Archive for December, 2011

A Lot to Learn from Finland

December 26, 2011
You may be surprised to see a blog from me on the education system in- of all countries- Finland. This is a country whose success story in evolving an admirable public education system really sets you thinking about all that we are doing here, and more importantly on what we ought to be doing.
A Few Facts:  
More than 99% of the relevant age group successfully complete compulsory basic education, about 95% continue their education in upper secondary schools or in the 10th grade of the basic school, and 90% of those starting upper secondary school eventually receive their school leaving certification, providing access to tertiary education. Two thirds of those enrol either in academic universities or professionally oriented polytechnics.
According to recent global education indicators, only 2% of Finnish expenditure on educational institutions is from private sources compared to an OECD average of 13%.
Finland had one of the smallest performance variations between schools; 5% against a OECD average of 33%. In the 2006 PISA survey, Finland maintained its high performance in all assessed areas of student achievement. In science, the main focus of the survey, Finnish students outperformed their peers in all the 56 countries studied.
The Features of the Finnish education system
Explaining either success or failure of any educational system is difficult. What students learn in schools is, in fact, a result of a complex set of factors – most of them beyond real control of school or teachers. Finland is not an exception. The culture of Finland and ethnic characteristics of its people play a role in how education system operates. It is impossible to give a precise answer to the question of why Finland is doing well in education. This analysis is hence restricted to the education policies that Finland has adopted to raise student achievement.
(i) Same comprehensive basic school for all
All Finnish children start their compulsory nine-year comprehensive basic schooling once they become seven years old. Normally, class-based primary school lasts six years followed by three-year lower secondary school, although the new law allows some variation. Today it is widely recognized that the six-year primary school experience provides the cornerstone for high quality education for all Finnish citizens. It is seen that investment in primary education as children learn basic knowledge and skills and adopt attitudes of lifelong learning pay off in later grades through better aptitude and learning skills, as well as through positive overall outcomes.
All basic school teachers must hold a Masters degree to become permanently employed. Primary school teacher preparation was converted from a three-year program at teachers’ colleges to four- or five-year university programs in the late 1970s. Hence, most primary school teachers today possess higher university degrees.
The Finnish comprehensive school is a formal and fully publicly financed system and also, as ‘a matter of pedagogical philosophy and practice’. Well- equipped schools are typically small with class sizes ranging from 20 – 30 students. Primary schools (grades 1 to 6) typically have fewer than 300 pupils and class sizes are, by international standards, average or below.
Because most Finnish schools are small, they often forge close educational communities of teachers and pupils. Most teachers in primary schools are highly educated and continually update their professional knowledge and skills. Curriculum reform has made primary schools a place where play and learning are combined with alternative pedagogical approaches to help children master basic academic knowledge and skills. Many primary schools therefore have become learning and caring communities rather than merely instructional institutions that prepare pupils for the next level of schooling.
The fact that all children enroll in identical comprehensive schools regardless of their socioeconomic background or personal abilities and characteristics has resulted a system where schools and classrooms are heterogeneous in terms of pupil profiles and diverse in terms of educational needs and expectations. All students receive a free, two-course warm meal daily, free health care, transportation, learning materials, and counseling in their own schools.
Finnish children start compulsory schooling one to three years later than do children in most other nations. This suggests that Finnish pupils learn relatively better within a shorter time, compared to their international peers. Finnish education policy has never compromised the principle of extended childhood at the expense of increasing time devoted to formal education.
(ii) Well-trained teachers in primary school
In Finnish society, the teaching profession has always enjoyed great public respect and appreciation. Parents trust teachers as professionals who know what is best for their children. Teachers therefore have considerable classroom independence in selecting most appropriate pedagogical methods. Consequently, primary schools are quite independent in designing their own curriculum, teaching and learning arrangements, and in using public funds. Classroom teaching is considered an independent, high status profession that attracts some of the best secondary school graduates. Indeed, only about 10 % of some 6 000 applicants are accepted annually to the Faculties of Education within Finnish universities. This implies that university teacher education departments can select some of the nation’s best students from among top scorers on university entrance examinations.
Most importantly, however, a Masters degree guarantees access to post-graduate studies made widely available in most Finnish universities today. Many teachers, especially in primary schools, seize the opportunity of continuing their academic studies. During the past decade, Finnish schools have noted an upsurge in school principals and teachers possessing a PhD in education.
In international comparisons, Finnish teacher education programs are distinguished by their depth and scope. The balance between the theoretical and practical in these programs helps young teachers master various teaching methods as well as the science of effective teaching and learning.
Finnish teachers are conscious, critical consumers of professional development and in- service training services. Just as the professional level of the teaching cadre has increased over the past two decades, so has the quality of teacher professional development support. Most compulsory, traditional in-service training has disappeared. In its place are school- or municipality-based longer-term programs and professional development opportunities. Continuous upgrading of teachers’ pedagogical professionalism has become a right rather than an obligation.
