Niti Aayog, the central government’s think tank, is drafting a set of core principles for improving education systems in the states.

It will be Niti Aayog’s “theory of change” and informed mainly by its experience of school education reform in Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. The governance consultancy firm Samagra has entered into an agreement with Niti Aayog to share its own experience working in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

Once finalised, the document can be used as a guide by the states seeking to improve their school education systems, said Alok Kumar, Niti Aayog’s adviser for health and education.

Niti Aayog’s work with the states on education has not always gone smoothly. In August 2017, it selected Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh out of 16 states that had competed to join for an education reform programme, called Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital, or Sath. School education systems and their reform are in the states’ domain and, traditionally, the Union human resource development ministry has had little say beyond framing terms for its schemes. Yet, agreements were signed between Niti Aayog, the states and the management consultancy firm Boston Consulting Group.

But efforts towards reform have involved widespread merger of small schools with low enrolment into bigger ones. This has been met with resistance in several states, including, in Jharkhand, from MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Niti Aayog’s “point of view” has also differed from the human resource development ministry’s on several matters such as reform roadmaps and parameters for assessing a state’s performance on education.

In an interview with Scroll.in, Kumar, an Indian Administrative Service officer from Uttar Pradesh, spoke about Niti Aayog’s work with the states on education. Excerpts:

What is the nature of your work with the states?
One dimension is that each adviser to Niti Aayog also looks after one state. I look after Uttar Pradesh – I am from that cadre – and the role is being a bridge between the central government and the states.

But sectoral engagements are deeper in a sense. We look at the ranking of states as per the idea of competitive federalism and one of the parameters is school education quality, understood in terms of the levels of infrastructure, governance and learning outcomes.

The third level of interaction is the Sath project, which is almost a partnership where we work with states in partnership with other agencies to help them improve their education systems to the extent that is possible. Usually, it is a three- or four-year engagement.

Alok Kumar is Niti Aayog’s adviser for health and education.
Alok Kumar is Niti Aayog’s adviser for health and education.

How is Sath progressing? There is barely any mention of it on Niti Aayog’s website and some of the reforms recommended under it – such as school mergers – have faced resistance. In Jharkhand, it came from Members of Parliament.
I don’t think Odisha did much on the mergers. They postponed it because of the election. Madhya Pradesh has done it only for schools running from the same campus; four-five schools on the same campus have been merged. But because of the election and that the order came in the middle of an academic session, they couldn’t close bank accounts etc. But, by this April, I think it will be implemented in practice. Accounts of school management committees will be merged and one teacher will be made in charge of the combined school.

Jharkhand is the only state which acted on this challenge to an extent. There were some people who said there were problems but from the visits I made, I didn’t see that much resistance. The resistance was largely political and fuelled by the fact that some of the teachers would be disturbed because of this movement.

The district deputy commissioners claim the MPs were all invited, the MPs say there was no consultation. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. I think the letters would have gone but were not seen and the administration did not pursue them.

At the schools I visited, I found the merger was working well because the same resources now added up to much more – a single big library, a good school ground and play material. The jury is still out since the learning outcome impact is yet to be measured. We have done a baseline test. We will do midline and endline assessment, then we will be able to see. One and a half years still remain of the partnership.

What is the Boston Consulting Group’s role in this?

It is a partner in the Sath states.

The first three-four months were spent sitting with the states to diagnose their problems. Next, we sat with the state administration, civil society organisations to brainstorm solutions until we agreed on a set of interventions and targets. We are proceeding on that.

The Boston Consulting Group has stationed teams – two-three people – in each of the three states. They catalyse a lot of activity. In Jharkhand, the problem was that at the directorate level, we had not built sufficient capacity. So, there was a proposal for organising a group of 15-20 people who could analyse data coming from the ground and share information with the state directorate or the mission directors to carry out those actions.

It’s not that people don’t know the problems or the solutions. They [the consultants] galvanise the team and offer small technical assistance. On school inspections, some forms are filled and submitted but no one aggregates the data – that intelligence is missing. Information lies in fragments in blocks and districts and nobody is able to see the full picture.

Has there been opposition to the presence of the Boston Consulting Group teams in government offices?
That is always the case. In the initial period, there was some problem. But from what I hear from all three state governments, they feel the teams have served a useful purpose. The pace at which change is taking place would be different for different reasons.

A primary school classroom in Rajasthan. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury
A primary school classroom in Rajasthan. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Is Niti Aayog now assessing states other than the three in Sath?
Niti Aayog as an organisation is not working directly with any other state, but we are looking at learnings from all the states whether we are working there or not. We have tried to arrive at a set of principles that should be kept in mind while planning interventions to improve education systems. There is no unique solution. Each state has a different starting point, the cultural milieu and work environments are different. But some principles are universal, such as blaming teachers is not a solution. To transact lessons better, a more enabling environment is required. Parents must be engaged in the school system and a more efficient school size works best. You need transparent transfer policies. The whole package is required.

The idea for the exercise was: can we extract from this individual experiences of the state and can we have some universal principles that would be applicable?

Samagra is gathering data from the states where it has worked and we have experiences from where we have worked. We have not worked directly with Rajasthan but it seems to have done very well with Shala Darpan, which is their information technology-based monitoring system. They have adopted an online transfer system, making the process more transparent. Their Adarsh schools have been praised and the school consolidation in Jharkhand was also inspired a bit by Rajasthan.

Delhi seems to have done some work as well and we need to understand what its impact has been. One hears a lot about the experimentation.

The idea is to bring out a draft document of what we call a “theory of change”. If I have to raise the level of my school education system, what are the elements that need to be in place or areas that need intervention? The draft will be based on feedback from these seven-eight states. We will seek comments from all the others.

There is already a Performance Grading Index to assess education systems in the states.
That is being done by the HRD ministry. They have taken around 70 indicators, many of them process or input-related. We have taken 25-odd indicators from those since we did not want the states to do that data-filling exercise twice. We have done the grading and will probably release it after the election.

What happened to Niti Aayog’s own School Education Quality Index?
We did something initially but there were some differences with the HRD ministry. We were focused more on learning outcomes while they emphasised more on processes. Their idea was that we have to monitor it at a more granular level. We discussed and decided that there is no reason to do two separate things. We picked a smaller number of indicators that are relevant from our perspective from the larger set.

So, now there are two indexes?
There is really only one in a sense – 70 points that the HRD ministry will monitor and a subset of parameters that we will monitor.

Do you have full cooperation of the ministry? There was some friction over Sath.
Different institutions of government are there because there are different points of view and that is fine. We have not faced too much resistance. As far as the HRD ministry is concerned, there will always be differences institutionally. Niti Aayog will have a somewhat different view. Of course, the final decision is taken by the Cabinet, and that becomes the policy. But so far as our views on what is to be done are concerned, there are healthy differences and that is fine with us.

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Niti Aayog and Union HRD ministry compete over state education roadmaps