How to Achieve Universal Acquisition of Foundational Literacy and Numeracy by 2026-27 as Envisioned by NIPUN Bharat
We at Central Square Foundation interviewed Dhir Jhingran, the Founder-Director of Language and Learning Foundation (LLF), a non-profit focused on improving foundational learning of students with a specific focus on language and literacy. We also interviewed Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research, a public policy research think tank. They elaborate upon how we can ensure that NIPUN Bharat succeeds within the stipulated time.Go Back
By The EDge Editorial Team
July 27th, 2021
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education launched the National Initiative for Proficiency in reading with Understanding and Numeracy (NIPUN) Bharat. A national mission, NIPUN Bharat aims to achieve universal acquisition of Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) skills — a child’s ability to read with comprehension and perform basic maths problems by Class 3 — for all children by 2026-27. The ministry also released guidelines for all states on how to implement NIPUN Bharat to ensure the mission succeeds and achieves its targets in a time-bound manner.
We at Central Square Foundation interviewed Dhir Jhingran, the Founder-Director of Language and Learning Foundation (LLF), a non-profit focused on improving foundational learning of students with a specific focus on language and literacy. We also interviewed Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research, a public policy research think tank. They elaborate upon how we can ensure that NIPUN Bharat succeeds within the stipulated time.
Dhir Jhingran, the Founder-Director of Language and Learning Foundation (LLF), talks about levers that will be crucial to the success of NIPUN Bharat
Q1: Given the pandemic-induced school closures, what are some of the measures / programmes that LLF adopted to help children stay on course with foundational learning skills? What are some key areas that need more attention?
Dhir: To ensure continuity of early literacy learning for children in Grades 1 to 3 during the pandemic, LLF devised and implemented a two-pronged strategy. The first is a hybrid learning program with a structured curriculum using low-tech digital content sent out regularly to parents on WhatsApp, supported by printed workbooks made available to all children. The other supports face-to-face small-group classes run by community volunteers and teachers using LLF materials. The program thus ensures that the digital divide does not constrain the learning of children from more deprived backgrounds. This innovative home and community-based learning program named Har Ghar School (HGS), which translates to ‘every home is school’, has been implemented in about 3750 school catchment areas in the four states of Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Bihar since May 2020. Between August 2020 and March 2021, about 83,500 children in Grades 1 to 3 have benefitted with foundational literacy skills through this program. The hybrid learning program continued to be implemented even during the severe second wave. The major component of community classes is being restarted on 1st August, 2021 in about 3800 locations.
The major focus of the program is volunteer or teacher-led small group classes in local communities using workbooks and graded reading books. The second focus supports smartphone-based digital content, sent regularly to parents, and includes a strong component that encourages parents to take an active role in supporting their children’s learning.
Internal assessments by LLF staff found that between August 2020 and March 2021, participants had made significant gains in word recognition, fluency in reading connected texts, and reading comprehension (detailed results can be seen here). The most heartening aspect of the learning gains from HGS has been the highly improved performance of children at the bottom of the learning ladder (lowest 10% to 20%) which indicates that the program had a strong inclusive learning design and implementation.
The key area which needs attention is how the school system adapts and responds once the schools reopen in the academic year 2022-23. Children in early grades will need to be engaged in fun activities and conversations about their experiences during the pandemic with a focus on socioemotional learning in the first few months. The curriculum and instructional design for the next two academic years would need significant adjustment to provide for an extended bridging for children coming into grades 2-5. The learning outcomes expected from these cohorts would also be different from the outcomes specified as grade level outcomes.
Strong initiative from States/UTs will be needed (to successfully implement NIPUN Bharat). It will not be adequate to implement a nationally designed program per the demand and prescription of the Ministry of Education. Each state government must prioritise and commit to the cause of improving foundational learning.Dhir Jhingran
Q2: What are 3 key things, according to you, that will ensure that NIPUN Bharat succeeds and achieves universal acquisition for all Class 3 children by 2026-27?
