Need mindset change & better school budget to improve govt schools: Expert

Education Director of Peepul, Urmila Chowdhury
In 2009, Urmila Chowdhury, then vice principal at Delhi's Shriram school, decided to leave the private school system and turn her attention to government schools. Six years later, she joined the UK-headquartered international charity Ark International's India operations. 

In 2015, Ark started working in partnership with government schools. In the beginning, one school in Lajpat Nagar-3 was taken up and within three years, students enrollment at the school went up from to nine to 428. Learning outcomes improved dramatically. Two more schools were added in 2017.

As education director (now with Peepul, an Ark venture), Chowdhury, 55, led the change at the first school and now the three academic coordinators at the three schools report to her. Excerpts from her chat with Anjuli Bhargava:

Before we come to government schools, I have a question on private schools. You worked in some of the best private schools and you must have seen that parents are never happy with any school. Why is this so?

Many elite private schools have become businesses, providing a paid service to a clientele. When you are paying a significant amount of money for a service, you want that service to deliver perfectly. If there's a tiny gap, you pounce on it. An increasing number of parents want "value for money" from what they shell out for their children's education.

Why are you paying top dollar when education per se doesn't cost that much? It is all the trappings and trimmings – air-conditioned classrooms, three basketball courts, elaborate meals et al. At some stage, all this seems to be taking away from the primary purpose.

You have made the shift from private to the government school sector. What do you think can be done at government schools to improve outcomes?

There are a few things that come to my mind immediately that don't need elaborate legislation.

One, free the teachers. A significant proportion of a government teacher's time and attention goes into doing paperwork, administrative stuff, and other jobs during school hours. Endless documents seeking permissions of various kinds. Half the time goes in everything other than teaching. If the teacher's hours could be extended for two hours (they typically work till 1 pm) after the students leave, the day could be better planned and teachers could actually give more. Also, government school teachers tend to take a lot of leave. That too could be frowned upon.

Two, in our second and third schools, we have relied more heavily on government teachers. The government system has the required infrastructure. There are many good teachers within the system. But many are demotivated. You have to motivate them to deliver. 

We need to work on better delivery. But unless the government begins to trust NGOs and organisations that can bring in that change, we won't see change on a large enough scale. 

Take the case of Peepul. We have been running this school for three years now. We have three schools now. It's possible that if given time, we may have ten schools. But running schools of this size is very expensive. We have to raise a lot of funding to finance this. The government is not covering the cost. So, we can’t really run hundreds or even dozens of them. No matter how many schools organisations like ours run, it's never going to be enough. The scale on which change is required is only possible through the government system and through national funds. 

What I would like to see is the government able to sift through and identify more organisations and agencies it can trust to help it achieve this. Set high standards and hold the NGOs accountable. Organisations that can help the government do the due diligence and separate the wheat from the chaff.

One of the reasons to do this first school at Lajpat Nagar was to have a template for others to emulate and for proof of concept. An example to showcase what can be done and how it can be done. Given the right ambience, input and opportunity, children, who are first generation learners, can do as well as children who are from privileged backgrounds and the odd exception can do even better at times. I see much more hunger for learning here than I have seen in all my earlier years of teaching.

What kind of fundamental change do you think is needed to see large-scale change?

Above all, we need a mindset change. I find we – the government, funding agencies, and NGOs - are all always talking of finding cheaper, more sustainable, less expensive models for running and improving the government schooling system. My question is why. Our children are our future. They deserve the best. Why do we hesitate to spend on them? Why do we constantly look for ways to reduce the budgets and cut here and there? Schools budgets should be enhanced. 

More than actual spending, I think a mindset change is required. We shouldn’t keep thinking of the cheapest alternative. Shouldn’t our national budgets allow for spending on our future? What is more important than this?

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