Jehanabad (Bihar): It’s just after breakfast and barefoot children trickle into the classroom. Brightly coloured posters adorn the white walls—the solar system, a counting and phonetic chart, parts of the body, and a portrait of a radiant B.R. Ambedkar, a builder of modern India.

It looks like any other government school classroom. But these 30-odd children are not all of the same grade or even age—they range from 10-year olds to some in their late teens. What is common among them is that they are all at roughly the same level of learning.

The children sit on gunny sacks—no desks here—and hurriedly unpack their bags. The teacher takes the attendance, and then begins to read out a story in Hindi—today it’s The Monkey and the Elephant. The students move their index fingers in tandem with the rhythm of the teacher’s speech. After finishing, the teacher asks if anyone would like to come up to the front of the class and read in exactly the same way. The exercise never fails to excite them, and one by one they come up and try to mimic the teacher’s reading. The rest of the class keeps their eyes peeled for the teacher’s reaction, so they know who is the best.

Settled after the fun exercise—you can mimic a teacher and not get sent out for it—the teacher asks them to choose their favourite word in the text they just read, and then write it down. Pushing and jumping over each other, some students rush to the blackboard and others write with chalk on the cement floor. There are no wrong answers here—just answers that can be improved upon with the aid of a barakhadi chart (Devanagari alphabets with vowel signs) and help from other students.

This is an akshar samoh (or “letter group") in a middle school at Kako block in Bihar’s Jehanabad district. The school is part of Mission Gunwatta, an innovative programme started in 2013 in all government schools in Bihar to help improve the levels of learning among children who have fallen behind in elementary classes—a common problem not only in Bihar, but across the country.

In India, even after completing four years of school, 90% of children from poorer households remain illiterate, according to Unesco’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) 11th Education For All Global Monitoring Report.

The proportion of children in class V who can read a class II-level text has declined by almost 15 percentage points since 2005, and the number of class VIII students who can perform a simple division has declined by almost 23 percentage points, according to the 2013 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), released by the non-profit Pratham Education Foundation.

This means that while in 2005, three out of every five students in class V were able to read textbooks prescribed for children three years junior to them, only one out of two is up to the task now.

The proportion of children in class III being able to read at least a paragraph of a class I text is still abysmally low. In 2013, only two out of five children could achieve this standard.

The survey, carried out in 550 rural districts of India and published by Pratham, found that while the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 has improved enrolment in schools—96% in government schools according to the ASER report—this comes at the expense of the quality of learning.

In recent years, India has joined the ranks of 10 countries that have made the fastest progress in bringing down the number of children who are out of school. But this drive has also created a global learning crisis—250 million children who are enrolled in school are not learning the basics of reading, writing and math, and a third of them are in South and West Asia.

The rise in enrolment comes from improved and expanded inputs and infrastructure—for instance, the number of teachers, drinking water and free meals under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Initiatives such as Mission Gunwatta focus on the actual process of learning.

It’s been pouring heavily in Mangarama middle school in Gaya district, but the attendance register shows that 75% of the children in the school have turned up. The teacher says this would never happen before Mission Gunwatta.

It’s time to begin a “mind mapping" exercise. There is a sudden flapping of notebooks being shut and then silence. The teacher draws a bubble on the board and writes varshaa (Hindi for rain).

“What comes to your mind when you read this?" the teacher asks.

“Sludge, lightning, umbrellas, thunder, clouds, wind," the children shout out. This particular activity triggers thinking while making learning fun, the teacher says.

In Mangarama middle school, 15km from Gaya district, headmaster Virendra Kumar is teaching arithmetic. “So tell me—if Ram Jai Kumar has 32 sticks and I take away 18 from him and give them to Shivam, how many sticks will Ram Jai Kumar have? What do you think you have to do?" he asks. The students shout, “Subract!"

“And how will you do that?"

The children split into groups, tying up sticks into bundles of 10 each. Ram Jai Kumar has three bundles and two sticks. Shivam takes 18 sticks from Kumar. “So, how many does Ram have now?" the teacher asks. The group counts the remaining sticks and shouts, “One bundle and four sticks."

