First published here: http://practiceconnect.azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/2018/07/19/the-knowledge-of-head-teachers/
By: V Santhakumar, Umashankar Periodi, Guru Sankayya Moger, Gurunathagouda Gowder
The process of reforming government schools is a continuous one and there have been consistent efforts to improve their performance. One way to do this is to enhance the capacity of the school leadership, mainly the head teachers (UNESCO, 2009). Though there are a number of assessments on the role of head teachers (HTs) in the performance of schools1, there are not many studies in this regard, in India2. This is one such study from North-East Karnataka. The key message from it is that the effectiveness of the HT in terms of the functioning of the school depends critically on the social context in which it is embedded. This has to be considered in the reform efforts including capacity-building programs of not only the HTs but also the others who occupy different tiers of leadership in school education.
2. The School as a Public Organisation
The leaders in a public organisation face multiple challenges in channelizing the resources in their organisation to achieve effectiveness and efficiency3. Though they enjoy hierarchical powers, it is difficult and expensive to monitor the actions of each employee and use incentives/penalties to ensure they perform their specified roles. This is true for government schools too.
There is enough evidence indicating that the learning achievements of children depend not only on what happens within the classrooms (including the performance of teachers) but also on the socio-economic factors, including the ability and motivation of parents to see that their child completes education successfully4. The latter poses a serious challenge for HTs in India. If they want to improve the performance of their schools, they have to attempt to reduce the dropout rates and improve attendance along with the enhancement of the learning. It is not within the control of the HTs or other school functionaries to completely eliminate the social/familial constraints of children in terms of education. However, HTs can assume a more proactive role in encouraging parents and children to make the best use of the schools. This may require greater awareness on the part of the HTs and other educational functionaries regarding the importance of household and social factors in educational outcomes. How far they are able to do this by confronting the challenges in the local context, would be important for the status of schooling in their schools.
There is another feature of a public organisation which is relevant for schools too. Each person in the hierarchy of an organisation needs to respond to two sets of external stakeholders. For example, the HT has to follow the orders of the educational administration in the state (the functioning of which is influenced by the political economy and the functioning of democracy within the state) and respond to the body of parents and/or community in the locality where the school is. The users or parents may exercise the ‘voice’ option through formal mechanisms (like school development management committees) or informal ones (like communicating to political leaders). The communities may also use the political leaders to influence the school leadership directly or through the education administration within the state. Whatever the route, the interactions of the HT with the community and parents depend on the nature of the local social setting.
We cannot overlook the intrinsic motivation (or lack of it) of the HTs. (We have discussed the possible trade-offs between intrinsic motivation and the financial incentives here.) Such motivation is more important in a school setting where the interaction is with children from different backgrounds and with different levels of drive and aptitude that may require the teachers to go beyond the rule book. Some HTs and teachers may already have or may be looking at a larger social, political role, which too may prompt them to take a proactive role in the affairs of the school. The interaction between this self-motivation and the hierarchical nature of the organisation on the one hand, and the pressures of the local social context on the other, may throw up counter-intuitive outcomes.
In a context where the local community is indifferent to the schooling of their children, a well-motivated HT is in a position to make a difference. There can be different types of relationships between the HT and the local community. It could be that the HT comes from among the local elites, and this may enable him or her to encourage non-elite parents to send their children to school. Even though the elite-nature of his/her interaction may persist, it may enable the achievement of certain educational outcomes in such a context. If we analyse the history of schooling in different parts of the world, especially in the rural areas, one can see `enlightened’ teachers taking a proactive role in improving the education of the children of the `illiterate or ill-educated’ parents. This is somewhat a comfortable equilibrium.
However, such a comfortable equilibrium may change in a context where there is an increased awareness of rights and the deepening of the democracy. There the outcomes can be different. A significant number of parents may be using the school even without the persuasion of the teachers. Hence, the achievement of the educational outcomes could be reasonable even without a proactive HT. This may be due to the increased demand for schooling among the parents and the consequent willingness to spend more time to monitor the educational status of their children. They may exercise their ‘voice’ option frequently. Or there may be a higher level of what can be called the ‘collaborative and adversarial participation’ of the community in the affairs of the school. This may compel the not-so-responsive teachers to perform their expected role reasonably well. The teachers who do not respond to the voice options may be shifted out if the local community is powerful and can exercise its influence on the state-level political leaders. This will depend on the political transition of the community.
