder Sadhu, the UNICEF head for Maharashtra says that the challenge is not to provide funds for the programme, but to ensure that the system is strengthened from within. He adds that in India, this is the largest urban programme that the UNICEF is involved with.
Locating the Problem
To start with, it is important to understand the reason why the quality of teaching is so bad in the first place. “It would be wrong if I say that the state of the BMC schools was pitiable and that nothing worked. On the contrary, there were some good things happening in these schools when I visited them,” says Singh. “It seemed that what the teachers were waiting for was guidance and encouragement.”
There were decent classrooms, but there was no proper monitoring system. Also, if a few schools were doing well, there was no way in which their methods could be scaled up to include a larger number of schools.
“When we conducted our baseline assessment in primary and upper primary classes in October, we found that rote learning among children was the reason they lacked a better understanding of very fundamental concepts,” says Sandeep Saha, vice president, strategic relationships, at Education Initiatives, an organisation that has been given the task of conducting baseline assessments to understand the students’ current level of learning. “There was also a high drop-out rate among 10 and 11-year-olds.”
Saha says that simply providing free or subsidised education - as the government aims to do through the Right to Education and schemes such as the Mid-day Meal - are not enough to keep bringing the kids back to school. The quality of education has to go hand-in-hand with access to it.
The way teachers are trained is also a factor contributing to the state of government education. “Their training is very generic and they have a mandate to complete a syllabus. There has been no focus on the needs of teachers and their perceptions,” says Saha.