Archive for May, 2011

The Story of the Water Pump

May 30, 2011

It was more than a decade back – in my previous work place – that I came across the real facade of our Planning Process in first person. It was an unforgettable experience that has lessons for what we are doing today in the field of education.

We were told to go ahead and install a solar photovoltaic system in a remote tribal village in Tamilnadu; it was a project conceived and funded by the erstwhile Ministry for Non-conventional Energy Sources. The purpose was very noble; someone felt sad that the poor villagers had to draw water from a well manually and wanted to relieve them of this burden.

The village chosen was a tribal hamlet situated in the Kollimalai hill range and accessible only through a 7 km long narrow pathway up the hill from the nearest road. The well was an open one with water at around 30 feet most of the year. Digging that well was the best thing that the State did for the people of that area; it was in fact shared by many other hamlets in that area since they did not have their own wells. Apparently the generosity of the State had dried up by the time they dug this one. The villagers were happy drawing water from it with the traditional pulley and rope system; the women in the village were more than equal to this task. It is here that someone scented the possibility of new ‘business prospects’ and came up with a scheme to provide a concrete water tank and a diesel pump to the village. The Headman of the village was even provided with a monthly allowance for buying diesel to keep the pump going. We were informed that they had a gala function for the inauguration of the pump set; this was a few months before we arrived on the scene.

The first problem surfaced within a week: who will go and get the diesel from the nearest town? It was a 14 km trek with a head load, not counting the bus ride. Apparently no one had thought about it; with some coercion at periodic intervals the Headman was able to get this thankless job done by some of the villagers, taking turns.  However he soon ran out of ‘volunteers’ and the scheme came to a dead end. The news trickled up the bureaucratic hierarchy. Soon it reached the top guy who could not allow this to last for long since  it was not just an isolated village where this was happening ; there were quite a few in which the State had bestowed this favor. A meeting took place at the Capital where all the concerned Departments were called in to discuss and find a solution. One of the bright guys responsible for popularizing renewable energy systems came up with the idea that the Government could provide Solar Powered pumps in the place of the diesel run ones. The tank could be used as it is but the pump had to be changed to take the Photovoltaic Power system.  This will however eliminate the need for the fuel and hence no trudging. He pointed out significantly that the budget for the year for deployment of renewable energy systems has been underutilized and this will get two birds with a single stone.

The State machinery whirred into action; the project for installing and commissioning the solar powered pump was cleared with unusual speed and awarded to us. The necessary work in the factory premises was completed and the commissioning was due when I came to know about this project. To the surprise of the team that normally deals with such field work, I offered to join them on this trip; and to my surprise the Executive Engineer of the Electricity Board in the Salem zone also wanted to accompany us.

It was an uneventful trip to the foothills; the trek uphill was thoroughly enjoyable with the weather helping in. The Village Headman was totally taken aback by this invasion from the officialdom; later he told us that no one from the Government had ever visited his village during the last decade or two- not even the ‘lowly’ Revenue Inspector. We explained to him the salient features of our Project and how, with the press of a button, they will all be getting water on tap soon. He was very courteous to us – to the extent of getting us coconut water and enquiring about our physical condition after the ‘arduous’ walk up the hill; but on the project itself, he appeared surprisingly disinterested. It took some real coaxing from us – and a promise that this will not be held against him – before the real issues started tumbling out.

He took us to the water tank and showed us how filthy it was lined with scum and moss; he asked us how the State expects him to keep it clean when you have the all pervasive “why me, let Jack do it” syndrome at work. No provision has been made to maintain the system. Then he showed us the well, the water level was just about 30 feet below; the women of the village can easily draw all the water they want in minutes with a rope and a bucket. Finally he asked us the key question: why are you dumping on us all this stuff that we never wanted? He knew it would have cost a packet of money; then he delivered the punch line: if you had consulted us, we would have told you that we will all be better off if you had used the funds to dig a few more wells so that people from other hamlets will not have to walk miles to fetch water.

We knew then that all the hardware we had just installed would not last even a few days. The Electricity Board Engineer sadly acknowledged that all these schemes had little to do with the ‘beneficiaries’; they are being implemented just to meet certain targets set elsewhere, by people who have  no touch with ground realities.

That in short is the state of our planning process; we see it in the field of Education too. After decades of independence, taking people into confidence on issues that affect their lives seems to be still a far cry. All the legislation that you need for this is already there on the statute book; what is needed is the will to implement them. Who knows, we may get it one of these days. I am an eternal optimist.

E S Ramamurthy

 

 

 

 

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The Unsung Hero(ine)s of Kalghatgi

May 23, 2011

It was just a routine visit for me to Kalghatgi to get a feel of the High Schools that we will be covering from June; but it turned out to be an eye opener for me in many respects. The school that I visited was Bammighatti, a remote village in the midst of nowhere far from Hubli. The summer camp was going on for the current IX Std kids.  I asked them about the SSLC results of last year; they said it was 92.80; I was surprised at this high score since the school was a random choice. I asked our Mentor about the strength in this school; I was told heard that 120 kids attended the examinations and 111 had passed. It was extremely unusual for such large schools to score high averages.  I thought that I might have stumbled on an extraordinarily good school by accident or design at the hands of our Mentor. I asked about the average score of the High Schools in the Taluk; it was 89.8, higher than the highest any District has scored in the entire State. The lowest school in this school zone had scored 77%, which was higher than the average in the State. Three of the 15 schools had scored a perfect 100. More surprise was in store for me; the highest individual score in this school was from a girl at 96.20%!! The next two kids had scored 94 and 93 in the general category; not to be outdone, the topper in the SC / ST group had scored 90!!!

