FROM POLICY TO IMPLEMENTATION
The Right to Education Act’s successful implementation lies in the hands of its foot-soldiers – education officials. Therefore, one needs to start paying more attention to the practices and norms that guide officials posted at different levels, and devise new ways to overcome systemic issues that prevent effective implementation of the Act’s provisions.
Introduction – The need to reassess priorities
Discussions on education in India are always impassioned and often meandering. Impassioned because issues plaguing the education systemi are so acute. Meandering because of the sheer magnitude and interconnected nature of these problems. Numerous policies and programmes, with varying degrees of success, have been implemented over the decades to improve upon different indicators including infrastructure, teacher recruitments, student enrolment, attendance and retention. The thrust created by the Right to Education Act (2009) (RTE Act) has undoubtedly expedited these developments. We have reached a stage where we are increasingly focusing on the intangibles, such as the quality of teaching-learning taking place inside schools, students’ actual learning-levels, and holistic assessments of both teachers and students, through continuous evaluations. This is a tectonic shift for a system that has traditionally associated good education with high memory power and test-scores.
i ‘Education system’ in this context includes public schools, bureaucracies catering to these schools, and the range of actors involved in this field including teachers, students, other education officials and non-education officials who are connected with the field in some form, working towards common education-centric goals . This conception also takes into account the work practices of these actors, and the inter-personal dynamic they share which contributes to the creation of a work environment.
There is, however, one area that continues to remain in the periphery of these discussions – the education bureaucracy itself. Implementation failures are frequently linked with capacity deficits and weak management processes; yet these endemic and chronic problems continue to be the most neglected ones. The standard measures that any state government applies to address these institutional issues are to increase training of frontline officials, and enhance monitoring. There is evidence to support the statement that these measures are not working effectively to increase the capacities of employees. Other than these steps, there appears to be a complete lack of imagination and interest within the system towards rectifying institutional issues. This is problematic because the original inheritors of the RTE Act’s legacy are not students, but education officials. For these officials are the ones responsible for giving form to government policies including those espoused under the RTE Act. To continue ignoring institutional issues means irrespective of the Act’s provisions, implementation will continue to fall short of expectations.
The spirit of RTE vis-à-vis the education bureaucracy
The RTE Act (2009) was introduced with the aim to universalize elementary education. Through this Act, the State has been made fully responsible for making sure children between the ages of 6-14 get a free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school, till completion of elementary education. A number of provisions in the act point to the fact that the Act supports a decentralized view of education.
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Under the Act, appropriate governmentsi and local authoritiesii are required to “establish a school, if it is not established, within the given area in a period of three years from the commencement of this Act.” This is being done with a view to enhance ease of school accessibility to all children.iii A School Management Committee (SMC) is to be compulsorily constituted in all schools, with parents or guardians of the students forming three-fourth of its members.ivThe mandate of the SMC is to monitor the working of the school; prepare and recommend the annual school development plan; and to monitor the utilization of grants received by the school. Granting planning and monitoring powers to a grassroots body such as the SMC is a clear indicator of the State’s commitment to the ideals of decentralized governance. To further support their smooth functioning, the Act also empowers local authorities to “give guidelines or instructions to the SMC to take necessary steps to ensure that the Act’s provisions are implemented.”
The rationale behind decentralising education is the same for why we have sub-national governments in India – for ease of administration, since states and even districts tend to be vast; and to increase accessibility to good educational facilities which would otherwise be out of reach for many. Moreover, a good way to sustain programmes is to create a sense of ownership in those previously viewed as passive recipients, by decentralizing powers and diffusing accountability to levels at which activities are being performed.
The choice to follow the decentralisation route came as no surprise since the Act was formulated in the backdrop of programmes working towards embedding the idea. The concept of the SMC builds on its predecessor, Village Education Committees (VECs) – a village level body with the mandate to manage the school’s affairs, envisioned under the National Policy on Education (1986) (NPE).
