For more than 20 years, the keywords and phrases driving school education in India have been “learning levels”, “quality”, “competencies” and “outcomes”. For almost as long, government school students have been tested to establish how they measure up, through the National Achievement Surveys and later through State Learning Achievement Surveys.

From the mid-2000s, the Aser Centre – which grew out of the educational non-profit Pratham – started conducting its annual learning achievement surveys, published in the form of the Annual Status of Education Report or Aser report. This assessment, of mostly poor, rural elementary school children, drew public attention to low learning levels in this demographic across the country.

Clearly irked by Gujarat’s poor performance in the Aser surveys and unhappy with its methodology, the Gujarat government settled on a new assessment and school ratings system in 2009. It was called Gunotsav – a “festival of quality”.

Billed as the brainchild of Narendra Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, it was designed as an appraisal system for government-funded schools to ensure each school got what it needed in order to improve quality – from bricks and mortar to specific types of teacher training. It was meant to be a means by which schools could pinpoint their own shortcomings and find ways to fix them.

Schools are currently classified in ascending order from D to A+, based on an annual assessment of their academic performance, co-curricular activities, community participation and available infrastructure. Teachers are also graded, and at least initially only those with A or A+ grades were eligible to be nominated for teachers’ awards.

Gunotsav was not meant to be a permanent feature on the school calendar, according to RP Gupta, the state’s principal secretary of school education in 2009, currently at the Niti Aayog. It was just the first step towards creating the office of an independent evaluator, much like the UK’s Office for Standards in Education or Ofsted, whose remit extends to teachers’ education. Gupta said that a government order to that effect was passed in 2011.

Around the same time time, Pragna – the state’s activity based learning programme – was also being introduced in schools. Its central premise is to allow children to learn at their own pace, moving ahead only once they have actually learnt a concept. An annual assessment militates against learning at one’s own pace. But Gupta said that it was hoped that eventually all academic assessments would be “through Pragna”, which, in ideal conditions, has a system of continuous assessment built into its step-by-step learning process.

In the first two Gunotsavs, schools reflected the middling to poor results of all the different types of surveys that had preceded it. In the third year, Gunotsav results showed an upward swing. The other surveys – albeit each using a different methodology – continued to paint a rather grim picture. Nine years after Gunotsav first started, it seems not so much has changed in Gujarat’s government schools after all.

What is Gunotsav?

This is how Gunotsav works: every government and government-aided elementary school in the state assesses itself based on prescribed parameters, and on pre-specified days each year holds standardised tests for students from Classes 2 to 8. About 25% randomly selected schools in each block are subjected to a surprise assessment by an external examiner who, in theory, observes the school’s activities for an entire day. This examiner can be anyone, from the chief minister or his ministers to senior civil servants and district administration and education department officials. The surprise external assessment is intended to keep school administrations on their toes and to act as a disincentive against cheating or fixing the self-assessment. Gupta said that this was to make teachers accountable.

But every current official this reporter interviewed described the process as “instilling a sense of fear”. Fear, it turns out, is a dubious means of achieving accountability.

Gunotsav received Modi’s imprimatur, and he and his entire cabinet participated as external assessors in the 2010 assessment. This was a sign of the seriousness with which the state government viewed the exercise and of the expectation that it would deliver results in the form of an improvement in the quality of education in government schools.

Indeed, in 2010, Modi said as much about Gunotsav:

“The soul of education is its quality…and that is why the state government has taken up the ‘Gunotsav’ campaign. This [the external assessment] could have very well been done by the teachers and the Department of Education. But to create the spirit of a high priority to this cause and to make those in the field of education feel the value of this activity, the complete strength of government machinery has been deployed.”

In the first Gunotsav in 2009, at least a third of government school students across the state scored between 0 and 3 on a 10-point scale where 10 is the highest score, in reading, writing and mathematics. The statewide average scores were 5.3 for reading, 4.9 for writing and 5.5 for mathematics. The state prescribed extra coaching for the large number of students who scored 0-3. A sample of these students were tested again three months later, and between 60% and 70% of them were found to be at the “mainstream level”.

In 2010 Modi declared:

“…Gunotsav of the last year has brought some encouraging results. I would like to draw your attention towards a small encouraging example. 12 lakhs children were found weak during last ‘Gunotsav’. Teachers took Upachaar Varg [remedial classes] for three months by allocating extra time. When these children were evaluated by the UNICEF subsequently, 85% of these children had improved and reached a satisfactory level. There are several such examples.”