Such an active intervention by the local community may lead to other outcomes. A pro-active HT interested in improving the school with participation from the local community may encounter an enabling situation (compared to where the majority of the parents are indifferent to schooling). On the other hand, there could be possibilities of conflicts between the HT and the community due to the perceptional difference on what needs to be done and this difference can be considerable given their significantly different `locations’ in the education domain. Hence, it may not be surprising if the intervention of an active community creates some heartburn for a section of teachers or the HT who may be genuinely interested in improving the status of education.
The conflicts between the HT and the local community can also be over non-educational issues. The use of limited resources (say for building construction or other infrastructure) may provide opportunities for petty corruption. HTs who want control over the use of resources may not like the intervention of the community members in this. However, some community leaders may demonstrate an excessive interest in how these resources are used. The intervention of the local community or some of its active members or local leaders need not always be benign5. This is especially so when there are opportunities for financial gains especially in the construction and maintenance of infrastructure.
If a section of the local community does not see their voice making an impact (in the way they perceive it) on the performance of a government school, it may prompt them to exercise the `exit’ option (migration to private schools). This poses another set of problems. Those who remain in the government school could be those who cannot afford private schools and/or those who do not show high demand for education. If the latter is the case, the responsibility of the HT to encourage such parents to use the school well, may increase. The withdrawal of the relatively better off sections of the community may also widen the class difference between the teachers and the parents. This is evident from the situation in government schools located in the urban areas of India where most of the parents belonging to the middle-class have already shifted their children to private schools.
There is another issue that needs focus as regards the HTs in the kind of government schools that exist in India. The distinction between the HT and the other teachers and the ability of the former to `lead’ the latter academically is not so clear (though it is clear administratively and legally). This is true in many other countries of the world. It is often the senior most-teacher who becomes the HT that too towards the end of his/her career and he/she may not get any specific training to carry out the managerial and administrative functions of the school, before reaching the position. In many parts of India, the number of teachers in a school could be two or three (if not one), and there, the HT has to carry out a significant amount of teaching in addition to the administrative duties. Apart from this, teachers are unionised (mostly with affiliation to specific political parties) and such unions are powerful and can work against the measures aimed at improving their performance. This further erodes the `managerial power’ of the HTs.
If higher-level functionaries of the education department micro-manage the affairs of the school, the HT may be compelled to work in a routine and mechanistic manner. It may reduce his/her creative and academic responses. The trade-off in this regard is the possible misuse of autonomy by certain HTs leading to either inefficiency or actions having a negative impact on the performance of the school. There is anecdotal evidence indicating that HTs spend a significant part of their time in routine tasks like updating different kinds of registers and files related to mid-day meals, and construction and maintenance of infrastructure, leaving them with little time for academic supervision. The reach of the higher-level functionaries may differ in different parts of the country, and this may provide greater space for an active HT working in some rural settings (which may not see frequent visits of higher level education functionaries).
The performance of the overall institutional context also matters. For example, the extent to which the state or central governments can monitor the performance of government employees may impact issues like the prevalence of corruption. Studies on HTs in some other places (like in parts of Africa) have noted cases of serious malpractices like corruption, harassment of students and so on6.There are different studies on the practice of head teachers in different contexts. See Young et al (2009); Oduro et al (2007); Oplatka (2004)[/note]. This may have to do with the national/state level governance and its reach into the villages and schools. This issue is relevant even for the adoption of the practices suggested in the National Curriculum Frameworks (NCF). The extent to which the HTs are committed to the expectations in the NCF could be another important issue.
In some places in India (especially in states like Kerala) government schools face serious competition from private ones. Such competition leads to the decline in the number of children in the former, which may result in the transfer of teachers. Teachers may resent this and adopt different kinds of strategies to prevent this, like campaigns among parents to encourage them to send children to government schools; introducing English-medium sections; and, providing facilities like transport for children coming from distant locations. To some extent, competition from private schools may encourage government school teachers (or HTs) to respond to the situation in a proactive manner.