The District Primary Education Project (DPEP) (1994-2005) and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) (2001-ongoing) proved to be a significant influences on the Act’s formulation. Prior to the launch of DPEP, the lowest education administration unit above the school was the Block Education Department, headed by the Block Education Officer. Overseeing activities of all schools falling under a block by one or two individuals was not only near impossible but the BEO also tended to focus more on administrative matters, whereas centres of learning also required support that was pedagogic in nature. DPEP and SSA (2001) - the Central Government’s flagship mission for universalizing elementary education were instrumental in creating a decentralized administrative structure to expand access to students, and provide better administrative and academic support to schools. By introducing a new level of administration below the block called the ‘clusteri,’ creating block resource centres at the block level which included the Block Resource Persons (BRPs) whose main task is to provide academic support to cluster coordinators and teachers, and institutionalizing SMCs, the education system moved towards a new era of decentralized education which was in sync with the values espoused under the NPE.
i An average cluster comprises of anywhere between 5 schools (example, Himachal Pradesh) to 20 schools (example, Bihar), depending on the state. The Cluster Resource Centre Coordinator’s (CRCC) office is in the cluster school which acts as the headquarters for the schools under her. CRCCs play the crucial role of linking block offices with schools under them since CRCCs are required to frequent schools, pass messages of the block and above to schools and vice versa; provide hands on academic support to teachers, including assessing their training requirements; develop pedagogic resources; and also collect, collate and transmit administrative data to the block.
What has been the impact of these new policies and institutional arrangements on the workers in the system? Unfortunately there is not a lot of research in this area – specifically gauging the perceptions of bureaucrats at different levels towards education policies and the system itself.
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But for the evidence that is out there, one point appears to be infinitely clear: Top-down policy enforcement and institutional expansion doesn’t automatically imply behavioral and attitudinal change. Based on the existing studies,i one can glean some of the predominant features of the primary education system which are as follows:
“Post-office syndrome” – Officials at all levels of the education bureaucracy, from the senior-most education official at the district i.e. the District Education Officer (DEO) to the Cluster Resource Centre Coordinator (CRCC), report a general feeling of disempowerment. They feel like “post-offices” – individuals who are perpetually caught up in paperwork, transmitting messages, formats and records up and down the bureaucratic chain. This drains their productive energy, and they end up focusing more on form-filling or record-keeping than on more substantive teaching-learning centric activities.
Paperwork precedes everything – Linked with the previous point is the fact that paperwork appears to dominate an education official’s priority lists. This is more worrying in the cases of BRPs and CRCCs whose primary task is to focus on pedagogic activities over everything else. Officials report that in the education bureaucracy, paperwork is the only thing that is systematically reviewed. It is also easier to manage than measuring the quality of a teacher’s classroom inputs, her training requirements, and assessing students’ learning levels.
Lax and erratic monitoring – There are set areas which are systematically monitored. These include Mid-Day Meal related details, student-teacher attendance, and expenditure details. The focus on learning-level assessment is sporadic, and the quality of the same is seriously lacking. This is often attributed to a lack of interest from the seniors’ end or a lack in capacity to carry out effective assessments. The idea of mentorship is new and not fully understood; innovative thinking and creating resources require a level of engagement that stretches officials’ to an extent that they are not used to.
Hierarchy rules – Officials respond to each other based on the level of their seniority. Work prioritization depends on who assigns them tasks. If a District Project Officer (district level official with the SSA unit) requires a CRCC to prepare and submit a report on enrolments in schools in her jurisdiction, the CRCC will almost certainly put her own plans on hold to tend to the DPO’s needs, without question. Creating individual work plans such as the ones BRPs and CRCCs are required to prepare every month are thus a sham in many ways since field level officials report such unplanned diversions are common.
Policy makers vs. policy implementors –There is a tacit understanding that preparation of plans and policies falls in the domain of the higher levels of the bureaucracy – district education offices and/or the state education department (often only the latter). While implementation is the turf of the frontline officials – those in and below the block education office. It is assumed “capacity deficits” most often lie with the frontline officials – those below the level of the district or more commonly, those below the block office. So while CRCCs, teachers and Headmasters (HMs) are subjected to many trainings, senior officials usually only receive “orientations.” This patronizing view – that the frontline officials require all the capacity development is linked with the previous point on hierarchy.
Resistance to change – The bureaucracy, in general, is not a flexible body. The rationale being that in a bureaucracy as large as the one in question, it is very hard to coordinate and manage the activities of so many individuals. So the system continuously veers towards upholding those practices that keep this organism going. In other words, maintaining the status quo is an understated goal in itself.i So for senior officials who have seen policies, programmes come and go, new ideas are something to weather rather than to get affected by.
