When you meet someone after 30 odd years, and both your minds independently go back to the same images from the past, there must be something riveting about those memories.
My school principal was the much respected educationist H.P. Rajaguru. There were principals before and after him, but no one else has mattered much to me. I met him last week in Bhopal, where I studied, and where he has settled down after an illustrious career.
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When principals meet his students after so many decades, they start with the past. Almost the first thing he said was: “I wanted every child to go up on the stage and talk, to build her confidence.”
Like many of my fellow sufferers, this was a definitive point in my memories of childhood: the morning assembly at school, where as a sixth grade student trembling with stage fright I would go up in front of a 1,000 students to read the news.
I remember my school, just another Kendriya Vidyalaya, but always abuzz. We knew it then, and in hindsight it’s even clearer, that it was all my principal’s influence. As he told me last week, he had had a plan, and had been willing to experiment. It envisioned 50% student-learning in the classroom and 50% outside it through a series of well-coordinated activities. This led to an extraordinarily alive school despite the same curriculum, resources and constraints as at all other schools.
The leader makes a big difference in any organization. It’s perhaps more so for a school. Those of us who have seen factories will know how two that have the same process to make the same product can be completely different on all performance parameters—simply because of the factory leader and the culture that he fosters.
The school is a far more complex and sensitive organization than any factory, the proverbial chalk and cheese. A school’s work happens with children, each one different from the other. Even the same child is different at different times. For good education, these differences have to be recognized and worked with. This must happen at every level of interaction with the child, and with every facet of education. Machines don’t have their own minds, moods and motivations. This is not the only reason why the school is infinitely more complex than any factory, but it is a key one.
In a complex system, local, onsite leadership matters even more. Ideally, leadership is a shared endeavour between the designated school leader, teachers and perhaps also the students. But the influence of the individual school leader plays a large part in relative school performances in any education system.
The Indian school system has approximately 1.4 million school leaders. In most cases, and definitely in government schools, the school leader is a tenured teacher. The method of appointing the leader, which takes tenure and not ability as the key factor, and the almost complete absence of real capacity building for a leader once she is appointed are two of the key problems facing Indian education. These issues also present opportunities for driving improvement in the overall system.
While the issues are as relevant for private schools, I will limit my comments to the government school system. In that context, appointment to positions such as school leaders is so deeply rooted in the notion of tenure, and the possibility of a move to any competence and merit driven system is so politically and socially vexing, that it may not be worth attempting.
What could be attempted is rigorous, sustained and comprehensive capacity development. It’s surprising that while the importance of school leaders and the need for their capacity development are so obvious, little thought and almost no action have gone into it.
The Karnataka government has committed to a continuing cycle of capacity development for the state’s 56,000 school, cluster and block level leaders. This long-term and high-intensity programme, on which the Azim Premji Foundation is collaborating with the state government, will complete the first cycle in five years. While it’s too early to talk of any impact, initial signs are promising.
Our experience and that of many others has validated the key dimensions of capacity building for school leaders. This includes perspectives on the purpose of education and on what makes good education, basic people management, planning and personal effectiveness skills, and an understanding of stakeholder engagement methods and of organizations and systems. Doing this at a large scale requires resources and sustained commitment.
Capacity building cannot address all the issues of school leaders, including ones that the larger system burdens them with, but it can make a substantial difference. It can catalyse out-of-place school leaders to find purpose and methods to affect what is in their circle of influence instead of being hobbled by what is outside it. And that can make the difference between a school that improves and one that drifts in the general quagmire.
Anurag Behar is co-CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at email@example.com