But Gunotsav results available in the public domain for 2010 and 2011 show no transformative change in average test scores. What happened though was that the self-assessed test scores of schools, which in 2009 and 2010 were lower than the externally assessed scores, shot up in 2011. But the externally assessed scores did not change much.

Government officials do not mince words when they say that this sudden improvement in self-assessment scores is not justified. “Schools just found a way to overcome their fear,” said one official.

Yet Gunotsav was declared a success. As evidence, officials presented the huge improvement in overall school grades. Besides the D to A+ grades, the government also charts changes on a scale of 0 to 10, divided into five equal bands. From 2009 to 2011 (the only period for which statewide data is publicly available), the schools in the top two bands (scores upwards of 75%) by total scores went from 26% to 60%.

The state’s School Learning Assessment Survey for 2013-’14, published in 2016, presented a different picture. The survey tested elementary school children in language and mathematics twice, over two semesters. Its results were stark. It found that more than 60% of students in government-funded schools averaged just 35%, the pass mark. The remainder averaged 50%, and less than 10% got 75%. Two districts, with somewhat higher scores than others, pulled up the state average.

According to this survey, class averages in all subjects for Classes 2 to 8 hovered between 42% and 49%. District-wise data for Classes 3 and 4 showed that only two districts, Ahmedabad Urban and Surendranagar, breached the 60% mark. In Class 8, Ahmedabad Urban was the only district with average scores of 60% plus across all subjects, apart from English.

A simple comparison cannot be made between the results of surveys that use different methodologies. For instance, test scores are only one – albeit the biggest – component of Gunotsav school grades. Yet, what the School Learning Assessment Survey underlined was that the improvements in learning that were expected to follow from Gunotsav had not materialised five years later.

Asked about the rising trend in Gunotsav school scores and the low average School Learning Assessment Survey scores, a Gujarat Council of Educational Research and Training official asserted that the learning assessment survey was methodologically sound. “It is a scientifically done sample survey, its findings are validated and cannot be faulted,” he said.

Gaming the assessment?

What then explained the rise in Gunotsav school grades?

Gunotsav was intended to spur improvements in education quality. But it has not quite worked out that way. It has become a sort of school league table with education blocks and districts competing annually for the largest number of A and A+ schools.

According to Gupta, the former principal secretary for school education, the competitive element was supposed to act as the spur. And it has, in a perverse way. It has spurred schools to improve their grade, without making a serious impact in their students’ learning.

Principals, teachers, officials and observers in Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar, Mehsana and Surendranagar districts interviewed for this report said that weeks or months of preparation went into getting a school Gunotsav-ready. Classrooms are decorated, buildings and bathrooms spruced up, even renovated if there is money to spare. Children endlessly rehearse prescribed components of the morning assembly and even the seating plan for the mid-day meal for the Gunotsav days. Students are drilled in the portion of the syllabus from which the test questions are set, using model tests and past papers, and are made to practice tests in the Gunotsav’s multiple-choice format.

A sub-block level official said it was an “all-consuming process”. “For two months before Gunotsav, no one is willing to come for meetings,” said the officer. “Their response is call us later now we are busy with Gunotsav preparation.”

Of most concern to teachers is the timing of Gunotsav. Last year, it was held in January. School principals said they had “wasted two weeks of the new semester doing the old [first semester] syllabus” because Gunotsav questions are from that part of the syllabus which “children have already forgotten”. They faced a similar problem the one time Gunotsav was held after the Diwali holidays as “during the holidays children forget what they have learnt”.

Government officials interviewed, including some who have been external examiners, and even some teachers, said that there was a great deal of cheating, with teachers helping students with written tests, and marking answers to multiple choice questions themselves for weak children.

None of this is possible without the acquiescence of supervisory officials. One teacher called it “government-style thinking – to support each other”. He elaborated: “If a school is A or A+ everyone can rest. If a school gets B or C then the whole system is under scrutiny, all officials have to give an explanation.” It is in the interest of teachers and government officials – whose own ratings depend on school results – to ensure that schools show improvement, he said. With everyone in the local education administration gaming the system, even the external examiner was managed, he said.