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These resilient features of the education bureaucracy are in clear contradiction with the policies it is required to promote. In other words, while the government has in some ways restructured and expanded the bureaucracy to harmonise its functioning with the policies under RTE, its practices have remained largely unchanged.
Instances of policy alienation
Imagine the dilemma of the official who is required to do wonderful things like encourage innovative thinking in students and teachers to resolve problems or implant practices of participatory decision-making through SMCs. But on the other hand, her own functioning is dictated by orders of anyone superior to her by virtue of their designation, and that she is required to ultimately uphold the status quo. This is akin to asking a bird to fly with its wings tied to its back. The following quote from a CRCC from Bihar perfectly sums up this sentiment:
“Why does the government create this drama of decentralisation when it is directly giving us the responsibility of handling everything?”
Studies set in India that are dedicated to assess the impact of this disjoint between policy and practice and how this might be affecting worker motivation and outputs, are negligible.ii It might also be worth exploring the impact of tried and tested ways to build capacities and internalize new policies and programmes i.e. through trainings and monitoring, because de facto they do not appear to be yielding the kind of results that were expected. At this point, I can elaborate upon my argument on this disjoint between policies espoused under RTE and their practice by citing some scenes from the field that my colleagues and I at Accountability Initiative frequently witness working in states including Bihar, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya
Pradesh and Maharashtra. This is not to generalize how all officials across the board are implementing policies in the field. The attempt is to illustrate some of the ways officials interpret and how they occasionally bend rules in the face of their personal disconnect with government policies.
On no-detention and ending corporal punishment: ‘No-detention’ policy and the ban on corporal punishment are some of the most resisted policies in the field.i Most officials whom I’ve met, including senior HMs, CRCCs and block officials argue that the fear of exams and corporal punishment is crucial to get students interested in their studies. Ever since these policies were implemented, not only has interest levels in students gone down, senior officials feel that this has depleted teachers’ motivation to teach. This is because they know students will be passed on to the next grade regardless of the knowledge acquired by them in class. In some states, districts have started organizing school-wide tests called “board exams” for students in grades as low as fifth. The dread of exams conducted by State or Central Education Boards is ubiquitous in the country. Leveraging this fear by calling these tests “board exams” is the officials’ way to instill a sense of seriousness in students towards their studies.
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i Section 16 of the RTE Act (2009) states that no child shall be held back in any class or expelled from school till completion of elementary education. Section 17 states that no child shall be subjected to physical or mental harassment. Those who breach this rule will be subjected to disciplinary action (Section 17, sub-section 2).
The “no corporal punishment policy” is also openly flouted, as we have observed time and again in different states. Many teachers do not approve of the policy but abide by it as it’s dictated by law. But there is a fair share of teachers who are unafraid to wield the stick to discipline students into paying attention to their lessons. The maxim, ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ is ingrained too deeply in the Indian psyche. It might take decades to bring about a change in behaviour and eventually mindsets in this respect. To point out that little to no disciplinary action is taken against the erring teachers is not very helpful since school level monitoring by block and senior officials is too sporadic for schools teachers to feel the impact.
On SMCs: While Section 21 mandates the creation of SMCs in almost all schools, the reality of their functioning is far from ideal. Most schools have SMCs but their meetings are usually one-off or exist on paper alone. As was mentioned earlier, a SMC is primarily required to monitor the utilization of grants received by a school; monitor the school in general; and prepare annual school development plans (SDPs). In practice most SDPs are made either by the HM or the CRCC or the HM in cohort with the ward member who is also a member of the SMC.i The gap between the idea behind creation of SMCs (which was to create locally relevant plans by taking different voices and views into account) and the realization of this idea appears to be preposterously vast. Moreover, what follows once SDPs are prepared and submitted is anybody’s guess in the field. Several misconceptions about the roles and responsibilities of SMC members persists across states. For instance,a number of SMC members from a particular state with whom I once interacted, were convinced that they were supposed to get salaries in return for their “participation” in the Committee which is supposed to be essentially a body of volunteers.
