The education goalpost is in sight, the trouble is with the strikers

India’s states spend roughly Rs 3 trillion cumulatively annually on school education. Yet it amounts to very little. Learning outcomes in the K12 segment across the country remain dismal. More inputs usually do not translate into better yields.


The World Bank estimates India’s learning poverty at 54.8 per cent in 2017, referring to children’s inability to read and understand simple text and numbers by the age of 10. Keeping India company are Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Jordan, Kuwait and Peru, all ranging in the 50s band. China was at 18.2 per cent in the same year. India’s last performance in the global PISA tests was also less than satisfactory. After many years of denial, the country has decided to participate yet again in the PISA tests in 2021.


Education, however, remains a state subject. What then can the Centre do to catalyse the states into action? It was with this in mind that the NITI Aayog launched the Sustainable Action in Transforming Human Capital in Education (SATH-E) in 2017. The Centre would “hand-hold” the state and help it effect a “systemic transformation” in school education. For this hand-holding, the bill would be borne by the Centre. “The idea was to nudge the states into improving learning outcomes through a comprehensive reform of the state education machinery. Three states were selected through a challenge route. We have worked in close partnership with them to bring change at ground level,” says NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant. If any of the states manage significant improvement, it will act as a template for other states in the future.


The Aayog invited all states to participate and three states – Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand – were selected based on their vision, intent and willingness. Together, the three account for 18 per cent of the country’s government schools, encompass 20 million students and 500,000 teachers. Moreover, in terms of performance, all three states were among the poorest, with rankings of 12, 15 and 16 respectively among the 20 larger states. If they could be transformed, any other state could.


The SATH-E began in real earnest only in October 2017, although the formal date of launch was May 2017. The knowledge partner selected by the NITI Aayog for the project was BCG. BCG has partnered across states with the Piramal-founded Kaivalya Education Foundation (KEF) and Unicef. Eleven other bodies are involved in various capacities at the state and individual expertise level.


The exercise – drawn up in consultation with each state education department – introduced interventions on six fronts: learning enhancement programme, school mergers and consolidation, teacher recruitment and rationalisation, school monitoring, school certification and MIS and accountability. The reforms were to focus on short-term improvements in learning outcomes, but even more on how the system can be made capable of managing the change and improving once the NITI Aayog and BCG withdrew. How could gains made be sustained is the most critical aspect, according to all involved with the project.


Also, the baseline of the states is very poor. “In reality, to bring our government schools even up to the level of middle-of-the-road private competitors is a ten-year journey”, says a senior NITI Aayog official. But the whole idea behind SATH-E is to accelerate and provide a sharp nudge that helps them leapfrog ahead.


Three years later – pre-pandemic – NITI Aayog officials say that progress has been varied on various parameters across the three states, with some states lagging behind in capacity building and others in ground implementation. At a macro level, Madhya Pradesh, despite being the largest (120,000 schools) and undergoing a state election and subsequent change in government, has made rapid strides on account of strong leadership. According to sources, 40-45 per cent of the ground has been covered by the state including reducing the total number of schools by 20,000 through merger and consolidation. The state has strong leadership and committed officials in the education space that have driven the change despite it being more complex.


Odisha, which started from a higher baseline with virtually no teacher vacancy, has completed around 30 per cent of the ground work but the merger of schools – imminent but not yet happened – got stuck due to the pandemic. Jharkhand, a state notorious for its poor governance and which started with 40 per cent teacher vacancy at the start of the exercise, has done “surprisingly well” and has covered close to 25-30 per cent of the ground work. It has adapted to the academic initiatives of the programme well, but the commitment for making systemic reforms is still missing. For instance, for 60 days in 2018, all the teachers went on strike and no progress could be made during this period.


Officials say that SATH-E is to enter its second phase, and the date will be announced once the pandemic is behind us (which would also have undone some of the gains made in phase one) and as of now, it is proposed for two years. BCG will continue to be the knowledge partner. In each phase, BCG is engaging different organisations that bring in their own expertise. Delhi-based Education Alliance and Peepul will also be engaged in the second phase in MP. Akshara and Kusuma foundation are both actively engaged with Odisha.


The second phase will focus on putting the state education departments on the right path and trajectory at a systemic level, and then hope that the rest of the transformation can be led internally. Many feel at the end of second phase the states will have made almost 60-70 per cent progress and to do this, BCG and the other partners are hoping to focus on “10-20 per cent of the schools that account for a majority (50-60 per cent) of the students”. Disproportionate attention will be on the larger schools as this will help reach a larger number of children. These will become the exemplar schools and the state machinery can then replicate it.


The project has also raised eyebrows since Niti Aayog chose to BCG-Piramal through a competitive bidding process – sources say at an annual cost of around Rs nine crore (Rs 45 crore for five years) – to the exchequer versus asking not-for-profit civil society bodies to do the job. The official thinking on this is that several similar “free” efforts in the past have delivered poor results. Taking on BCG as a partner and paying for its expertise (“if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”) is an attempt to break out of that.


Opinion on the issue remains divided, with some arguing that NGO-led initiatives often don’t align with state priorities and capacity and run in parallel. “India has a plethora of NGO programmes without any coordination and alignment to overall state priorities. There have been states which had nearly triple-digit NGO partnerships running parallel to the states programmes”, says CSF managing director Bikkrama Daulet Singh. States, he argues, need NGOs to pilot innovations, but these initiatives should be aligned to the overall goals of the state. Others, however, were of the view that similar efforts designed and operationalised by consultancy firms at high costs to the state or Centre have failed the sustainability test too. The skeptics cite BCG’s work in Haryana some years ago and argue that the reforms failed to stick once they exited. The jury is out on whether BCG can carry out the reforms and ensure that the states continue on the same virtuous path even after they formally exit.


Seema Bansal, who is leading the project on behalf of BCG, says that the competitive spirit unleashed by the programme helps immensely. “A programme where three  states are on the same journey together leads to both learning from each other as well as a healthy sense of competition to stay ahead. The first question I get asked in many states when I visit for a meeting or review is: ‘What are others doing? Who is ahead?’”, says Bansal, partner and Asia Pacific leader, social impact for BCG.


Can the NITI Aayog and Co nudge the Centee forward (in this case the state education machinery) to finally land the ball in the goalpost? Phase two will reveal the answer.

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