A grassroots appraisal system in India has exposed flaws in the education system – at minimal cost
Here's a very clever idea. The background is that over the last decade, education policy in the developing world has been dominated by the issue of access. Getting kids into school was the priority and all the millennium development goals relating to education were about access, for example, gender parity. The result, as has been well reported, is a sharp rise in enrolment rates across many African and Asian countries.
But the problem has been a widespread, but largely anecdotal, perception that educational achievement has fallen. In my visits to Uganda in the last few years, I kept on hearing complaints about overcrowded schools, a lack of textbooks and poor teacher-children ratios. Despite pledges of increased funding for education from international donors to support improved access, the money often didn't seem to percolate down to the schools where it was needed.
This is also the story in India. Enrolment rates are now running at about 95%, and a new tax has been introduced to pay for universal primary education. But Rukmini Banerji, director of an NGO, Pratham, discovered disturbing signs that children didn't seem to benefiting. The children may have been at school, but what were they actually learning?? No one seemed to know. The only assessment the government carried out was a national sample once every three to four years, but it didn't cover all educational districts.
So six years ago, Pratham took on the enormous task of finding out what Indian children were learning. The results were horrifying. Some 50% of children after five years in school could not read at the level expected after two years of schooling; millions of children were falling behind and being consigned to educational failure (all the international studies show that once kids fall behind – fail to learn the alphabet properly, for example – it is very difficult for them to catch up). In bald figures, of India's 200 million children, 195 million are now in school but fewer than 100 million are actually learning to read and do basic maths. They may be in school for five hours a day, but it is not doing them or the country much good.
Pratham's annual status education report, Aser, is conducted across all 600 educational districts of India and assesses 700,000 children every year. What it has exposed over the last six years is that in some states, schools may be well-funded but they have failed to translate that into effective education. Tamil Nadu, for example, has found to its embarrassment that it is significantly underperforming poorer states; Gujarat, which prides itself on its business acumen, discovered real gaps in its children's numeracy achievement. In many districts, the survey has provoked intense debate about educational achievement.
One of the strengths of the Aser programme, explains Banerji on a visit to London last week, is that it puts information in the hands of citizens and helps engage the whole community in educational issues.
What is really intriguing is that here is a massive, national-scale assessment exercise that has traditionally been understood in the west to be the job of the state, that is being done at a fraction of the cost by engaging an army of volunteers. In every district, Pratham works with a partner institution such as a university or women's group. Volunteers are recruited and trained for two days and then spread out to dozens of villages to visit children in their homes to conduct the simple tests. They also visit the schools to check on the basics, such as whether teachers are present (a perennial problem in developing countries, where teacher salaries are so low that they often have other jobs), and if there is a supply of textbooks and water.
There are several spin-off benefits from this. It broadens engagement in education through its 25,000 volunteers; it helps engage parents (many of whom are illiterate) in the educational process so that they can be more confident about monitoring what their children are learning, and whether the teacher is really doing their job.
Such has been the success of the programme that it has inspired a version, Uwezo, in three east African countries, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Uwezo has prompted bitter controversy since it started two years ago, particularly in Uganda because it is exposing poor educational standards. Tanzania has just launched this year's survey with a bold bid to maintain the momentum for improved education. Pakistan has now adopted a version of the scheme and plans are in place to take the model to west Africa as well.
It's been nicknamed the "rickshaw method". In the UK, the prime minister, David Cameron, might be tempted to claim the idea as an instance of the "big society". It offers an alternative to the European social democratic model of the big state, and it demonstrates an effective way to develop citizen engagement and better accountability in the delivery of public services.