In summary, the `social context’ matters much more for a public organisation such as school which is tightly embedded in the local society. The same HT may perform differently in different contexts as the outcome of his/her performance is determined significantly by those local social factors. It is in the context that we have carried out a study among a set of HTs in seven districts of North-East Karnataka.
3. The Context of the Study
A School Leadership Development Program (SLDP), which essentially includes the training of HTs, was held in several districts of North-East Karnataka by the Education Department of Karnataka in collaboration with the Azim Premji Foundation during December (2014) and January (2015). Around 1400 teachers attended this program.
The HTs were given a questionnaire on the first day of the training with a set of questions on the status of their school; personal aspects, like educational qualifications; their perceptions of academic and other issues related to schooling; and, a set of questions on what they would do in certain situations as part of managing the school. A draft questionnaire was administered initially to around a hundred HTs. It was then revised based on their responses and the final questionnaire was used to collect information from nearly 1400 HTs from primary and upper primary schools.
It may be noted that there were a number of limitations in this data. It does not give a picture of the actual performance of HTs. If it has information on what they may do in a likely situation, it does not inform us what they were actually doing. The data comes from one region of North-East Karnataka (NEK). This region is generally backward in terms of education and other dimensions of human development. There are districts in the region which continue to have female literacy rates of around 50% based on the latest population census. Hence, one can argue that there is limited diversity in the data. There could also be a certain level of self-selection in the case of the respondents. Though almost all the HTs who attended the training responded to the questionnaire, this whole set comprises of those people who have been selected by the education department to attend the training. All these factors may limit the usefulness of this data. There could also be concerns regarding the impact of the possible strategic behaviour on the responses of the HTs – will their responses be closer to what the system expects them to do even if their actual behaviour is different? The level of this strategic behaviour can be assessed from different responses. We attempt this in the following section.
Despite these limitations, the data-set can be useful (it may become clearer as we describe the results) on different counts. For example, it may give us an idea of the level of information among these respondents which can be useful since a major part of the interventions by the governmental and non-governmental organizations have been to provide training (and information) to these HTs. The effectiveness of additional training programs may depend on the current level of information that they have.
Table 1: Descriptive Statistics
|Total no. of HTs||1412|
|Average Experience||22.71 years|
|Experience as HT||06.45 years|
|Average Age||48.70 years|
|General Education (graduate or higher)||41.37%|
|Professional Qualification (less than B. Ed)||88.18%|
|Lives in the same village||19.60%|
|Training as HT||85.15%|
|HTs who teach||98.84%|
Table 1 summarizes the descriptive statistics. The mean age of the respondent is 48 years, which is not surprising given the seniority-based promotion to the position of HT. The majority do not have a graduate degree or the B.Ed. qualification as the minimum qualification for a teacher in a primary school is a Diploma in Education after higher secondary. However, 42% have acquired one or the other graduate degree and 13% have completed B.Ed.
Almost all the respondents have more than 10 years of experience in teaching, some as many as 35 years. The respondents include those who have become HTs very recently and others who have experience of up to 13 years. Nearly 38% of these HTs are those who have been holding the position as in-charge, whereas the rest have been formally promoted to the position. Our sample had only about 20% females. This low percentage of female HT in the region could be an indication of the relatively backward status of female education there. Around 20% of the HTs live in the same village where the school is located, which may have implications for their closeness with the community of parents. The number of teachers per school could be different in different schools and it varies from 1 to 16, corresponding to the variation in student strength from 20 to 900 per school.
3.1 Most are well-informed about what they are expected to do
A cursory look at the descriptive statistics of the responses would show that the HTs have a good amount of information on what they are expected to do in different situations based on the National Curriculum Frameworks. For example, 80% seems to be aware of the steps (based on what they report) to be taken to improve the learning levels of the children (Table 2). They report steps such as activity-based learning, understanding the challenges faced by each child, and spending extra-time with them.
