In the second and final part of this two-part story, S Giridhar talks how good principals can make public schools buck downward trends
Many of the schools I visited are worthy case studies from which emerge a synthesis of attributes such as good school leadership, school culture, quality of teaching, evidence of children’s learning and the commitment of teachers to their professional development. Not every attribute is exhibited by every school, but many of these are exhibited by all of them.
It is important to keep in mind the odds stacked against the rural government schools. The most socio-economically disadvantaged children study in government schools. Around 50 percent of the students are first generation learners with no learning environment at home; neither reading material nor any help with studies. Private schools, whatever be their quality, have sprung up everywhere. Parents who can manage the fees or sacrifice enormously, have moved their children to these private schools, with the belief that children will learn English and be cared for better. It is in these circumstances that government schools have to demonstrate they are good, that children are cared for well and are learning well.
When viewed in this context, head teachers perform roles akin to the CEO of any institution. Consider one key aspect of their leadership, where we saw them deploy a clear three pronged strategy to win back enrolment from private schools. Clear communication of their school’s vision and goals; committing to the community that their children will be safe and learn well; making sure parents attended school events and observed their children’s learning and progress. The rapport built through such efforts is significant. Basavagowda Chowdhury, head teacher of a government school in Hunasugi village in Yadgir told me, ‘The community needs evidence of a school’s quality. Parents may not be literate but they must see our work. I invite them to examine their children’s portfolio at the monthly meeting. I ask them to check the hygiene at my school and see their children perform in the morning assembly. Parents responded by shifting their children from private schools to my government school. It had to happen.’ In rural government schools, even the basic requirements such as punctuality and regular attendance of children are significant signals of a vibrant school culture. In most schools we visited attendance was over 90 percent. In Surpur block in northeast Karnataka where attendance for years was stubbornly stuck at around 65 percent for years, it has moved close to 80 percent. In each of the 93 schools, punctuality and presence of teachers was a given. Ten years back, around 15 percent head teachers would be away on departmental errands. Not now, not in these schools. In a survey in 2005 across 200 schools of northeast Karnataka, in six out of ten schools, books and free uniforms had not arrived in time for the start of the academic year. And in seven out of ten schools, some form of student fights or corporal punishment was observed. In contrast, in the schools we visited, there was not one sign of the ‘cane’ nor physical fights among students beyond the usual pushing and shoving. Every school had planned and procured books and uniforms well in time, even if it meant teachers had to sacrifice some holidays.
Are children learning better? We saw a variety of classroom activities and children’s portfolios. They ranged from neat handwriting to the ability to read and write completely new sentences; their ability to solve not merely algorithmic but word problems; in some cases ability at mental math and higher order thinking; the spirit of the ‘quicker’ children to help friends with their work. The teachers in these schools know the learning levels of every child in all subjects. Many implement the continuous comprehensive evaluation (CCE) in true spirit, going beyond the prescribed formats to record rich observations in the individual child portfolios. These are shared with parents in the parent-teacher meetings (PTA) and used to plan additional support for identified children.
Let me illustrate with an example, how teachers strive for the children from very disadvantaged backgrounds. Admission to the Government’s Navodaya Schools, Morarji Desai or Rani Channamma residential schools or Adarsh Vidyalaya is a life changing opportunity for disadvantaged children in northeast Karnataka. At virtually every school in Surpur block, teachers put massive effort and their own money to prepare students for the entrance tests for these schools. Within a block, only around 200 seats are available every year. And yet, from among the 30 schools I visited in Surpur, 235 children qualified for admission in the last three years. It is a ringing answer to the question, ‘are children learning better’. The collateral benefit is that those children who could not get through, are now much better equipped, as a result of these preparations, for further studies in mid and high school.
To create a vibrant functional library in a rural government school is an achievement. In many schools, a corner of a classroom serves as library. Children are encouraged to borrow and read books and explain these in the morning assembly. Much thought has been put to make the morning assembly a crucial enabler of the all-round development of children – to provide a variety of learning experiences through storytelling, mastery of multiplication tables, new phrases and words in English, public speaking, general knowledge, current affairs and music. Rajni Negi of Bandhangoan School says, “the assembly is most important for the children of class I and II. They learn a lot from how the elder children take up responsibilities, cooperate and help each other. Very naturally these younger children grow into socially well-adjusted and caring children.”
One of the striking improvements over the past 10 years is that more teachers are writing a reflective daily diary. The diary of a school teacher is a kaleidoscope of emotions but when it is introspective, it becomes a symbol of the learning teacher who wants to improve every day. This is a remarkable change from the days when teachers would hesitatingly read an academic article. The diaries of some teachers are so rich, they could be made mandatory reading in teacher education programs.
Teachers make up for inadequacies in subject knowledge by their commitment to continuous self-development. We came across some marvellous science teachers who had no degree in science but whose lesson plan and activities, worksheets and experiments were indicative of their growth and development. The spirit behind their efforts were reflected in the beliefs and practices one saw in their classrooms: Every child can learn, the responsibility is ours. Children develop understanding when encouraged to ask questions and express themselves without fear. We are the masters of the syllabus, text books and timetable, not the other way around. Help children connect concepts with the world around them. Learning language, math and science occur seamlessly together, the boundaries between subjects are often artificial. Good education is not merely being good at academics, children must develop socially responsible behaviour and learn to be helpful and kind.
At each of these schools, the answer to the question, ‘are children learning better’ was either ‘Yes’ or ‘The teachers are certainly trying their best’. If schools are a true microcosm of our society, then we would want them to be like these schools, where equity and quality have reclaimed their place. We must take hope and courage from them for the long haul ahead.
S. Giridhar, is the Chief Operating Officer of Azim Premji University. While he writes regularly on education, he also writes on cricket.
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