I was accustomed to the Bangalore City scene where schools, many from the premium category, were routinely announcing in the media scores of 92 as major achievement with photos of the schools and the students thrown in. Even among the public schools, there was a Press release last week in which the City Corporation had announced with pride that they had got 52% pass rate this year, up from the 40’s; they even mentioned the few toppers who had scored above 85% . I am aware that most of the latter get special attention and support from the State as well as the Voluntary Sector, just because they happen to be located in the City. The difference in the yardsticks adopted for measuring success in these two cases is glaring; it does hurt the kids in places like Kalghatgi.

The issue that I wanted to raise is however not this; if one cares to look at the Kalghatgi scene closely, a powerful fact stares at us in the face. There are only two private schools in the entire Taluk accounting for just 100 kids out of a total of 1800. It means that a far higher percentage of the so- called good kids end up in a Public School in this Taluk, than in any other area. It is obvious that this ‘de- segregation’ in effect has done a world of good to all – the kids, the schools and the community.

The current ‘in-thing’ among the academics and the policy makers is to project choice for the parents as the ultimate solution for all the ills of the Educational Sector. Going against the tide, I would like to make a case for a good Common School System. If implemented properly in ‘letter and spirit’, it could be a far better and more equitable option for the country. Till now, I thought I would have to take examples from other exotic places to prove the point. Kalghatgi has proved that one exists right there in our backyard.

PS: Kalghatgi does not want to rest on its laurels; it wants to join the Sikshana family to take the performance a notch higher. For me, this is even more amazing.

E S Ramamurthy

Amazing success story of Sikshana High schools

May 14, 2011
Flash Results
Sikshana was implemented in 24 of the 34 Government High schools of Kanakapura Taluk. A comparison is given below on the performance of our schools against those in other streams. This shows we are coming out on top on all counts.
Schools with 100 % Pass: Sikshana: 3 (out of 24)/ Private: 3 (out of 17)    (Pl See Note * below). Some of the Government schools have one or two kids with serious issues such as migratory parents (leading to loss of attendance), socio-economic problems and learning disabilities( which qualify them for special schools but invariably rejected by the parents). If these students are accounted for, eight schools should be deemed to have acquired 100% pass rate, a phenomenal success by any standards. .
Schools over 90%: 11 out of 24 under Sikshana outscoring clearly private schools which had only 6 out of 17
Lowest score under Sikshana: 73%/  Private: 59 %. A scatter diagram will show the lead better.

Performance of the schools in different streams:

        Type of Schools
Number
Students
Passed
Failed
% Pass
Pass  Range
Govt Sikshana
24
1166
1015
151
87.5
73.5 – 100
Govt Non-Sikshana
10
784
498
286
63.5
40 – 80.2
Aided
12
1714
1225
489
71.5
54.5 – 86.7
Private
17
838
715
123
85.3
59.6 – 100
 A more detailed study along with the processes deployed follows separately.
Note *
A comparison between Government and private schools should take into account the following:
·         Admission to Govt schools cannot be denied to anyone, while private schools have and use the option of choosing their students. A study of the profiles of the parents under both streams will show a distinct difference, to the advantage of the latter.
·          Students are not detained either at 9th or in 10th from writing the final exams in Govt schools, except of prolonged absence. Private schools use the option of detention/ transfers based on poor academic performance to improve their final scores. In fact, schools under Sikshana routinely take in students at 10th who have been forcibly evicted from private schools with a transfer certificate.

·          It is not possible to enforce in Government schools many of the disciplinary measures routinely adopted in the private ones- for the simple reason that the State is keen and also obliged to keep the kids in school under all circumstances.

Milestone for Sikshana – A Sequel

May 12, 2011

 A Sequel at GGM School, Kanakapura

In one of the blogs earlier, I went through the process of obtaining ‘unbelievable’ levels of improvement from the students in terms of the basic skills. This was from a large number of schools across different clusters giving it acceptable statistical validity. Notwithstanding this, we were having problems in getting comparable results from a few schools with a specific profile; these were the ones located in relatively larger towns and having student strengths in excess of 60 in a single class room. We were almost about to conclude that we may have to adopt here a strategy different from the one that  worked in smaller schools in villages.

In order to understand the factors that made such a big difference, we focused on one such school – GGMS, Kanakapura in which there were 73 students in 7thStd. When we carried out the ASER based assessment in this school during July 10, 51 of them were unable to read Kannada fluently and 63 to carry out division of simple numbers in Arithmetic.

GGMS Kanakapura

These were unacceptably high numbers compared to our other schools in the cluster and way below the State averages. The program as implemented in other schools was tried out here too but the numbers failed to register any significant improvement. The numbers in this school by the end of Jan 11 after six months of the program stayed at 38 and 39 respectively, showing no significant improvement.

I thought it is time I visited this school and had a chat with the teachers and the students- which I did in the first week of Feb 11. I found the class to be very lively and responsive; on a first look the kids appeared to be quite bright, capable of doing anything given to them well in real life as long as it does not call for these specific ‘academic’ skills. Interaction with the teachers showed that the school had surplus staff; so shortage of manpower cannot be the reason either for the poor outcome seen. It struck me that this availability of teachers beyond the optimal level could even be the cause of the problem, instead of being an advantage. It did emerge slowly that I was not far off the mark; no single teacher felt that he/ she is accountable for the performance or the lack of it in the case of individual students. The two typical syndromes- “Let Jack do it” and “Why Me” – seemed to be working here.