(iii) Intelligent accountability
Finland has not followed the global accountability movement in education that assumes that making schools and teachers more accountable for their performance is the key to raising student achievement. Traditionally, evaluation of student outcomes has been the responsibility of each Finnish teacher and school. The only standardized, high-stakes assessment is the Matriculation Examination at the end of general upper secondary school, before students enter tertiary education. Prior to this culminating examination, no external tests are either required or imposed on Finnish classrooms.
As a consequence of decentralized education management and increased school autonomy, education authorities and political leaders have been made accountable for their decisions making implementation of policies possible. This has created a practice of reciprocal accountability in education system management where schools are increasingly accountable for learning outcomes and education authorities are held accountable to schools for making expected outcomes possible. Flexible accountability has had a major positive impact on teaching and, hence, on student learning. All assessment of student learning is based on teacher-made tests, rather than standardized external tests. By fifth grade, Finnish pupils no longer receive numerical grades that would enable directly comparing pupils with one another. In fact, grades are prohibited by law. Only descriptive assessments and feedback are employed.
Primary school, particularly, is, to a large extent, a ‘testing-free zone’ reserved for learning to know, to do, and to sustain natural curiosity. Teachers also experience more genuine freedom in curriculum planning; they do not need to focus on annual tests or exams. Increased teacher and school autonomy has led to a situation where schools can not only arrange teaching according to their optimal resources, but allocate teaching time within the national curriculum framework differently from school to school. This is rarely possible in more rigid and test-heavy education systems.
The focus of teaching in Finland is typically on learning, rather than on preparing students for tests. Different teaching methods are commonly employed throughout the school system. New innovations are readily accepted by teachers, if they are regarded as appropriate for promoting student learning. Stress and anxiety among pupils and teachers is not as common as it is within education systems having comparatively more intensive accountability structures.
(iv) Culture of trust
Much of what has been previously noted is only possible when parents, students, and authorities genuinely trust teachers and schools. It is necessary to realize that the Finnish education system was highly centralized and remained centrally controlled until 1985. A dense network of rules and orders regulated the daily work of teachers. The gradual shift toward trusting schools and teachers began in the 1980s, when major phases of the reform agenda were initiated in the education system. In the early 1990s, the era of a trust-based school culture formally started in Finland.
The culture of trust simply means that education authorities and political leaders believe that teachers, together with principals, parents and their communities, know how to provide the best possible education for their children and youth.
The culture of trust can only flourish in an environment that is built upon good governance and close-to-zero corruption. Tellingly, Finland also performs well in international good-governance rankings by Transparency International. Public institutions generally enjoy high public trust and regard in Finland. Trusting schools and teachers is therefore a natural consequence of a generally well-functioning civil society.
School improvement emerged in Finland as a consequence of this new trust. Each school could design its own change strategy with mission statements, vision and implementation methodologies, and schedules. This dimension of trust has played the most significant role in propelling Finland ahead of  many other nations.
(v) Distributed moral leadership
Education reform and development in Finland has been based on the continual adjustment of schooling to the changing needs of individuals and society. Governments from the political left and right have respected education as the key public service for all citizens and maintained their belief that only a highly and widely educated nation will be successful in world markets.
Sustainable educational leadership has enabled Finnish schools and teachers to concentrate on developing teaching and learning as they best see it to be needed. Leadership in education sector has increasingly followed the idea of distributed leadership, i.e. sharing responsibilities among all actors in education to achieve expected results. Rather than allocating financial resources and time to implement new reforms repeatedly, teachers in Finland have been given professional freedom to develop pedagogical knowledge and skills related to their individual needs.
In education systems that undergo wave after wave of reforms, frequent emphasis often is on implementation and consolidation of externally designed changes. The main result is often frustration and resistance to change rather than desire to improve schools. In Finland, however, education policies have increasingly invited schools to design their own development plans and implementation strategies based on the national curriculum and policy frameworks and oversight systems. These frameworks serve as guiding principles for municipalities and schools in delivering education services to their members.
In conclusion, it is not a surprise that a country which has followed the above tenets comes up on the top when assessed for learning outcomes. India is not Finland; and we are way away in the Corruption indices; this precludes many of the steps from being adopted here as they are. However there is a lot that we could still learn from them.
Many of the above steps are outside the scope of Sikshana intervention too; still we have followed strictly, in whatever we do, their basic concept: that teachers, together with principals, parents and their communities, know how to provide the best possible education for their children. We are also proud that the Mission Goal of Sikshana announced in the public domain a decade back states that the Public Education System should be built around this belief.
E S Ramamurthy
(I acknowledge with thanks Mr Pasi Sahlberg for most of the above content that pertains to the Finnish Education System) )