Table 2: Reported steps to address inadequate learning
|Conducting cultural activities frequently||3.3|
|Regular checking of homework and giving feedback||6.6|
|Using more TLMs in the classroom||2.2|
|Conducting remedial teaching||12.1|
|Organising extra-curricular activities||1.6|
|Understanding these children and spending extra time with them||9|
|Building relationship between children and teachers||0.6|
|Exploring scope for peer learning||1.6|
|Motivating children to use library||0.4|
|Creating awareness about Govt. educational facilities||1.1|
|Appointing guest teachers||0.1|
Similarly, 76% of the respondents report appropriate steps (such as remedial teaching) to be taken for age-appropriate admission as per the Right to Education Act (RTE) (Table 3).
Table 3: Reported steps for age-appropriate admission of dropped out students
|Conducting remedial teaching||38.2|
|Enrolment in grade as per RTE||20.4|
|Facilitating classes by senior students||2|
|Extending extra care, love and affection to the children||7.7|
|Arranging special classes by the teachers||7.9|
Around 65% of the respondents have reported having taken necessary the steps to handle issues related to teacher late-coming/absenteeism, if there is any, in their school (Table 4).
Table 4: HTs’ response to the frequent late-coming of teachers
|Question: Assume that a teacher comes late very often. How would you deal with the situation?|
|Go to the class and engage the children until the teacher comes||10.7|
|Advice teacher about the time management||36.6|
|Identify factors that cause late-coming and suggest the teacher fixes those||16.2|
|Discuss the consequences||0.4|
|Bring it to the notice of SDMC and CRP||2.7|
|If a teacher comes late in the morning, suggest that he/she leave late in the evening||0.2|
|Take legal action||1.5|
Table 5: HTs’ response to the innovative ideas of teachers
|Question: Assume that a new teacher joins the school. She/he has some wonderful ideas on how to improve the teaching of mathematics. You feel that some of these could face practical constraints. How would you respond to the proposals of the teacher?|
|Suggest teaching the lesson according to the local context||9.3|
|Have a discussion about the problems and finding the solution||18|
|Execute the new idea in the classroom according to the abilities of the children||8.1|
|Get guidance from the senior teachers||5|
|Provide cooperation and support for learning||17.5|
|Take decision after discussion with other teachers||1.5|
|Take the new ideas to the classroom by using local activities and simple method and local language||13.3|
|Give freedom to the teacher||0.2|
|Provide TLMs and training||0.7|
Eighty per cent of the HTs reported appropriate steps to nurture the creativity of teachers (Table 5). The fact that 85% have undergone some training as HT may have contributed to this situation. However, this relatively better understanding of their role seems to be more in administration-related matters and not as much in academic issues. We do not see any major difference in this regard with respect to the diversity of the HTs in terms of gender and age.
Given that the majority of HTs are well-informed, we need to critically reflect on the use or effectiveness of additional training programs that provide them with more such information. In other words, this shows that the lack of information may not be the major reason if the actual performance of HTs deviates from that which is expected. There could be other issues and we need to probe these further.
3.2 Most not convinced about the need to avoid corporal punishment
Surprisingly, the HTs are somewhat divided in their response towards the need for corporal punishment for children (or its ban as per the national regulations in education). This response also indicates that the HTs may not have contrived the answers to appear politically correct. They were willing to express disagreements even if they are aware that some of their responses may not be politically (legally) correct. Regarding corporal punishment, only 57% of HTs were willing to take steps against it (Table 6). (The question was not whether you – the HT – carries out corporal punishment. Instead, it was: What would you do if you get to know that one of the teachers in your school practices corporal punishment?). There were significant differences between HTs (age and gender) in this regard (Table 7). The unwillingness to act against corporal punishment was more among the older HTs (those whose age is above the mean age of the sample). On the other hand, younger head-teachers on an average were less comfortable with corporal punishment. The promoted HTs (those who have a formal appointment to the position) were more willing to take action against corporal punishment carried out by other teachers (Table 8).
There could be a number of reasons for these different approaches to corporal punishment. There is a widespread belief on the usefulness of corporal punishment to discipline children (not only among teachers but also parents) in the Indian society. (This could be a reflection of the traditional power structure of the society.) This belief could be stronger among older HTs. The in-charge HTs may be reluctant to act against such punishment carried out by other teachers due to their relatively lower authority. The evidence also indicates that there could be an evolving negative attitude against corporal punishment as evident from the position of younger HTs.