To break the gridlock, I had a frank chat with the students; I told them bluntly the facts as they are: that they would soon be entering a High School without the basic skills needed to handle the class room work, that no one will bother to fill up their shortfalls once they leave the primary school, that most others in their age group are far ahead of them in terms of learning levels and that includes kids in ‘hallis’ ( villages) – something about which they ought to be ashamed. I told them that they are all intelligent enough to perform far better but have just not bothered to put in the minimum effort needed; and that if they dont pull themselves up soon enough they will regret it for their lives. Lastly, I pointed out to them that they have just eight weeks to make good their shortfalls and that we are willing to give all the help that is required by them to meet the deadline. The response was electric; unanimously the kids said – give us a dedicated teacher, we will put in extra hours and show that we too can do it – in four weeks! They also promised that they will also help out each other in the process of learning.

Back in the HM’s room, we worked out the logistics and went on to organize the classes, not just for the lagging students but the entire group, having in mind the above promise of mutual co-operation. The classes started by the second week of Feb 11 with near 100% attendance and unmatched enthusiasm.

By the time the term came to an end in March, the number of students who could not reach the ASER benchmark for Reading and Arithmetic dropped down to 4; this was amazing by any standard. This compliance level at 95% is on par with other schools if not a shade better.

We could learn a few lessons from this experiment:

The specified ASER skill standards are attainable in two months under normal circumstances in any cluster of schools.

We have not been doing enough to tap the ‘student power’; given a challenge they can be expected to rise up to the occasion.

A dedicated teacher and a bunch of kids who are motivated to face a challenge is all that is required.

How does one bring about the conditions shown as pre- requisites under the last Para is a question I would like to leave unanswered for the present. We need more data before definite conclusions can be drawn on this count. Analysis apart, we know for sure now that it works!  That the pilot in GGMS was not just a flash in the pan was further proved by a similar feedback from a second school where the same approach was initiated a month later; results from this school are just coming in.

We now have in our radar the above five schools and we plan to sort out their problems based on this experience during the first quarter of the ensuing academic year.

E S Ramamurthy

Milestone for Sikshana – A Prologue

May 12, 2011
What Makes Us Tick

Human beings are the same everywhere; if you want to get something done by them, you need to know what makes them tick. It is a simple fact of life but most of us miss it often enough. The poor performance seen in the Public Education System (PES) is one such instance.
I was routinely checking the outcome in terms of the learning levels in some of our award winning schools last year.

Hulibele- Where it started

These are schools that were having amazingly good  track records in terms of overall scores under conventional assessments. It struck me as odd that even in such schools there were a significant number of kids, who lacked basic skills – in this case inability to divide numbers in Arithmetic. I found that this was as high as 25% in the Fourth Grade, something unacceptable to me in the School which I was in. I asked the teacher in charge who was a competent person why this should be so; she said that her school will make it up in the next few years before the kids left for the High School. I had a hunch that this may not be borne out by facts; hence I walked into the Seventh Grade to check it out. To my amazement, I found the ratio of kids who lacked this skill was more or less the same in this class too. The teacher here was an equally good one; her initial reaction was that this is due to the influx of kids from single teacher feeder schools at the Sixth Grade.  When we started analyzing the profile of the ‘failing’ kids, to her surprise we found that the ratio was the same in both groups.

I sat down for a chat with the staff of the school. Soon it emerged that most  kids who do not acquire a skill at the Grade when it is due get left out thereafter and stay in the same situation till Tenth where they face failure in the examinations and detention. This is in spite of the fact that the Department has instituted a system of remedial education for students who do not acquire the prescribed skills during the academic year. For reasons I will not want to go into at this point, this scheme seems to be a non-starter in most schools. The remediation that ought to occur in the next year does not take place either because the teacher in this class is busy covering the needs of the syllabus of that year, rather than go back to filling up the gaps arising from the previous one. The more I talked to them , the more I realized that the issue is pretty simple : the teacher considers that her/his primary responsibility is to complete the requirements of the syllabus, rather than teaching a skill or a subject.
The obvious question at this stage is – why not do both? The teachers felt that the time available to them is not adequate to do that, given that they have non-teaching work too in addition to the class room work. In this school, the number requiring remediation for the numerical skill under consideration worked out to not more than ten each in 4th/ 7th Grades. I asked the teacher responsible for Mathematics how long it will take her to make these kids acquire this, if that were her only job. Prompt came the reply: not more than a month – irrespective of the state of the student at start. I took up the subject of another skill at this point: reading in own language which is Kannada here. It appeared that the number of students needing attention and the time required for correction were more or less the same.
Not satisfied with the response from one school, I tried this approach out in five more schools. Invariably the message from every one of them was the same: you give us the skill based goals and 4/8/12 weeks, we will do it. Surely there was no way by which I can assure the teachers that they will be given such an undisturbed time slot; nor can I encourage them to stray away from the syllabus based teaching schedule.  A fresh idea struck me; how about allowing the school to recruit an extra teacher at our cost dedicated to this specific program. The school can decide how this new inductee should be used in the school.
Initially the school was given a time schedule of three months for acquisition of three basic skills: reading in Kannada, reading in English and Numerical skills up to division.  Surprisingly many of the first 50 schools that formed part of the pilot program declined the offer, saying they would rather do this on their own since as it was their primary responsibility. Sikshana however had a provision for engaging local talent as volunteer teachers, many of whom ultimately played a large part in the success of this initiative.
With the goal set and the time available on their hands, the teachers went on to show what they were capable of. We were focusing on the kids lacking these skills in the 4th and 7th Stds. It was not just numbers; they were being tracked by name. Since the skills to be acquired are the same, the kids in both Grades could be combined for common coaching, which makes the job relatively easy. Our mentors were tracking the progress on a weekly basis and soon we found that the number of ‘failing’ kids was dropping dramatically; half way down the allotted time slot, we recognized that we have a winner on hand- and the schools too. The progress was well on target- to reach 90% compliance in the class room in 90% of the schools. Encouraged by a great start, the program was progressively extended to the remaining schools in KP cluster first and then in the schools of the remaining clusters in Anekal, Hoskote. Chikkaballapura and Kalaghatgi.
I do not want to go into the rate of progress in each case with numbers at each stage; suffice to say that by Jan of this year- which was roughly a six month period for the KP cluster – 100 plus schools out of 127 have attained 90% compliance to the targeted skills with 45 of them showing 100% – in both 4th and 7th Stds! We expect the results to exceed our estimates by the end of the academic year. In order to ensure that these numbers carry credibility, we have voluntarily gone in for a second external audit; this has been systematically validating the numbers so far; we will of course stay the course till it is completed.
Reverting back to the main theme, these results can only be called extra-ordinary in the light of the State averages and the starting number. How is it that the same set of teachers have been churning out year after year kids without these skills so far is a subject that ought to be studied in depth. We cannot even say that it is on account of the intake of the extra teachers since many schools without this input have also achieved the same results!  I do have some ideas on what triggered this response from the system; but I would rather wait for a more comprehensive and objective assessment before I venture out with mine.
We have already made a pilot start with writing in Kannada in some schools to check our capability to demonstrate this too to the same level. We plan to make these four skills as a core program of Sikshana in all our 500 schools next year, at the end of which we will have a proven successful program in totality.
There is another way of looking at it: with these amazing results with not an insignificant number of students/ schools, is it worth a wait of one year to prove what looks to me a proven point?  I wish I had a platform of 1000 schools tomorrow.
E S Ramamurthy