A Matter of Perception

December 20, 2011

A Private School that got reported – and Many that go scot-free  

I had been writing about Private schools that are no more than ‘Teaching Shops’. I also wrote about the manner in which they ‘recruit’ students and retain them once they get in.   Many would not believe me when I said that it is difficult to get away from one, once the kid is admitted. They felt that I ought to be exaggerating; if not, why are parents trooping to these schools? You will find answers to many of these in this Report.

Whoever has read Tooley’s “Beautiful Tree” should read this too. Did he not make it all appear to be so ‘glamorous and sanitized’? His thesis: In an open system market forces will prevail and the parents can opt for the schools of their choice;  if a school is not good enough, parents can always walk off . Or can they?  Remember, this school too would have got away but for one case of misbehavior by the Principal- that too detected  and acted upon ‘unfortunately’. Worse still, the recruiting processes referred to here do not seem to reflect the ‘noble’ sentiments glorified in the book.

There are enough warning signals here for all of us in the context of the ongoing glorification of the private schooling and the drive towards privatizing the public education system.



(Courtesy: Deccan Herald: 20 Dec 11)


Parents pull their wards out of Royal School
The academic future of 246 students hangs in balance as their parents have pulled them out of the Royal English Medium School on Tannery Road, the principal of which was recently caught misbehaving with a sixth standard student.

Bitter lesson: Parents and children wait outside the Royal English School on Tannery Road to collect transfer certificates. DH PhotoThere was a mad rush among parents on Monday to take away their children from the school. The institution’s owner-cum-principal Mohammed Imtiyaz Pasha had allegedly allured the student on the pretext of awarding good grade in the examination.

Ever since the school earned notoriety due to the misdeeds of the impious principal, no parent was willing to send their children there. Some of them even preferred their children to grow without education.

With tears in her eyes, a woman, who wished not to be quoted, said the fee structure of Royal School was affordable, which made her send her child there.

Having pulled her child out of the school, she is not in a position to afford donations and fees of other schools in the neighbouring area. “I have decided to send my son to a motor garage to work. This is our fate,” lamented the woman.

Selvaraj, another parent, said though the entry into the school was easy, exit was a near-Herculean task. “Seven days ago, when I sensed things going wrong in the school with my son coming with one or the other story of the staff in the school, I decided to pull him out. When I approached the principal for transfer certificate (TC), he demanded Rs 2,000. I had to drop my plan as I did not have money. Now that I have got the TC, I’ve no idea where to go next.”

Farida too had a similar dilemma. When the Block Education Officer Ashwath Narayana Gowda visited the school, she broke down before him. “I had borrowed money for my child’s education. But all that has gone down the drain due to the dirty deeds of Imtiyaz Pasha,” she said.

Most of the students coming to the school are from very poor economic background and almost all of them belong to minority or SC/ST communities.

A dungeon than a school

The Royal School was more a dungeon than a school. Running in a building spread across a mere 50 ft by 80 ft area, the school does not even have basic facilities. Forget the facilities, there is hardly any space to let fresh air come in. Children said the windows of the schools were never opened.

‘Poor performers’ in the class were often asked to meet the principal for punishments. Parents stated that their wards complained to them that the principal came to the school in inebriated state and would smoke in front of them.

Imtiyaz also never bothered about maintaining the attendance register properly. When this reporter visited the school, he found the attendance register of class VI incomplete.

Touts make hay

To cash in on the situation, marketing agents of neighbouring schools were seen distributing pamphlets to the parents at the entrance of Royal School on Monday. 

The BEO was seen asking the parents to choose any school and he would see that the school managements admit the students without collecting extra fee. However, when the marketing agents were contacted, they said their schools would charge donations.

Advocate Narasimha­murthy, who helped the parents get the transfer certificates from the school, said the Education Department should help the parents get their children admitted in neighbourhood schools without any problem.