“I enjoy using sticks to count. I don’t have to memorize anything. It is like a game, but we are learning," says Renu Kumari, a class VI student in the school.

The activities under the programme are time consuming—instead of concentrating on marks, they focus on how much a child learns. Dilip Kumar, block resource person, Pratham, says: “When you are unwell, you should go to a doctor who specializes in the illness you have (rather) than a general physician. This way the treatment is quicker and more efficient."

Virender Kumar, whose school has 217 students, says: “Children enjoy this way of learning but teachers find it lengthy. They haven’t been able to blend this type of teaching."

As per Mission Gunwatta, two hours each have to be dedicated to bhasha (language) and ganit (Math). “(In the regular classes before Mission Gunwatta was launched) It was stifling to see some children in the class who were not able to understand most of the things. They were actually wasting their time. There were some children who were doing so good, while others had no idea what was going on because their basics weren’t clear," says Sashi Kumari, principal, Belaganj girls middle school, Gaya district.

Mission Gunwatta is not a stand-alone programme—it acts as an extension of several programmes started at various levels in Bihar, looking to engage people already working in the system.

For example, it taps into the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the government’s universal literacy programme, by selecting the best teachers in a cluster, who are then trained to become trainers.

Before the start of their three-day training programme, these so-called cluster resource centre coordinators (CRCCs) are divided into groups of three and sent to five schools, where they are often surprised to see that while attendance mostly matches their estimates, actual learning levels vary greatly. “We realized that we really need to focus on learning...something we didn’t think was a problem," says Kalika Kumar, a CRCC in Gaya.

They then conduct practice classes for 15 days before being sent back to train teachers in the schools under their jurisdictions (clusters). They continue to provide field support and monitoring.

While Bihar’s literacy rate is 63.82%, as against the national average of 74.4%, according to Census 2011, the state’s expenditure on education is around $100 per child a year. In comparison, Kerala, India’s most literate state, spends around $685 per child per year.

Bihar faces a scarcity of teachers: according to the ASER report—there are 57 pupils for every teacher in Bihar, whereas the RTE Act stipulates a much smaller classroom size of 30 pupils per teacher. “The process is on to make the pupil teacher ratio 35:1 within two months," says an official in the state education department, who did not want to be identified.

Such programmes are meant to help the most marginalized communities attain basic literacy.

In 2012-13, 20,000 volunteer teachers from the Mahadalit (most backward lower caste) community and another 10,000 from the Muslim community were engaged in schools to provide supplementary learning support for children from their respective communities, and to promote female literacy.

Similar initiatives have been rolled out in other parts of the country, though not on such a large scale. Balsakhi, an “education intervention" programme, was implemented in 122 public primary schools in Vadodara and 77 schools in Mumbai during 2001-2003. Under it, a tutor (balsakhi), usually a young woman recruited from the local community and paid a fraction of a government teacher’s salary, works with children in classes II, III and IV who have fallen behind their peers.

“The point is to focus on skills that the children don’t have and that they ought to have learnt already, given where they are in terms of grades, and therefore don’t get taught in school any more," says Abhijit Banerjee, Ford Foundation International professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“The battle for moving from a system which is used to just providing infrastructure, to a system that actually looks at what is happening inside the classroom is a long one. But it is a very important first step. Complete success requires a lot of concerted effort in the system and change at the policy level, and also change in the thinking that creating infrastructure automatically means learning will happen," says Yamini Aiyar, a senior research fellow and director of the accountability initiative of the Centre for Policy Research, a research initiative to provide accessible analysis of implementation of government programmes.

On 15 September 2012, the Jehanabad district administration and Pratham together developed a “special teaching-learning" literacy package for children in classes III, IV and V, called “Padho Jehanabad" (Read, Jehanabad), which formed the basis for the Mission Gunwatta model.

The package, piloted in 224 schools in Kako and Modanganj blocks of the district, aimed to ensure that every child in these classes was able to read class II-level texts fluently within six months.

