In April 2018, the Ministry of Human Resource Development merged three flagship schemes funding public school education in India into one umbrella scheme called the Samagra Shiksha.

Until then, the Sarva Shiksh Abhiyan had been funding elementary education, the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan was aimed at secondary education and Teacher Education at teacher training. Through the newly designed unified scheme, the Union government aims to achieve quality learning through a holistic focus on school education from the pre-primary to the higher secondary levels.

Among the reasons for introducing the scheme is growing policy concern that students in government-run schools have not been able to acquire the knowledge or the skill sets they are expected to have in their grades.

As per the Samagra Shiksha framework, a key approach to achieving quality education is by introducing efficiency in the processes through which the activities under the scheme are managed and executed. It also means laying out clear routes of accountability at every level of governance. Theunified scheme hopes to realise optimal utilisation of both physical and human resources. While physical resources refer to office spaces and infrastructure under the three schemes, human resources consist of officials and support staff. The framework also emphasises harmonising different initiatives for elementary and secondary education, and talks about flexibility to states so they can prioritise elementary or secondary education depending on their needs.

Lack of clarity

But when Accountability Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research met with Samagra Shiksha officials in the five states where we work, there seemed to be a lack of clarity on how some of the systemic changes mentioned in the framework are going to be introduced on ground. This was evident in the states: Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Whether it is the annual financial planning for the unified scheme, administrative structures or monitoring mechanisms, the convergence of the three schemes appears to be incomplete.

One area of ambiguity we found is related to the transition in the annual financial planning process. Prior to the Samagra Shiksha being implemented, annual financial plans at the block, district and state levels were prepared separately for elementary and secondary education. Samagra Shiksha envisions collaborative planning among the three erstwhile schemes at the block, district and state levels. Yet from our discussions, it seems that a collaborative approach to financial planning among officials of the two erstwhile schemes is yet to take hold.

Credit: Ahmad Masood/Reuters

Annual plans for elementary and secondary education are still being prepared separately and get aggregated at the state level to create the unified plan. This could hamper holistic planning. To illustrate, in a particular year, the Samagra Shiksha officials might feel the need to focus on secondary education and therefore, they may choose not to propose as manyfunds for elementary as they might have done before. If education planners continue to work in silos, they are less likely communicate on what is needed to harmonise work under the new scheme.

No clear guidlines

Before the three schemes were merged, each had their own administrative structures at the block, district and state levels. Accordingly, the officials under the three schemes had clear-cut responsibilities in their respective domains. At present, the state-level offices and implementation societies for the three earlier schemes have been combined, and a single bank account has been created to receive funds for implementation of the scheme.

However, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan administrative structures still exist in most districts and blocks. Since these officials are now part of the unified scheme, it is unclear whether they will still be responsible for elementary and secondary education of the previous administrative structures or will be trained in comprehensive school education. In the five states where we operate, there seem to be no clear guidelines or instructions on the possible functional and operational changes sent to the project offices below the state level. Moreover, there has been no discussion around the vision of the unified scheme on using resources optimally, which could prompt a relook at the staff size at each level.

Monitoring mechanism essential

For a scheme to achieve its full potential, a regular monitoring mechanism is extremely important. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan had a huge monitoring architecture in place. Block-level officers used to monitor all elementary schools within their jurisdictions. Secondary schools under Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan were monitored at a broader level – mostly from the district. After the merger, it is unclear if there will be changes in monitoring processes and how they will be carried out.

For instance, many states have been merging elementary and secondary schools or upgrading elementary schools to create schools that can offer all levels of education from pre-primary to high school level. As a result, the number of secondary schools are soon likely to rise. Will block level officials under the erstwhile Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan now be required to monitor secondary schools? We have no concrete answers.

It has only been a year since the three schemes were merged. The unified scheme has the ambitious goal of achieving quality and universal school education within the next decade. Therefore, it is essential that all the functional and process-related changes are implemented right from the beginning along with clear-cut instructions to the implementing officials. The quality of school education will get better only when these basic implementation issues are resolved.

Mridusmita Bordoloi is a Senior Researcher at Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research.