The Other Side of the Picture – 2

December 11, 2011

(On many issues, we are often fed with one side of the picture that becomes the reality for us for two reasons: anything that is repeated again and again assumes the face of truth over a period of time and in any case we do not ever get to hear the other side of it. This is a series on such contradictions in the Public Education System)

Apples and Oranges

No one who has a few rupees to spare will send his son or daughter will ever send him/her to a Government High School, or would they?  It is one thing to take a risk with Primary schools; the damage can always be undone in the subsequent stage. It is quite different with High Schools and the SSLC examinations, which are pretty serious stuff and one does not afford to take chances any longer. Given the poor image of the Government schools, the data should show that people flock to the Private schools and that the latter fulfill their expectations with commensurate results.

Let us take a look at the picture emerging from the SSLC examinations of last year. Of the 10,800 schools in the State, 1,468 schools scored 100 per cent results. Of these, surprise of surprises, 401 are Government Schools and 108 Govt Aided! It is seen that 959 private unaided schools had also achieved this distinction. The ratio may look a bit skewed towards private schools until you start looking at all the factors in their favor.  Unlike the State run schools, they have the right to be selective in admissions and also have the power to detain non-performing students, both of which they exercise; more crucial is the last year in which many premium schools routinely ‘expel’ those who are most likely to fail and these kids invariably land in Government schools. No wonder the number of private schools scoring a perfect 100 is relatively high. The real surprise comes up at the other end of the spectrum. Forty-four schools recorded zero pass percentage. Of these, four are aided, while another 40 are private schools. There were no Government schools at all in this category!

A detailed analysis of the performance in various brackets shows the following: 

Type Schools >80% 60- 80% 40-60%  <40%
No. % No. % No. % No. %
Govt 3714 1668 45 1162 31 630 17 254 7
Aided 2980 1358 46 900 30 458 15 194 9
Private 4149 2171 52 1042 25 489 12 479 11

One can see that ,except in the 80 plus category where there is a marginal shortfall, the Government schools score over private schools in all others.

That people would prefer to admit their kids in a Private school, which has a zero pass record in preference to a performing Government school in the same vicinity appears strange. It only highlights the fact that perceptions often rule over reality. There is yet another interesting fact that comes up if you take this study further to areas where there are no private schools to contend with and the kids in the area need to enroll only in State run institution. I came across a cluster of this type near Madanapalle in Chithoor District, AP. While the overall performance levels were uniformly high here, I found two schools close to each other, which were producing astounding results. The first had 84 students of which 83 passed; the failed kid had an assignable cause. The average mark scored in this school was 84! The second had 29 and all of them passed; the average score here was an unbelievable 92, the highest being 96! The rub off effect of the talented kids on the rest in the classroom is clearly visible in an environment where segregation of the good from the poor has already not happened through selective induction in parallel streams. An in-depth study, I am sure, will go on to prove the desirability of a Common School System in the quest towards social equity.

Notwithstanding the above, It is true that the best of the Government schools presently do not come anywhere near the best of the Private schools. A comparison between a 95% kid in the former with another with the same score in the latter will show large differences in terms of depth/width of knowledge extending beyond the syllabus content. This proves nothing since the kids in the two segments come from widely differing social strata and have definite advantages and handicaps that go on to define these results. Given the talent, one has to admit that the private stream aspires for and achieves levels of excellence that are beyond the reach of the former. This admission should however not be at the cost of recognizing that the Government schools do an equally good job in providing affordable education of acceptable quality for the masses.

The shrill voices for dismantling the Public Education System are to be viewed in this context. It is a case of apples and oranges; any comparison is odious and we need them both.

E S Ramamurthy


The Poignant Story of Appaji Gowda

December 9, 2011

Very few may know about it, Appaji Gowda is one of the pioneers in providing mid-day meals to children in Government schools of Karnataka State. Gowda was having a comfortable life with a well paying job in Mico when his life went through a quantum change. What caused it was an accidental visit to State run school nearby; it so happened that the kids were having lunch at that time. He found that there was a bad odor permeating the class room; he soon found out that this was emanating from the lunch boxes. The food in most of them was stale; their moms were getting day old leftovers and a part of this was passed on to the kids for lunch. Gowda could not stand this; he decided had to do something about it.

He quit his job, sold a part of his ancestral property and set up a kitchen to cook food for the school kids. More problems were in store for him; he had to find funding for groceries and also conveyance for transporting the incoming/ outgoing material. This was Feb 98 when the State was not even supplying rice free of cost. He started an Initiative in the name of Akhila Karnataka Kannada Kasturi Sangha and went about scouting for Donors. With a lot of effort and at great personal sacrifice, he started feeding 5000 kids. The program slowly grew to 300 schools and 35,000 students by the time I came across him in Feb ’02.

