Working on Quest Alliance’s Anandshala (literally translated: joyful schools) program in Bihar, our job is to define the theory of change for the program. Our team ensures that the design strategy functions on the ground, and works out how plans get translated into action at the field level. One very important aspect to achieve this is making sure that the program is institutionalized by the district through advocacy.
Anandshala began in 2011 with a School Dropout Prevention Pilot (SDPP), focusing largely on change at the school level. SDPP was a pilot which ran in 113 selected schools, and aimed to understand and address the reasons for school dropouts. Since 2015 we have reflected on our learnings and devised a far-reaching program, which places more emphasis on our role as facilitators rather than implementers.
This program addresses issues at the district level, and requires close collaboration with the state and district education departments to reach 996 government middle schools in the Samastipur district of Bihar. Our experience has been that to make a difference to the student on the front line, it’s important to work with existing stakeholders in the educational system, making them partners in the change process.
The System at Work
While the state is the body that takes care of education programs and decides the larger program design, at the district level we have some flexibility to work with the education department directly, to try to find a solution attuned to their needs. The District Magistrate (DM) is the bureaucratic head of the district, and he or she has a certain level of flexibility in terms of the decision-making process. We’ve worked very closely with the current DM in Samastipur over the past few years. He has a particular interest in education, and is enthusiastic about the specific expertise that Quest brings to the table. As you will read in the extracts from our recent interaction with him, he realizes that every person in the system must play their part for policies to be implemented successfully. Here, we share some of his insights:
POLICIES TO ACTIONS
The government runs a very big system. Almost 90% of the overall student population (approximately nine lakh students are enrolled in Samastipur for classes 1-8) goes to government schools, and the government is trying to fulfil its responsibility to reach out to the last mile through various schemes and policies. While doing so, it’s the responsibility of everyone in the system to translate these policies into action.
Players within the ecosystem are often wary of making decisions, which hampers the effective delivery of program implementation. Strengthening the knowledge and skills of those in leadership roles should enable them to take fast and multiple decisions. Even if a small proportion of the decisions that they make are not ideal, these can be dealt with later. The outcome will still be better than if they had avoided taking decisions all together.
REWARDS & RECOGNITION
Motivation is a big issue among the key stakeholders in the school system. A better performance management system, with a stick and carrot model is necessary. Having a reward system like the Anandshsla Shiksha Ratna awards to recognize teachers, which have been started here in Samastipur, and developing ‘model schools’ (which set the standards on quality parameters) are other ways of uplifting teachers and headmasters.
Education administrators at the block level have many administrative responsibilities, which makes it difficult for them to make time to focus on quality education. Cluster Resource Coordinators have a direct ‘touch point’ to schools and their primary responsibility is to ensure quality education. Reaching out to the last mile and making a direct contact with these stakeholders, including headmasters, really helps in building their motivation and momentum.
There are the three major frontline stakeholders to achieve quality education: teachers, parents and students. By creating awareness among these stakeholders regarding their roles and responsibilities, we can build trust among them. Anandshala is trying to create such environment at the school level to further strengthen the trust process.
One step down in the hierarchy (see diagram above), and the District Education Officer, District Program Officer and Program Officer (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan) have a limited amount to share, and are more likely they feel that the current situation of education is largely in the hands of headmasters and teachers, whom they feel sometimes lack the determination to implement policies. ‘The gov-ernment policies are fine. We have completed the first step of achieving full enrollment. Now, our problem is quality education, and that will be achieved only when we are committed and motivated enough,’ said Program Officer, Ajay Jha. However, he and his colleagues did agree with the District Magistrate, in arguing that power must first become decentralized in order to achieve the program’s aims.
Challenges & Solutions : some reflections from our experiences in the field
Reducing this feeling of disempowerment that the district officials articulate has immense potential. While on paper the DEO and DPO have the authority to take action, they still hope to realize this in reality. If as part of the Anandshala program we can transform these roles then it would help immensely in institutionalizing our program design within the system.
The middle positions in the hierarchy — those of Block Resource Coordinator and Cluster Center Resource Coordinator — also have immense, as yet not fully tapped, potential. These roles are burdened with administrative tasks, but can in theory lead the change process. That’s why Anandshala has focused on developing what we call ‘Change Leaders’ at this level (see diagram on page 98). These are specific people who hold these roles, whom we engage with on a continuous basis. It’s a self-nomination process, and we build capacity, provide them with tools and technology as well as build recognition for them within communities. As the District Magistrate says, ‘We want to touch the smallest unit. We want to strengthen the Cluster Resource Center Coordinators and have one ‘model school’ in each cluster.’
Headmasters are key players too. With some support they can be empowered to make real changes in their individual schools, even when the tasks facing them are not easy. These schools can then act as the ‘model schools’ for others in the same block, as the DM mentions. Investing in headmasters, not only around administrative roles and responsibilities, but also on instructional leadership to manage and support fellow teachers, will help ensure student engagement.
In order to truly reach the ‘last mile’ it’s important to ensure that everyone — down to the classroom teacher — is aligned to the larger idea of what the district is trying to change. In practice there is often a disconnect. A good example of this would be varied teacher responses to the last two periods of the school day being devoted to co-curricular activities, with the aim of helping students to develop non-cognitive skills such as collaboration, confidence and the ability to ask questions. While the District Magistrate might be convinced of the long-term benefits of this, at the school level some teachers continue to think that this time would be better spent working directly with students who are academically weaker.
The final stakeholder — the student — is equally as important as the District Magistrate. One way we’ve been trying to engage them in the process is by strengthening and developing the existing government program around child parliaments (Bal Sansad) within school. We build the capacity to enact these child parliament systems, as well as recognize these students for their good work, so that they too can become change leaders.
Another aspect is gender. While 45% of the teachers are female, this proportion diminishes rapidly with each step of the district hierarchy, which has potentially far-reaching implications for the teachers at the bottom of the pyramid. A major priority is ensuring that teachers have enough time to reflect, evaluate and plan at the end of each teaching day. With most teachers having heavy workloads and home commitments, which necessitate their leaving the school premises soon after the students themselves leave, this time is often hard to find. Perhaps with more women further up the hierarchy with an understanding of these factors, more solutions would be forthcoming.
Gaps in communication are also common, and clear channels of dialogue between the state, district, blocks and clusters is essential. A good recent example is that of the much-advertised Bihar ‘Parent-Teacher’ meet, which the state announced would be held on April 20 of this year. A parent-teacher meet is extremely important in engaging the support of the wider community in the change process. But unfortunately, although the date was announced in the newspapers, it was not properly communicated down to headteachers and teachers. Further confusion arose from the fact that in the Samastipur district, parent-teacher meetings have been held on the second and fourth Saturday of every month for the last two years. So teachers were confused about how they should proceed.
Perhaps the largest challenge inherent within this system is its changeability and fluidity. Positions such as District Magistrate, District Program Officer and District Education Officer are held for short periods of time, and it’s unusual for the post to be filled by the same individual for more than two or three years. Because of this it’s extremely important for us to simultaneously cultivate multiple relationships, so that if one individual is transferred, continuity for the program is ensured.
Our experience over the last five years in the Samastipur District of Bihar is that working within the existing government frameworks is important in achieving scalable solutions. In order to work effectively in the long-term with a government system, engaging simultaneously with every individual in the hierarchy is crucial — from the District Magistrate to the students. Any school system set to improve student achievement needs to have a shared vision and a common language for understanding. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that to change the education system we have to win the confidence of the whole line of leadership — from top to bottom.
State Head, Quest Alliance
This article was originally published in The Learner 2017