As in Mission Gunwatta, CRCCs were selected to be leaders, each with 12-15 schools, and work with teachers. “This is just one initiative and cannot solve all the problems in the entire education system. This is just to ignite the system. And this is not even replacing the regular classes," says Gaya district magistrate and collector, Balamurugan D., who, as the Jehanabad district magistrate, supervised the implementation of Padho Jehanabad, along with Rukmini Banerji of Pratham.

The mission focused on classes III, IV and V, assuming that children aged eight and above are more likely to learn quickly, making accelerated learning possible. The students were tested using a simple reading tool and grouped by their learning level for instruction, rather than by grade. Each group was called a mahal (now samoh in Mission Gunwatta).

According to their levels of understanding, for the bhasha class, the children are divided into different mahals—prarambhik (beginner), akshar (letter), shabd (word), anuchhed (paragraph) and kahani (story).

“If a child can read a paragraph comfortably even after making two mistakes, he can be put in the story group, but if he makes at least two mistakes but the reading lacks the flow, he should be put in the paragraph group. If a child makes more than two mistakes while reading a paragraph, he should be put in the word group. And if a child, while reading five words, correctly reads four, he can be put in the word group but if he correctly reads less than four, then he should be put in the letter group. If while reading five letters, he can read four correctly, put him in the letter group, but if he reads less than four correctly, put him in the prarambhik group," reads the Combined Activities for Maximized Learning manual issued by Pratham and the State Council of Educational Research and Training, Bihar.

For the math class, students are divided among group prarambhik (beginner), group 1 (those who can recognize numbers from one to nine), group 2 (those who can recognize numbers from 10-99), group 3 (those who can perform addition and subtraction) and group 4 (those who can perform division).

The idea stemmed from the fact that different students in the same grade may not be at the same level of education, while a teacher may focus only on one group, which could be the reason why school attendance is low for many children. The idea behind this is widely accepted in many Western nations.

At the start of the programme, close to 60% of all children in classes III, IV and V in 224 schools being assessed could not even read words. Each day, the period from 2.30pm to 4.00pm was dedicated to Padho Jehanabad—and attendance improved.

At the end of Padho Jehanabad, two external evaluation groups chose 60 schools at random for assessment of reading levels. In September 2012, 40.1% of the children evaluated could read at the story and paragraph levels, and by February 2013, the proportion rose to 60.6%. In the beginning, 47.6% of the students assessed were at the letter and beginner levels—that is, they had difficulty even reading individual words. This came down to 26.2% by the end of the programme.

An article in Ideas for India, an economics and policy portal, by Amarjeet Sinha, former principal secretary of the Bihar department of education, says that fixing classroom learning is no “rocket science".

“It needs removal of governance and infrastructure deficits, a thrust on teacher development, greater community interface with schools, and most important of all, strengthening of teacher development institutions that link with schools in promoting excellence," the article says.

While Padho Jehanabad may have been the first step in that direction, and was lauded for its results, the government’s attempt to implement the model in all districts with Mission Gunwatta has a long way to go, especially since it intends to change the mindset of people involved at all levels of the education system—from the administration to the teachers and students at the school level.

Though it is too early to judge the efficiency of the programme, there are fears already that CRCCs are often burdened with paperwork and that there is little supervision to ensure teachers stick to teaching guidelines.

“CRCCs are involved in both academic and non-academic work, which is why they are hardly involved in the work they should be doing. CRCCs should be given only academic work," says D.K. Sinha, assistant resource person, education, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Bihar.

“Instead of using CRCCs for administrative work, they should be used for helping with the academics," says Gaya district magistrate and collector Balamurugan.

“Now the work of CRCCs has been reduced to paperwork. We only do paperwork—like how many rooms there are, is every child getting food. And since there is no regular monitoring, teachers choose only the easy parts of the activities and training they are given," said Shiva Kant Tiwary, Pratham block resource person, Jehanabad, who is a part of Mission Gunwatta.

Education policy expert Karthik Muralidharan of the University of California, US says acknowledging the problem of low learning levels is the first step towards fixing it.

“The programme has focused on orienting the classroom pedagogy to the right level of where the students are, and not just on completing the textbook," says Muralidharan.

“But system-level transformation is hard work and is unlikely without strong political support and continuity of administrative leadership."

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