- Strong initiative from States/UTs will be needed. It will not be adequate to implement a nationally designed program per the demand and prescription of the Ministry of Education. Each state government must prioritise and commit to the cause of improving foundational learning. There are no quick fixes to the challenge of improving teaching-learning of language, literacy, and numeracy in early grades. It requires a transformation and innovation in each classroom. A good starting point is to create a vision for this transformation that is shared within the education ecosystem from teachers to the state leadership. Unless there is clarity about the vision, each state would implement discrete activities per the NIPUN Bharat guidelines which may not result in a fundamental change in the way teaching-learning happens in each classroom.
- FLN cannot be achieved unless children’s primary languages are included in classroom instruction. Language comprehension is key to literacy and numeracy learning which is why languages that children use and understand well need to find a formal place in early grade classrooms.
- Additional resources will be needed to ensure that each classroom has a print-rich environment and learning aids for numeracy. Some of the resources that can help include — simple and interesting storybooks in different languages can promote literacy learning; continuous professional development of teachers; parent engagement activities; and high-quality learning materials like workbooks. NIPUN Bharat needs to be able to provide significant additional resources for achieving FLN Goals in the next 5 years.
Our focus on multilingual education helps to enhance the learning of children from diverse language backgrounds by the inclusion of children’s home languages formally in the classroom teaching and learning.Dhir Jhingran
Q3. What role do you see your organisation LLF playing in helping the mission succeed?
Dhir: LLF is committed to working with 8 to 10 state governments in the next 5 years to help them successfully implement the FLN Mission initiatives and improve children’s learning outcomes. Our collaborative work with state government institutions like SCERTs and Samagra Shiksha focuses on the following 3 dimensions:
- Continuous professional development of teachers, teacher educators, and educational administrators on early language and literacy including multilingual education
- Scalable learning improvement demonstration projects in schools
- Supporting systemic reform of pre-service teacher education, curriculum, textbooks, assessment, and monitoring to ensure the sustainability of the transformative changes.
Our focus on multilingual education helps to enhance the learning of children from diverse language backgrounds by the inclusion of children’s home languages formally in the classroom teaching and learning.
We work on a hybrid model of support to state FLN initiatives through (a) supporting state governments by providing technical assistance on curriculum and materials, capacity building strategies and assessment etc and (b) implementing demonstration programs in 200-500 schools that show how transformative change can be achieved through effective implementation within and by the government system itself.
Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research, talks about how the the implementation of NIPUN Bharat needs to be as decentralised as possible
Q1. What role do you see the Centre playing in the adoption of NIPUN Bharat and informing policy at the state level?
Yamini: To my mind, one of the fundamental governance questions that remains unsettled is this: ‘What level of function should be allocated at what level of government?’. Fiscal and administrative over-centralisation has been a consistent feature in India’s governance history despite a clear constitutional separation of functional responsibilities in the 7th schedule. In the domain of public service delivery, centrally sponsored schemes (CSS) have been the primary fiscal instrument through which the Centre has sought to direct expenditure at the State and grassroots level. The challenge of over-centralisation is that it assumes that a one-size-fits-all-approach works in a country as diverse as India. Moreover, it undermines the capacities of States and local governments and breaks accountability. This was one of the greatest weaknesses in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA). Despite a decentralised design built into the scheme, in practice, fiscal and administrative centralisation meant that local institutions (school management committees, Panchayats and even albeit to a lesser degree States governments) were disempowered and unable to ensure that expenditures and administrative decisions aligned with school needs.
Here’s one example of what happens when local decisions have no role to play in expenditure. In 2013, while surveying schools in Bihar we came across a set of schools that were still awaiting funds for the school building (there is a line item called building less schools!) and yet these schools were compelled to purchase fire extinguishers because a centralised decision had been taken to ensure that all schools have fire safety equipment. Sitting in Patna and New Delhi, this was wise! After all, who would have considered the realities of building fewer schools. But in Bihar’s Purnia, the failures of centralised decision-making were deeply evident. With no building, the school didn’t need fire safety equipment. What it needed was some money for another teacher, a better blackboard, and more comfortable seating. But centralisation meant it ended up with fire safety equipment!