Table 6: HTs’ views on corporal punishment
|Corporal punishment is not good||65|
|Corporal punishment is good for better learning||13.7|
|No physical punishment, but some punishments like giving more homework, reading etc. are acceptable||2.6|
|According to RTE & child rights, corporal punishment is an offence||8|
|Corporal punishment does not lead to better learning||1.4|
Table 7: HTs’ views on corporal punishment: Comparison between older and younger ones
Table 8: Action HTs may take against corporal punishment: Comparison between In-Charge and Promoted HTs
3.3 Social context influences the impact of HT
We have already discussed the international evidence ((Santhakumar et al, 2016) on the role of the social context (including the family background of children) in the performance of school (in terms of learning achievements) indicating that the role of the HT, though significant, is smaller in nature. This is evident from this data too. When asked a question about the students who do not learn much (in spite of being in school) and the potential reasons, most HTs cite one or the other socio-economic factors (Table 9).
Table 9: Response to the reasons for inadequate learning of children
|Poor economic conditions of the family||25.6|
|Migration of parents and family members||4.2|
|Children’s participation in seasonal agricultural activities||5.5|
|Irregularity of attendance||29.4|
|Lack of interest in classroom/school activities||4.8|
|Fear of school and teacher||0.4|
|Carelessness of parents towards their children||13.4|
|Mother tongue interference (in case of Tribal schools)||4.2|
|Lack of teachers in the school||1.5|
|Lack of supportive environment for learning||2.1|
|Ineffective classroom teaching by some teachers||0.3|
|Problem of CWSN 7||0.8|
The questionnaire also probed the most important challenges faced by HTs (see Table 10). The most-quoted challenge was the formation of the SDMC (School Management Development Committee). This is evident from the fact that 21% of the respondents cite this as the most important challenge whereas the next important challenge was mentioned by only 3%.
Table 10: Response on the most difficult challenges faced by HTs
|Formation of SDMC||21.66|
|Scarcity of teachers||3.33|
|Unity between teachers||5.24|
|Preparing a good timetable||1.13|
|Managing mid-day meal/Ksheera Bhaygya||5.1|
|Mainstreaming irregular children and dropouts||3.4|
|Safety of the children in school||2.48|
|Balance between academic and administrative works||2.9|
Only in 20% of the schools which do not have an SDMC currently, the respective HT has reported to have taken appropriate steps for its formation. The difficulty in the formation of SDMC is also the manifestation of the impact of the social context.
Not surprisingly, most HTs work with several constraints. Nearly 40% of them report that they do not have enough teachers (Table 11). For this and other (sometimes, good) reasons, almost all HTs do the teaching.
Table 11: Major constraints encountered by HTs
Though it may be good to enhance their involvement in academic activities, their burden may increase due to the need to complete a number of administrative duties. The procedures and process for administration in schools in India have not changed with the objective of saving the time spent on these activities. The lack of teachers may not be solely due to the failure of the governments. A number of Indian states that have centralized the recruitment of teachers face a situation wherein appointed teachers do not want to work in certain social contexts. This is especially so for villages which are away from towns and cities. Teachers do not want to live there and the daily commute is difficult. They may use various ploys to avoid being posted in villages and if posted there, may try to get transfers to more `comfortable’ places, as early as possible. The commute from distant homes also reduces the contact between the teachers and the parents/community. This further limits the effectiveness of the HTs since some of the key challenges faced by the school can only be addressed through the close interaction between teachers and parents.
3.4 Higher qualifications help in a limited manner
Whether the HT has B.Ed. or not was used as a factor in the analysis. The relevant results are the following (Table 12). Those with a B. Ed have relatively better perceptions on how to manage other teachers; how to address the scarcity of teachers; and, what steps are needed to activate the SDMC. In addition, they are more likely to mention the appropriate steps to improve the attendance of children in schools. Although we did not see much difference between them and the others (without a B. Ed.) in terms of academic roles.
Table 12: Appropriateness of reported steps that HTs would take: Comparison between those who have teacher education degree and the rest
3.5 No significant difference between male and female HTs
The sample of HTs in the data has 21% women. We could not see any major difference (statistically) between male and female HTs in terms of information and what they may do in most cases (based on what they have reported) (Table 13). The female HTs are a little more likely to report and take appropriate steps needed for age-appropriate readmission of dropped-out children. On the other hand, male HTs are more likely to report and take appropriate steps in the case of inadequacy of teachers. This may indicate that the gender of the HT may not be a significant determinant in terms of their awareness or performance.