Sikshana forges ahead

May 12, 2011

I had the pleasure of attending a function yesterday at the school in Bandigenehalli which marked yet another milestone for Sikshana – and what a memorable one! This school is one of the first in which every student in 4th and 7th Std has managed to acquire two of the basic skills targeted by us this year on a pilot basis across all our schools; these are ‘reading in own language’ and numerical computation. The enormity of the task and the achievement can be understood only in the light of the published State and National figures available for these skills under the ASER Report of ’09; these vary from as low as 11% in 4th Std for computations to 68% in 7th Std for reading in Kannada.

This is not just a stray case of success; our program for acquisition of the above basic skills covers this year as many as 275 schools in four clusters falling in three Districts of the southern part of Karnataka. Of these, the 127 schools in Kanakapura cluster have been exposed to this program for the longest spell of eight months, others having had it for much lesser periods. The analysis of data from this cluster makes impressive reading. Both the overall picture and the KP scenario are given below.

The compliance levels for these skills are seen to vary from 88 to 91%. If however four schools having serious local issues are excluded, the remaining 123 schools show 91, 92, 92 and 93 % respectively for the four skills. More interestingly, nearly 50 schools have reached total compliance at 100% within this short period! The schools are working against a self set goal of achieving 90% plus in all the skills by the end of the academic year; the target seems to be well within the reach of the cluster.

Pilot Program:

Cluster

Schools

Total IV

Total VII

Lack K IV

Lack M IV

Lack K VII

Lack M VII

KP

127

1567

3237

161

165

321

370

HK*

79

1034

1650

145

164

216

252

AK*

30

533

760

111

134

93

108

CK*

39

457

996

102

139

198

249

Total

275

3591

6643

519

602

828

979

Achieved

86%

83%

88%

85%

State Av

32%

11.1%

67.5%

38.7%

*Figures provisional as they are still subject to second audit, mandatory under Sikshana

At this point, I should point out what a score of 90 means in the context of a Government school. For all practical purposes it is as good as 100 if you consider the following factors:

  • The school has to take in every kid who comes to them; there is no luxury of a choice as is the case with private schools
  • An incoming kid is to be placed in the age appropriate Grade irrespective of the history of prior schooling
  • Most schools have kids with serious deficiencies, including but not confined to learning/ behavioral disorders, nutritional/ hereditary issues and broken families with no visible means of livelihood.
  • Families are generally unwilling to part with their wards to be placed in special/ residential schools set up for differently abled kids by the State

We decided that the schools that achieve the remarkable goal of 100% under all the four heads will be given a plaque in recognition of their achievement, the award to be received by the Staff of the school from the President of the School Committee and the Elders of the Community. In pursuance of this, a Function was organized at Bandigenehalli yesterday in which the people of the village participated in full strength; the Education Department officials were also present. The occasion proved to be a great success in more way than one; it created awareness of the performance of the school among the people of the village, paving the way for more productive participation of the community in the affairs of the school. A very interesting sequel on the occasion: the representatives of the community demanded setting up of a high school in the premises for which there was adequate justification and the Officials responded with an immediate clearance, effective next academic year. It is not often that a community asks for a school in our environment! And more impressive was the affirmative response on the spot from the bureaucracy. Both of these were developments that bode very well for the future the concept of community ownership of the schools.

The current pilot program comes to an end by the end of the academic year in April. We hope to have some very interesting information to share with everyone in the public domain along with our comprehensive plan for the next year covering all the four essential skills under a time bound program.