The challenge of over-centralisation is that it assumes that a one-size-fits-all-approach works in a country as diverse as India. Moreover, it undermines the capacities of States and local governments and breaks accountability.Yamini Aiyar
A second consequence, as we discovered through Accountability Initiative’s PAISA studies, is that centralisation created a culture of top-down decision-making that encouraged administrative passivity and thereby weakened key service delivery units. After all, you could always blame the next level of government for failure. For instance, district plans that were meant to be prepared bottom-up to reflect district specific needs were rarely ever made with the seriousness they ought to have. Districts received funds tied to clearly defined line items leaving very little scope for flexibility and aligning plans to their needs and requirements. As a result, States and districts never effectively built their own capacities for planning thereby entrenching a vicious cycle of low capacity.
As India launches a new mission – NIPUN Bharat, it must learn lessons from the past. The Centre must avoid the temptation for over-centralisation at all costs. There is enough evidence to tell us that classrooms differ state-to-state and even school-to-school. States, districts and local governments thus need the flexibility to make their own plans for achieving FLN goals based on their local context. It is the Centre’s job to empower and capacitate States, and hold them accountable for meeting goals. In terms of detailed design, the most effective way of articulating the role of the Centre is through the first principle of subsidiarity – that the central authority should only perform those functions that cannot be performed at the local level. It is the Centre’s job to set standards, to provide support to States and districts for planning capacity, for inter-state coordination (particularly enabling sharing of best practices), and monitoring and evaluating. It is NOT the Centre’s role to direct line item wise spending. States should be incentivized by the Centre to develop their own visions and pathways for achieving FLN goals which ought to be scrutinised by the Centre. But rather than providing line items or directed financial support (which is how this process unfolded in SSA), the Centre should — through NIPUN Bharat — provide a united block grant that allows States to spend as per their own plans. To ensure goals are met, this grant can be developed as a two-window grant: the first can be an unconditional grant, while the second can be a performance grant. On its part, the Centre will need to buffer its capacities for objective, high-quality monitoring and evaluation. The first steps have already been taken through NAS. These need to be strengthened.
To conclude, with NIPUN Bharat, the Centre’s role ought to be that of enabling and supporting the State governments. This requires political and administrative maturity and a recognition that discretion based accountability is more aligned to improved learning outcomes than line item wise ‘accounting’ based accountability.
NIPUN Bharat should be designed as a two-window fund. The first should be a formulae based unconditional grant for States. The second should be a performance grant tied to progress made on learning goals. To do this, States should prepare a 3-year learning plan, which includes clearly articulated stage-wise learning goals for foundational learning. Performance grants should be linked to state progress on these goals.Yamini Aiyar
Q2. How can states adopt an outcome-focused approach to financing NIPUN BHARAT?
Yamini: As I mentioned above, NIPUN Bharat should be designed as a two-window fund. The first should be a formulae based unconditional grant for States. The second should be a performance grant tied to progress made on learning goals. To do this, States should prepare a 3-year learning plan, which includes clearly articulated stage-wise learning goals for foundational learning. Performance grants should be linked to state progress on these goals.
Experience tells us that outcome/ performance based funding risks falling into the trap of checkbox compliance, and worse, ‘teaching to the test’. To avoid this there are two preconditions that must be fulfilled, and again, this is where the Centre’s role as an enabler and as a capacity builder becomes critical. First, goals and targets have to be set in realistic and achievable ways. Importantly, this has to be a participatory and transparent exercise, one which involves school actors. The goal has to be carefully articulated. NIPUN Bharat aims to ensure foundational learning for all – how long it takes to get there is necessarily path dependent. This is not a race to the top. This is a race to ensure all children can learn well.
The second precondition is objective, citizen-led assessments. Alongside government monitoring, citizens’ (academics, civil society and above all, parents) have to play an important role in regularly engaging with schools. Additionally, academia and civil society need to undertake their own monitoring and social audits. This means governments at all levels have to be willing to engage in a dialogue with stakeholders and encourage feedback. Participation and deliberation are critical.
A strong performance based governance system requires a culture of openness, transparency and participation. This is a hard ‘ask’ from our education system which is steeped in hierarchy and centralisation. However, if the goal of NIPUN Bharat has to be achieved, the education system has to start steering itself in a new direction. Business as usual will not get us to the goal.
The EDge Editorial Team
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