But, if cheating happens on the scale suggested, Gujarat must be facing an unprecedented crisis in education. Data for total number of schools by grade has not been easily available since 2013, when Gunotsav was held after a year’s gap, during which the format and type of questions were tweaked. However, a government official told this reporter that the numbers after 2015 are not very different from 2009 and 2010. While there are fewer D grade schools, the majority of schools are now graded B and a quarter or so A or A+.

In 2013, teachers’ grades, published along with school grades, disappeared from sight. Teachers, a powerful constituency, were vehemently opposed to their grades being made public. They argued that the burden of Gunotsav results could not be all theirs.

The Gunotsav school grade is based on a weighted average of each school’s scholastic test score (60%) and non-scholastic score (40%). A high non-scholastic score can make the difference between a C and B grade, a B and A grade or an A and A+ grade. In terms of non-scholastic areas like physical and co-curricular activities, the pressure to improve Gunotsav ratings has, to some extent, had a virtuous effect. Schools have set up science labs, libraries and kitchen gardens, and worked at getting community support for school improvement projects. But for every functioning library, laboratory or kitchen garden there are countless that are in name only. These are boxes to be ticked off on the day of Gunotsav with no one to check how things work during a regular school day.

In schools visited, this reporter cross-checked details on the ground against the Gunotsav school grades. This, along with interviews with teachers and observers, indicate that toilets that would have sparkled for the Gunotsav inspection are infested with flies on a regular day. A library with books on display during Gunotsav is usually locked up because “there is no time” to use it. A science laboratory during Gunotsav is just a trunk full of pristine lab equipment on other days. A school with no computers for students gets full marks for computer use because a teacher uses the internet to make teaching material. Yoga, exercise and sport in the majority of schools mean a few minutes of breathing exercises and stretches during morning assembly. A school that got 85% for community participation had stand-ins for non-existent school management committee members during Gunotsav.

An inner city Ahmedabad elementary school, which got a D during Gunotsav just five years ago, now boasts of an A+. Like inner city government schools everywhere, its students are from the poorest urban demographic – mostly children of daily-wage workers. Absenteeism on any day is between 15%-25%. The school’s A+ grade was based on high scholastic and non-scholastic scores. Curiously while the students’ scores in their medium of instruction were below 5 on a 10-point scale, their English scores were over 7. Asked to explain this, the principal said candidly: “We have found strategies to improve our Gunotsav ranking, but I can say frankly that we have not yet focused on the question you have raised.”

Remedial classes in name only

Schools with a grade lower than an “A” are required to hold remedial classes for students whose test scores are below average. Officials complained that many schools simply do not hold them. But in some cases their students do better when they are tested again, said an official who monitors the process. Asked how this was possible, he said: “They are very creative. For example, they show the students who were good learners as low scoring students whose learning levels have improved through remedial classes.” He said it was difficult to catch them all out.

Those who have observed Gunotsav’s trajectory say that at a critical time, around 2012, when the chinks were first beginning to be noticed, Chief Minister Modi’s focus shifted from the state administration to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Gunotsav was being talked of as yet another a feather in his cap, and questioning what it had actually achieved was not on the agenda. Gunotsav is not so much a celebration of quality, as it is a celebration of the idea of Gunotsav.

Nine years later, it has become an annual ritual for schools, one that they have become inured to. The idea that Gunotsav was a first step towards setting standards for schools, leading to the creation of an independent evaluator has been effectively buried. But, Gunotsav is being promoted as a successful, replicable model. Assam recently commenced its own Gunotsav and the Prime Minister’s Group of Secretaries for Health and Education recommended a “Gunotsav type” annual assessment as part of its education reforms proposals submitted in 2016.

For a few months, no one was sure if Gunotsav would be held for the current academic year, as it was only in November that the National Assessment Survey was conducted. The Union government had touted this survey as the survey to end all surveys. Clearly, it was not. The latest edition of Gunotsav started on April 6, with Chief Minister Vijay Rupani reviewing the performance of a few students in Vadodara.

Asked if the 2018 edition of Gunotsav would be different from previous years, a district education official cheerily replied, “unlikely”.

All photographs by Anjali Mody.

This is the second part of a three-part series on elementary education in Gujarat. Read the other parts of the Educating India series here.