E S Ramamurthy

The Sikshana Story – 7

May 12, 2011

Phase II –  Entry into Kanakapura

I started looking around for possible entry points in rural areas; the focus was on finding an appropriate local resource to build the program around. Three locations were actively considered; these were Kolar, Mysore and Kanakapura. It is here that one more key person entered into my life and Sikshana’s. This was Narayanan who happened to be residing in my Apartment Complex and was an active member in the Rotary movement in Bangalore. He got me into the local chapter as a Honorary Member – without any obligation for attendance etc., – and got me slots to talk to the members in a few chapters. One of this brought me in contact with a very interesting person – Shivakumar of Kanakapura- who was at that time the President of the KP Chapter. It was he who sold me the idea of starting our proposed venture in Kanakapura. In addition to this, Narayanan also played a key role in looking after the City schools during 03-05 during which he was literally my friend, philosopher and guide. He used to visit the schools, give pep talks to the staff and kids- in short did everything I was trying to do in his own way and very effectively too. He relocated himself at the end of this phase and slowly faded away from the scene. I am sure he would have had a great impact on all the subsequent developments, had he continued; I miss him a lot even today.

For Sikshana, this loss was however more than adequately compensated by the rise of Shivakumar, who became our pivot in KP.  The team he brought into the picture through his Club was so amazing that, for quite some time, I really believed that a program like Sikshana can indeed be run exclusively through volunteers; such was their dedication and commitment for the next two years.  Shivakumar continues to be our local resource at  KP even today; more on this later.

Identification of the location is only one part of the Project , and a small one at that. We needed funding to go with it. The occasion brought the right person once again in the form of Aparna from Mphasis; she was really excited about the program to the extent she went far beyond her brief as the Head of CSR in her company. First she tried within her own Organization but not as part of the standard operating procedure. She set up a meet with one of her top bosses, who will go unnamed here. This guy heard us out for the full length of the presentation and came up with an astonishing reason for rejecting the proposal: if we educate all these kids through school where will they go after that , it is far better to leave them as they are. He said he will consider a proposal which will take a few kids out of the mainstream and prepare them for an ‘entry level job in the software industry’. I had heard about the disdain of the elite for the masses but had not come across an actual instance in person; for me, this took the cake for the sheer insensitivity and arrogance – not just the message but the delivery as well. I politely declined the offer and walked out. Aparna felt extremely bad about the whole episode and was profusely  apologetic on behalf of her boss. She promised to make up for it by finding an alternate source within a month ; and she did.

They had a valuable client in Abbey Bank UK whose India Head was in town.

Abbey hands over Cheque

Going beyond her brief, she set up a meet with him. This proved to be successful instantly; we got a commitment which was adequate for 15 schools, spread over three years along with a promise that they will consider increasing it after a year of trial. We were naturally ecstatic about it ; now we were all set to enter into KP on our new venture. Two unfortunate sequels to this. Aparna had to go on a long leave due to major personal issues and faded out of the Sikshana Radar after getting us on track. Abbey Bank got taken over by a Spanish Company who decided to curtail all their operations in India and hence the funding ceased  after the first year.

By June 04′ we had received the cheque from Abbey and signed the deed of adoption for 15 schools in KP Taluk with DDPI Banglore Rural in whose jurisdiction KP fell at that time. I still remember the inaugural Puja Shivakumar had arranged at the Kallahalli temple; the entire team of volunteers were present, so were many HM’s. It was really an auspicious start in a festive atmosphere.

I had always had mind that the start should be with a session on TQM (Total Quality Management) for all teachers, in which not only the essentials of Sikshana will be conveyed but also an introduction  to the principles of Quality Management. I felt strongly that the teachers should be exposed to the concepts of Quality as an integral part of everything they  do in the school, so that they can aspire for better learning levels in the class room. I came to know that the Institute of Quality under CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) was offering a program tailored for Government schools. I went to meet Dr Senthil Kumar who was in charge at that time. A first look at the premises told me I had come to the right place; being an ABB designed complex, it looked like a bit of Sweden that was transplanted into Magadi Road. Quality was apparent in all that was  visible  in the premises and in everything that happened to you when you were there. Dr Senthil was very helpful and keen to do the program for us. The rates appeared pretty steep for our Budget but he gave me a solution: meet Mr Shenoy of First Response at whose instance the program had been designed and he would certainly help me out. It so happened I knew him personally as the India Head of ABB India and that helped too in addition to Mr Shenoy’s own commitment to the cause of public education. I went to him to get the rates reduced and I came away with a sponsorship!

The first of the TQM workshops was held in June 04 and had a tremendous response from the teachers. For the first time, they got an idea of what it is to work with Sikshana; they could interact with each other freely unmindful of rank and their views were respected. More importantly, they were exposed to an environment in the IQ premises which was mind boggling for them; for the first time they personally felt what was quality in real life. It was not just the building and the rest , it was also about the way they were treated from the time they stepped into the premises until they stepped out. The feedback forms said it  all. As for the program itself, Senthil told them at the outset that he knew little about their field – leave alone the problems faced by them. What he could do during the day was to enable them to identify these issues and address them in a structured manner. Hopefully they would acquire these capabilities by the end of the session.

The first half of the day was spent on the essentials of Quality Management and the other was on case studies to be taken up and resolved in parallel working groups. The teachers were really excited about the whole experience and we could see that we have  had the desired impact. It was at this point, that the schools accepted to publish their goals  for the year in the public domain and be prepared to be audited against them at the end of it; it also became the first of the signature programs under Sikshana to be implemented in the field. Incidentally, our co- operation with CII IQ could not be pursued beyond this year since the Institute became very busy with private schools and could not accommodate us in their schedule. However, the transcripts of this Workshop became the basis of the TQM sessions we had in the succeeding years with different resource persons.