I wanted badly meals to be supplied to the three schools I had taken up and I had no funds to back up the request. Gowda was really magnanimous; he said that if he can handle 35k, he could do it to 40k too! He told me that I need not worry about funding him; his only concern was transportation. He had no spare capacity to deliver the food at the school premises; I could collect it at his place at no cost. That was not good enough for me naturally; and I had very little funds to spare either. He took me to a mini-van dealer on Lalbagh Road, did all the haggling for me and got me a good deal on a hire-purchase basis with a nominal down payment. The supplies started soon enough; 500 plus kids got a hot meal thanks to Appaji Gowda.

I wish the story ended there but that was not to be. The State commenced the much delayed mid-day meal scheme in 05 and the scene changed totally. With   millions of kids in the State to be fed, various models of meal supply emerged to meet the needs. The schools in remote and rural areas had to manage with local resources and set up their own kitchens, for which the State provided the needed assistance. The scene was very different in urban areas; while there were honorable exceptions, quite a few Organizations with  commercial interest sprung up to meet the emerging demand. In any case, all the ventures have now to go back to the Government and its agencies for the subsidized supplies and payment against services provided. As every one knows, this is not an easy thing to handle, especially for those with ‘idealistic aspirations’ like Appaji Gowda.

With difficulty, he adjusted himself to the new environment and continued to supply meals to the schools that opted for his service. He still has a loyal cluster of 300 schools that have chosen to stay with him. However with no Organizational or Corporate support, he has no means of sustaining  his capacity, let alone compete with the rest of the pack. Unwilling to deviate from his principles, he would not cut corners and that gave him the barest of margins enough to eke out a living. The investments from his life savings have now gone uncompensated; worse still, the equipments are now approaching the end of their lives needing maintenance/ replacement badly. The State has no provision for covering any of these and that leaves Gowda really high and dry.

Where does he go from here? Is there any role for people like him with idealism in the new dispensation? Will he be even able to maintain himself and his family without compromising on the principles that he holds dear? I have no answers for any of the above. Do you?

A sequel: I have nominated him for the Namma Bengluru award for this year in the category of Outstanding Individuals.

E S Ramamurthy

A Humbling Experience

December 2, 2011
This publicity leaflet may appear strange to many, especially if one  can read Telugu. This one was brought out by a Sikshana school months back- even I did not know about its existence till yesterday.
It is from the Government (ZP) High school in Mulakalcheruvu ( Madanapalle Cluster), in which GORD and Sikshana worked together during 10-11.  In the SSLC Examinations of ’11,  85 students appeared and all but one passed. Even the failed student scored 60% on the whole but could not get through just one subject – Telugu- since his mother tongue was different. 27 students scored more than 500 out of 600, the highest being 562 (94%).  The biggest surprise of all: the average marks of all the students who appeared for the examination was 84%!
These are extremely impressive figures by any standards – Private schools included- but the one that took the cake was what followed in their presentation. 40 Students migrated from Private schools to this Govt school in 8th Std , 20 in 9th and 10 in 10th at the beginning of the current academic year! That is a real shocker for anyone who still doubts that Government schools can deliver on their promises.
This school was scoring 58% and 64% during the years preceding 08-09 when the current HM- Mr Prabhakar- came into the school initiating the upward swing. Of course the credit goes no less to the dedicated set of teachers who needed only this trigger to show their mettle.
That the school is putting in its best efforts to rope in the community through publicizing the improved performance , which incidentally has resulted in the above reverse  migration, speaks volumes about their determination to break out of the mold and show the better face of the Public Education System.
My next stop yesterday was the ZP school at Pulikallu. Here there were 29 students last year and all of them passed. The average mark here was 92%! There was very little I could ask for in terms of improved performance in the examinations when the scores are this high already. I did suggest to them that they should focus on two things now onwards. The first is the ‘Achilles Heel’ of the entire system, which is the learning level in English. Marks apart, the ability of the students to understand and handle the spoken language continues to be poor. The second was to share their experiences and help the other schools in the cluster to emulate their results. We do need badly ‘leaders’ in the field who can become instruments of change. Maybe we will find some of them in these schools.
It was seen that three out of the seven schools supported by us scored 100% results, something that has never happened in these schools in the past. I came back humbled by the experience; what a pool of talent is lying there waiting to be tapped by someone and how we are still reaching only the fringes with all that we are doing?  This is something that both Vibha and Sikshana should ponder – besides hosts of others who could also chip in.