Table 13: Appropriateness of reported steps that HTs would take: Comparison between Female and Male HTs
4. Implications for Capacity-Building of the Head Teachers
What are the implications of the theoretical arguments and empirical evidence on the functioning/awareness of HTs described here? What can be done to improve their performance?
The study has indicated that the majority of the HTs are aware of what they are expected to do. This is not surprising since they have undergone one or more training programs as an HT. Whether an HT has undergone these trainings or not is found to have only a minor impact on their responses. A mild positive impact of the training programs is seen on the knowledge of appropriate steps to be taken for the readmission of dropped-out students. There is no significant impact in other aspects (and there was a negative impact on the steps to be taken for the formation of the SDMC). It shows that the trainings are not equipping them to meet the most difficult challenges that the HTs confront, those that arise out of the social context.
There should be greater awareness on the part of the reformers (including education administrators, academics, activists and professionals in non-governmental or multi-lateral development organizations) regarding the linkage between the performance of schools and the social context. This awareness may be useful in understanding that certain improvements in the performance of schools or HTs may happen only gradually with a certain level of change in the social context. This does not mean that the performance of a school/HT and the change in society always move in the same direction. As discussed earlier, there could be a withdrawal of children from a government school, or an `interference’ on the part of the community, as part of the social change and these may have some negative implications on the performance of HTs or the school.
However, there should be a conscious recognition of the close relationship between the functioning of schools and the social context among educational functionaries, including the HTs. This understanding and the consequent actions are important even if the objective of these functionaries is limited to the improvement of learning achievements (even if they do not stress on retention or attendance). Teachers and HTs, if they are aware of the role of the social context and willing to act, may be able to take significant steps in addressing some of these barriers in improving education arising out of the socio-economic factors. This may require close interaction with parents, especially those belonging to the socially and economically vulnerable groups (with or without the help of the leaders of the community) to encourage them to use schooling well for their children. The creation of such awareness and willingness among HTs should be an important part of the education reform agenda.
This study also shows that there are merits in insisting on higher educational qualifications (like B. Ed) for HTs even at the primary school level. Formal appointment of HTs who can devote a reasonable amount of time to this position rather than merely through a seniority-based promotion whereby a person may reach this position at the end of his/her career, could make a difference.
The evidence presented here shows that the HTs have a reasonable understanding of their expected roles, and hence additional trainings which simply provide them with information may not be very useful. Their performance does not seem to be constrained by the lack of information. Probably, there is a need for an organic development of leadership among the HTs. Teachers may have to be included as part of these leadership development programs. This is not merely due to the fact that HTs are appointed from among a set of teachers. Many schools may only have a few teachers and all may have to share the responsibilities of the HT very often. Professional development of teachers for head-teachership and leadership and management capacity for all teachers are important. Leadership in a social context is about the influence (to make a change in the situation) and those without hierarchical power can also exercise that kind of influence. Some teachers (and not necessarily HTs) may be in a position to take that leadership role. In fact, this is the idea behind the approach of distributed leadership in literature7. For the HTs, there could be learning from peers who go out of their way to improve educational outcomes despite the limiting socio-economic conditions of the children. This may be attempted through forums such as Voluntary Teachers Forums (VTF)8. Time-consuming and mechanistic training programs may be disliked by the HTs and they may go through these unenthusiastically, without much assimilation.
V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University.
Umashankar Periodi with more than 30 years’ experience as a practitioner in literacy and mass education has facilitated the connect between communities and schools as part of his work at the Azim Premji Foundation. He leads the work of the Foundation in Karnataka state.
Guru Sankayya Moger, Researcher, Field Research team at Azim Premji Foundation; coordinates research activities in 10 districts of the Karnataka State.
Gurunathagouda Gowder, Resource Person, English Language Teaching, Azim Premji Foundation; coordinates the English language team within the Foundation and the English language activities in Kalaburgi District, Karnataka State.
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