Back in KP, we were all set to go ahead with the program in the schools. The number had since risen  to 18 to accommodate various local needs; the schools were chosen by the BEO, the criterion being that they were in a poor condition and needing the type of support that we offered. As a result, they were all located in different corners of the Taluk requiring long commutes. We had a band of 12 volunteers headed by Uma Nagaraj and guided by Shivakumar; we acquired a battered Ambassador car on lease, which was to be used by the volunteers to reach the schools. These people agreed to a schedule under which three or four of them will visit typically two schools a day for five days a week – and visit they did for the next few months.

We convened a meet of the HM’s of the schools at the Rotary Club premises, which became our de- facto office for the next two years and got them to understand and accept our ‘terms and conditions’. Sikshana was operational in KP from the very next day. One feature of the arrangements at this stage that lasted almost two years: Rotary Club was generous enough – thanks to Shivakumar and Narayanan- to allow their Hall as well as the Office to be used by us free of charge. In any case, we did not have enough money to pay them, had they insisted.

At this point in time, Sikshana had 33 schools in two locations – operating without any salaried staff and an office. The new schools were responding to our message well; that was impressive considering that most of them  were at the bottom of the ladder in the Department’s estimate.   Looking back, I really wonder how we did it!

E S Ramamurthy

Stranger than Fiction

May 7, 2011

Life is stranger than fiction; if you don’t believe it, the following news may help.

“As part of the agreement, Google will provide financial support of $5 million to upgrade and support 50 elementary schools run by the Bharti Foundation in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. These schools will be named as Satya Elementary schools.”

What Bharti and Google do with their money, it is their own affair; I should not have a right to comment. It is almost true; but where it hurts enough to make me break the rule is when such actions affect the working of other Organization to the detriment of public good.

I had always thought that Bharti Foundation is for the use of the ‘wealth’ of a large private undertaking/ individual for a public cause; it looks as if that is not true.  They seem to be falling in line for funds, just like others who do not have such a pedigree. That is strike one.

Google after all due diligence studies think it fit to fund another Organization which should have no reason for seeking external support in preference to others; that is strike two.

I do not know how anyone can ask, justify or even remotely contemplate spending $ 5 million for 50 primary schools unless they are going to gild them all with gold. That is money enough for 1000 schools, especially when the funding is for up-gradation and not setting up-   which bring us to strike three.

If there is any method in this madness, surely I am missing it.

Postscript: The schools are being renamed Satya. I know strike four is not permitted.

The Sikshana Story – 6

May 7, 2011

Decline in City Schools – Rise of Rural Schools

“The City schools and Rural schools are so different from each other, we often felt that we should have two separate Departments to deal with them”. I would like to start with this interesting comment from no less than the Secretary of the Department of Education; it took two years for me to understand the full implications of this statement. Someone needs to study the characteristics that define each to be able to manage them well. The divide is similar to the one between urban and rural poverty; both have some common features but are distinctly different.

There are many factors that contribute to this divide. The obvious one is that the City schools are the most coveted destinations for all teachers in the system. Teachers from different parts of the State spend a lot of effort, time and more to get posted here. The pressure is so intense for postings and transfers, which by the way is an industry – a fact owned up by the Department itself- that we found the staff in the schools to  in a perpetual state of uncertainty and fluidity; this is more  so at the level of the HM. To become a HM of even the ‘poorest’ City school calls for factors that go far beyond merit; to retain it calls for constant vigil and sustained effort. The Department has been putting in position various rules and regulations to control this ‘epidemic’, but have not been very successful so far in its efforts. The environment is so vitiated that by the time the teachers get there, education and all the rest that go with it start taking a back seat in their mind. We bore the brunt of this during the three years we were active; almost every one of the HM’s whom we trained in the Upper Primary schools got shifted out. Worse still, some of the good ones were superseded by newcomers, who had to be accommodated in the City.

Many of the schools happen to sit on valuable real estate which becomes the focus of attention of all, including the HM, the school committee and the community leadership. Proposals dealing with this are put up and discussed at various levels; this becomes the prime activity in the school affairs. Others who lack space manage to get grants cleared for building superstructure over existing buildings; being near the centers of power help them in getting the clearances through expeditiously. Often the contractors in the area do all the spade work in getting the files cleared and get ‘rewarded’ with the work thereafter. Barring the few schools in which both land and building are inadequate, some of which I had covered earlier in this narrative, the HM’s in the other schools were found to be busy with one or the other of the above activities; this has its own impact on the teachers. In all this, the education of the kids was seen to take a back seat.

There were a few other factors too, involving the school, the administration and the community, which are too sensitive to be covered here without jeopardizing the ongoing  interests of Sikshana at this point.  I am skipping them here. I am also avoiding socio- economic issues that are unique to urban and rural environments; these have a large role to play too in defining the type of intervention that can succeed in either. This is because I realize that they cannot be the reason for a decision to stay or quit; they can only be taken as challenges to be met. This still left a feeling that in the time taken to cover a single City school, we could possibly cover two or more in rural areas; after all a poor kids are poor kids wherever they are and they deserve the same consideration.

