The Implementation Gap

By December 24, 2015India

Ed Forrest, Educate for Life co-founder and CEO, writes about how to address some of the challenges of implementing goals set by the international community for improving access to and the quality of education for all.  The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) ignited the world of international development. Here was a simple list of eight goals the world could unite behind. The goals soon became highly quoted, a tradition from which I won’t err: MDG2 being to “achieve universal primary education” by 2015.

Come 2015, with the goal being missed by 124 million children, the MDGs were duly re-imagined as Sustainable Development Goals. The number of goals was increased to 17, the target year extended to 2030, and their aims augmented. The education goal is now to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all[GH1] ”.

This is an improvement. It acknowledges that education should be good, should include early childhood development and secondary education as well, and notes that education should promote “lifelong learning opportunities”.

However, without looking at how to translate all aspects of this aspirational goal into laws, and in turn how to implement these laws, nothing will change.

In India, the first step was taken on the 1 April 2010 with the introduction of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE).

Or was it? In 2001 the Education for All Movement (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan) was launched with the aim of complete enrolment and retention of 6-14 year olds by 2010. However, a 2009 review revealed an estimated 2.7 million children drop out each year.

…Previously, in 1992, the Programme of Action envisaged all children in school by the turn of the century…

Indeed, the roots of these goals to get every child into school in India goes back further – with the launch of Operation Blackboard nearly thirty years ago.

Today, despite these various warmly welcomed initiatives, seven million children remain out of school in India. A perceived decline in government school standards means that millions of children are being enrolled in fee-taking private schools. Goals have been successfully set but implementation has remained a challenge, and ultimately unsuccessful.

In the remote rural area where we work in Rajasthan, there is a big gap between rhetoric and reality. We have carried our spot checks on the local government schools and found them to be closed 50% of the time and teachers absent 75% of the time. Where hundreds of children would be listed on the school register, we failed to identify the majority of those children in the community and found actual attendance to average 12 children a day. Clearly, the RTE hasn’t reached this rural area.

And therein lies the problem. Goal setting is relatively easy, change and implementation less so. The issues are can be seen but their root causes require greater insight. The challenge doesn’t lie in agreeing that all children should go to school and learn well. The real issue lies in how to implement quality education in resource scare, remote, marginalised, and historically uneducated (read unschooled) areas of the country.

Focus on implementation, not goals

It is this challenge we have decided to focus on in one small corner of rural India. We’ve taken the enquiry- and research-based approach typical in business growth and applied it to trying to understand the education system problems in a marginalised rural area. Through a focussed effort in one community over the past eight years, we’ve aimed to understand where the challenges in implementation lie. We have then designed, trialled and implemented approaches to addressing each challenge in turn. Three challenges in particular stand out:

How to meaningfully engage communities through research and dialogue

Being based in research, we’ve listened first and acted second. The natural consequence of this, is that we consult with the community to understand from them where they see systems issues. By engaging with local communities as local experts, we’ve be able to address problems from their perspective. No longer are parents blamed for “not sending their children to school”: We’ve created a free school worth sending children to. The result? We’re rushing to keep up with demand for our services. We also have an active parental community at the school and a community-based School Management Committee.

How to support rural teachers

As well as working closely with the community, we’ve sought to empathise with the challenges that rural teachers face. This article [link] puts it more completely but in summary, society expects more from rural teachers that their training allows for, then they are blamed for the failure of school. What if teachers were better supported? What if they were seen as key team members in improving educational standards, valued rather than accused?

We’ve tried to to this at Hunar Ghar. We hire standard government school trained teachers, but continuously support their professional development. We’ve created a space for them to grow their skills and responsibilities in the belief that the most valued people bring the most value to any team.

How to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of first generation learners

A third area we have focussed on, is understanding how the curriculum can be best delivered to first generation learners. If you’re a child from an illiterate family and your education –as it tends to be with textbooks – is highly literacy dependent, your parents, your most important support network for successful learning, may be excluded from that process. It is a huge loss to families, and contributes to a sense of isolation and failure – both huge motivators for absenteeism, low learning levels, and ultimately early dropouts.

We teach the government curriculum, just as our entire system follows government regulations, but we do it in such a way that literacy is used as just one tool out of many to learn. Others include play- and project-based work, taking lessons into the community, and using the arts to interpret traditionally academic subjects. The result is learning-by-doing, and learning that is highly visible to the community (which uninterpretable glyphs in a book are not). This then increases the community’s confidence in our teaching processes, so further motivating their engagement with our school.

Our journey is ongoing, but thanks to our research-based approach we’ve been able to achieve some good success. We have doubled enrolment in the local area and we are achieving academic learning outcomes 20-30% higher than the rural state average.

Building on this success, we are continuing to understand how to improve the quality of education we provide at our school Hunar Ghar. We are keen to demonstrate how it is possible to implement quality education in a rural, resource poor area. We are documenting our learning and evidence base and intend to share our knowledge and experiences with others looking to implement quality education, the government and private sector alike.

We’d like to support rural government schools to achieve better outcomes for their pupils, staff and communities and we believe we have the evidence and experience to do this well. We hope that our success may act as inspiration to others desiring to change rural education for the better, and that the documentation we will create and share will enable others to turn goals into reality: To Implement.