Teachers, HMs, CRCCs and other education officials generally have a negative view of SMCs. The dynamic between the key actors in the school – parents, SMC members, teachers and educational officials – tends to have the quality of a stand-off rather than one of cooperation. Teachers in turn feel they are often antagonized by parents for a variety of reasons. Teachers
iAccountability Initiative’s national survey, called PAISA, which tracks plans, budgets and fund flows in elementary education points out the fact that in 2014 while 94% of the 15,206 surveyed schools had SMCs, 61% of these schools had prepared SDPs the previous year.
claim parents frequently level allegations of corruption, absenteeism on them and this creates more friction between the actors.
On teachers taking up additional assignments: Section 27 of the RTE Act bars teachers from being deployed for non-educational purposes, other than census, disaster relief and election related duties. It does not specify the duration for which they can be deputed since one cannot pre-determine the time one might be required to spend on these activities. But the Act also spells out that schools must function for 200 days in an academic year. In the field this dilemma ends up looking something like this – HMs, CRCCs are constantly struggling to meet the demands of the schools; they feel their hands are tied because once the teachers are deputed, commonly for election duties since local elections are far more frequent, they start reporting to the Block Development Officer. HMs and CRCCs complain they are unable to figure out the number of days or weeks or sometimes even months the deputed teachers are going to be out of their schools. Teachers could also potentially use this as an excuse, saying they have meetings or trainings to attend that are connected to their additional duty, and remain out of school.
Under Section 28, teachers are barred from teaching in the capacity of private tutors. This provision is being openly flouted across states. There appears to be no check into the matter. One also finds instances where teachers of government schools teach the same set of students before or after school, as private tutors, charging them as they please. This phenomenon appears to be more common among contractual teachers whose salary is significantly lower than those recruited through state education boards. Teachers report that owing to their low salary and the fact that salaries frequently reach late, sometimes as late as six months in some places, they are compelled to take up tutoring.
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Reimagining solutions to bridge policy implementation gaps
Sections 35 to 38 of the RTE Act empower the “appropriate Government” and “local authorities” to pursue activities, as they deem fit, to implement the provisions of the Act. But the everyday practices of the bureaucracy, as I’ve briefly illustrated in the previous section, are contrary to the principles being advocated through the Act. This is not to say institutional spaces for deliberating new ideas or raising concerns do not exist. For instance, officials at all levels, from teachers, HMs, CRCCs, BRPs, BEOs and even DEOs technically have the freedom to raise issues in their monthly or bi-monthly meetings with their seniors. But “discussions” in these meetings are usually one-sided, and participants are essentially viewed as passive recipients of information transmitted by the Chair of the meeting.
How should the bureaucracy be activated to fulfill the mandate of the RTE Act? Two ways by which the state repeatedly attempts to bridge implementation gaps is through more trainings and more monitoring. Findings from a yet to be published study on select cluster coordinators from 5 states reveals that most frontline officials attend training sessions out of compulsion rather than a desire to learn new skills. Often these “trainings” end up more like orientations. It has also been observed that lessons learnt in these sessions are not actively applied once officials return to the field. There also appears to be no follow up on the things they learnt, which only makes the officials more complacent. Moreover, “monitoring,” as it takes place in the field is rather superficial and sporadic. When they do visit schools, block and cluster officials usually
look at few set things, including student-teacher attendance, student enrolment figures, and MDM related figures. The more substantive parts of teaching-learning, for instance, spending some time to observe the teacher teach and give them feedback, is most often given a miss. The inference to be drawn from this is that trainings and monitoring per se are not ineffective to bring about positive change. It’s the way these are conducted that is problematic. Quality and not quantity is what ultimately makes the difference – this must be repeatedly emphasized in the present context.
How to build up quality in a jaded system then becomes the million dollar question. Perhaps the answers lie with those who are actively involved in the front-line. In that case, what would it take for the upper echelons of the bureaucracy to truly listen to its own?
In scenarios where important factors such as leadership and sound programmes are transient, the permanence of the bureaucracy (especially the lower and mid-level bureaucracy) is what keeps the education system grounded and going. Thus to continue ignoring the experiential wisdom of those deemed unfit to affect policy and the course of implementation will only go on to reinforce gaps between plans and their execution. The biggest challenge, however, is to come up with ways to inject new life into the bureaucracy so that practices start to reasonably match up to what is being preached. All while being mindful of the fact that the usual ways of conducting more trainings, and more monitoring will only continue drainingmore resources as well as faith from the education system.
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*Vincy is a research associate at the Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. She works mainly on governance, bureaucracy and education.