I could however cover one more point that justified what we did. This is the fact that there are lots of Voluntary sector initiatives and Corporates who want to ‘help out’ the neighborhood school in the City; you get what can be loosely called a ‘buyers market ‘. Barring a few honorable exceptions, most of the latter do not want to stray beyond the City limits under the mistaken impression that this will deter volunteer participation.  I have personally seen many who walk in, distribute the goodies and walk off without bothering to ask or check about the likely impact of their generosity. Such easy money has already set up a trend which makes it difficult for any serious low cost initiative focused on issues such as sustainability, return on investment and accountability to function. Sikshana had to face this problem in many forms. An extreme example of this happened to us at a school in the Eastern Zone of the City which we were pressurized to adopt by one of our major supporters as it happened to be close to their premises. Initially the HM agreed to our terms for adoption with a lot of reluctance; he apparently felt that the hassles he had to go through working with us were not commensurate with the quantum of funding. When we were about to sign the deed of adoption in the office of the Deputy Director of the school zone, we got a frantic call from this gentleman requesting us not to go ahead with the signing since someone else had just come in offering four times the amount to his school, no questions asked. I would say that this incident was crucial to our decision to our steering away from City to rural schools. It did not make sense to continue to focus on schools that are getting more than the attention that they really deserved in the City, while there are other schools within the same system that had been neglected and had a crying need  for attention and support in rural areas. The ultimate nudge however came from an unexpected quarter.

I had sent a routine email to Dr Kalam, the then President of India, requesting an audience with him for briefing him about what we are doing and to seek guidance on how we should proceed further. I knew about his intense interest in the field of education and felt he will certainly have some ideas which would benefit us and the cause we stood for. I was not disappointed; I got a prompt response saying that he is visiting Bangalore the week after and that I should present myself at Raj Bavan at 930 PM on a given day.  I knew enough about him not to be surprised at the timing. Unfortunately the ex-Chief Minister of Karnataka – Shri R K Hegde – passed away on that day and he had to go to pay his last respects at his residence. Finally he arrived at the Raj Bhavan at 10 PM; there were lots of people waiting to see him -VIP’s and ‘commoners’. Whatever doubts I had about the meet was soon dispelled by his Secretary who confirmed that he would see every one waiting there before the end of the day. Finally when my turn came at 1145 PM, I was almost apologetic about taking his time over a 15 school program; but my pitch for 1000 schools and evolving a model for the public school system in the process got his undivided attention. He heard me with rapt attention for a few minutes and decided that the program deserved a closer look than what he could give at that time of the day. He asked me whether I would mind coming to Delhi and make a presentation in his office; the message and the language were vintage ‘Kalam’.

Subsequent developments did not surprise me either; on the following Monday, I got a message from his Office requesting me to present myself at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan on 4th Feb 04 at 2 PM for a 30 minute meet with the President. My characteristic luck followed me here too; that was the day Parliament was getting dissolved. My meet was wedged between two VVIP’s and his overdue lunch. It was totally to his credit that he gave me 40 minutes of his time, unmindful of all the signals from his Secretary that he was running very much behind his schedule. It was a memorable experience, talking to someone as passionate as he was, and willing to listen to others who have something to convey to him. Wishing us well, he had three strong messages to offer:

Move away from City schools to rural ones; the latter have no one to look up to

Give prominence to the education of the girl children

Even 1000 schools is not a big number in India; don’t get bogged down by it – shoot for the stars if you can

This meet was a turning point for me; I still have his messages in view in everything I do. There was something else that impressed me about him; he was scrupulously keeping track of the number of students he directly interacts with during his tours. If I recall correctly, he had a target of one million during his term and he had reached 70% of this by the time I met him! I may not be doing such a good job of keeping track of numbers; but I do make it a point to meet and talk to kids individually every time I visit a school.

With the ‘not so sweet’ experiences in the City schools and this powerful nudge from Dr Kalam, we started on our fateful shift towards rural areas. At the same time, we tapered off our involvement in the former gradually such that it did not hurt them. This was the beginning of the academic year 04-05.

E S Ramamurthy

The Sikshana Story – 5

May 1, 2011

The Story with a Personal Touch

Phase I – Rise of the City Schools

The first three schools were followed by Gubbalala, Ittimadu and Kadirnehalli in one lot, Chandranagar, Kumaraswamy Layout and Vasantapura in a second, Srinivasa Colony and Turahalli  in a third and the two RTNagar schools in the last.  Support for most of these schools was coming from AID in USA; our disengagement for reasons that we will cover later almost synchronized with the waning interest of AID in funding Sikshana.

The school at Gubbalala did extremely well under Sikshana.  Ambika, the HM here, was a live wire in the HM’s Committee right through and also functioned as our intermediary with the Department, taking a huge load off me. We built two additional class rooms in this school to absorb the increasing strength of students. Two teachers were allowed to be inducted on our account to augment the staff strength; one of them was Shyamala Devi who had just retired from service from the same school. She was one of those persons totally dedicated to teaching and was loved by the kids so much that her extension of service delighted them.   This step alone boosted the morale in the school a lot. We provided a computer too as in other schools; the volunteers who used to visit them provided the necessary training to use it. Very soon, the teachers had learnt enough not only to teach the basics to the students but also to get some of their work done; this included preparation of question papers for tests and tabulation of  the results. Our experience here was so good that we were helping them through other organizations even after we disengaged from City schools.

