Our ‘best’ schools need to become good

Our ‘best’ schools need to become good

In 2006, we tried to seek an answer to the question: How good are India’s best schools? This was a part of Wipro Ltd’s initiative to help improve the quality of education in the country. In collaboration with Educational Initiatives, a leading education assessment organization, we conducted a study across the schools generally recognized (in a poll of upper middle-class parents) to be the best in the six metros. All these were private schools. The study used assessment tools and methods for which comparable data was available across many countries.

The answers were not surprising to anyone involved with schools. The basic conclusion of the study was that India’s best schools were not in good shape. Actual learning levels of students in our best schools were below global averages. Our students did well in areas that required memorization and procedural skills, but were way behind when it came to understanding, conceptual clarity, thinking and application.

The conclusion of the study should have been unsurprising to all of us, not just those involved with schools. We are all familiar with the rote and examination-centred education system that we have built. We are equally familiar with the national, social obsession with marks.

However, when the fragility of our education was exposed by this study, it was considered significant enough for India Today to run a cover story in September 2006. What added to the shock value was that perhaps for the first time there was a comparison available of our school learning levels with that of other countries.

The results from the 2011 study continue to remain unsurprising or shocking—depending on how involved you have been with schools.

Our “best" schools continue to be sharply behind global averages as measured by learning levels of students. Let me emphasize: We are talking about our best schools compared with global averages. If anything, the scores suggest that things have deteriorated since 2006.

Both the 2011 and 2006 studies had their bright sparks—some schools did do well. But that should not hide the primary message: India’s school education is in bad shape, not just the government- and low-fee private schools, but even the “best schools" that are the exemplars for all other schools to emulate.

The broader aspects of the 2011 study on values, attitudes, school environment, etc., also reflect trends that shouldn’t really surprise us. The schools are an integral part of our society, so reflect broader social trends. These schools, where the students come primarily from upper middle-class homes, reflect significant gender and community bias and low social sensitivity.

The conclusions of the study highlight some of the deep malaise in our education system.

Equating rote and “cracking exams" to education is one of the deep flaws. What should disturb us, and prod us to urgent action, is that what we consider as our best schools also do not deal with this fundamental issue. In fact, our schools are playing to the gallery. There is a race among schools to demonstrate success, as measured by “cracking exams".

This is an abdication of their responsibility of providing good education. Instead of a genuine attempt at imparting good education, most of our schools are happy serving and feeding the current set of social expectations, creating a spiral of declining quality. And they are not short of resources, nor do they charge low fees.

There are substantial variations across these “best" schools— certainly enough bright sparks to clearly demonstrate that it is actually possible to have good education, within the current system (e.g., boards, curriculum, exams) and societal expectations. But the large majority of schools do not do this.

I have my own hypothesis on why this is so. I think it’s primarily because it’s so much harder to impart good education on a sustained basis than it is to get your students to get good marks in exams. It’s harder in every way: it requires more effort, more time and more (and different kinds of) capabilities. Fostering a culture of rote learning doesn’t require this, so why take the trouble?

Our “best" schools that should be leading our society to good education are active participants in the hollowing of the Indian mind.

All this doesn’t mean that we become even more charged-up and frantic in our public discourse. Rather, what we need is more wisdom, a wider view of life and a slower, more effective and sustainable approach to school education.

That the government education system must improve is obvious, we demand it, and some of us help with it. We must equally demand that our “best" schools also become good.

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability issues for Wipro Ltd.