The school at Kadirenehalli was so good even before the induction of Sikshana that I was using the learning levels here as benchmarks for the other schools. Even though it was located in a very crowded locality and had scarcely sitting space for the students, the enthusiasm and spirit shown by them was amazing. The HM Srinivasamurthy was so proactive, we need not have to do much in many areas. He got a local elder to donate a small piece of land- something unthinkable in the Bangalore environment – and got a three storied building to accommodate six classes more built at community expense. He could get almost anything he wanted from the local well wishers ; the only thing he needed was advice on what he should do to enhance the standards even further. I was extremely comfortable working with him and the school; our advice was always well received and acted on by his staff.  If there were any indicators for good performance at the VII Grade, this school would have come up on top. We added our bit by providing the school with adequate number of desktops and the backup training for the teachers. It is only in the case of this school, I can say with confidence that they did not need us for meeting minimum standards; they would need a program like Sikshana only for attaining excellence.  Srinivasamurthy keeps in touch with me even now, though we are not active in his school.

Chandranagar at this time was a new school that was coming up in the midst of a slum exclusively for their children. This area had a good Corporator who was keen to do something for the residents of her constituency. She got the land allocated, built a compound wall for protection and got the first set of class rooms constructed through SSA funding. The kids were amazingly focussed on studies; it could be seen right from the way they were maintaining their books and notes. As in other schools, this one too had acute shortage of staff which we made good through our funding. The provision of a Desktop also helped in building up the morale further. This school was performing very well under Sikshana, as evidenced by our bi-annual assessments, thanks to a very dedicated HM in Padmaja and a good set of teachers. Incidentally, this was one of the two schools that were jointly adopted between the local Asha chapter and us- along with the next one at KLayout. The school was lucky to get a steady stream of Asha volunteers in addition to two more teachers under their sponsorship.

I have to bring out one ‘not so sweet’ fact here. In all the three years both Organizations worked in this school, we never met each other even once to discuss the affairs of the school. The lack of co- ordination created a serious problem once when Asha brought in teachers on a much higher honorarium than what we were providing, leading to a lot of heartburn among other teachers. Soon it led to induction of ‘unworthy’ teachers and at least one known incident of gross misconduct which brought in external intervention which we had never allowed in any other school. All this time, Asha USA was funding a few of our schools in h City!  I would prefer to think that this situation could have been avoided if Asha had been a bit more serious about bridging the gap between us; I am sure the guys on the other side would have had a similar opinion about us. That brings us to a core issue: voluntary sector organizations find it easier to work with the Government than with each other. I do not think that things have changed much in this context during the last decade- sad but true. This calls for some serious introspection on the part of all concerned.

KLayout school was in the radar of most people in power and some in the community too for all the wrong reasons; it was sitting  on a huge tract of real estate. It takes a lot of commitment on the part of the HM and the staff to focus on the learning levels in the class room; they did this to the best extent they were allowed to under the circumstances. Here too, the kids were really keen to do well in their studies; their shortfalls can all be traced to the adults around them. Our assessments showed that the program was having the desired impact on the academic standards; it also showed up in the success rates at the periodic inter- school competitions we used to conduct.  Incidentally, the school lost most of the land by the time we left them. What was left was barely adequate to meet the requirements of a decent sized primary school.

Vasantapura school was operating in a temple ‘mandap’ – all the seven classes if it, going a step beyond what the Gowdenpalya school was. Not only the temple festivals but also the major weddings in the area used to affect its working. This school also was drawing most the students from a nearby slum; the kids following a pattern were unusually enthusiastic about their studies. Our package of supporting additional teachers and the rest found a mark here too and the response was more than satisfactory. A year down the line, the HM changed and the new guy was an office bearer of the Teachers’ Union; he used his contacts well and got the school its own building in no time- something the School Committee and the community had not been able to do for a long time. The flip side was that he did not care much about teaching; that apparently suited the other teachers well and they went about doing their jobs without any external influence, positive or negative. The only problem we had was that the school went unrepresented in our HM meets and we had to send our messages through a proxy.

Srinivasa Colony and Turahalli were extraordinarily well run Lower Primary schools with great kids. The HM’s were outstanding; both schools outperformed others in the assessments we ran every time. Turahalli went on to become an Upper Primary school in a couple of years – a well deserved raise showing that the Department does recognize merit. Both schools continued to receive support from us well beyond our our exit date through direct and indirect channels. Perhaps these were the two schools – other than Kadirenehalli – that I used to miss most when we exited city schools.

Somewhere on the way, we picked up two more schools in RT Nagar as a joint venture with Dream School Foundation. Maitreyee who was the Founder of this Organization was a highly dedicated individual working along the same lines for a common cause; our role was mostly advisory in nature and we did some funding too. One of the schools was with Tamil medium and the other a Urdu medium one. I found the venture very interesting  since the environment was different and challenging. However this did not last long; we did not have the human resources to reach out to these schools which were far off. I understand DSF is still doing good work among City schools. Sunand, one of their Group, worked with us for some more time as a resource for outdoor activities- mostly adventure sports such as rock climbing and trekking. I should think he is still available for us in case we have anything planned along these lines.

I have been talking about this exit so far without mentioning the circumstances under which we took such a momentous decision; it is time now that I addressed them. To start, this was not an abrupt process; it was gradual synchronizing with more than a corresponding increase in the rural schools covered. It also followed the pattern of funding that we received to a large extent. Often I used to think about this shift and wonder whether the latter was not due to our own declining interest in pursuing City schools; after all, if we had gone ahead and pitched equally strongly for supporting City schools, it  is highly unlikely that we would have failed. It is a fact we were slowly realizing that within the existing limitations of that period it was not worth the effort to pursue with these schools. As we progressively acquired more experience and expertise in dealing with rural schools, we found that there was a world of difference in dealing with the two categories. That brings us to the next section of this narrative.

E S Ramamurthy