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Yearning for learning

The principles of quality and equality are at the heart of the many-hued efforts of the Tata Trusts to enhance India’s education system

What’s the thread connecting students learning mainstream subjects in madrasas (Islamic schools) in West Bengal, teenagers practising digital skills in Assam, toddlers going to anganwadis (child-care centres) in Andhra Pradesh, women becoming literate in Uttar Pradesh, and teachers honing their know-how in Maharashtra?

The answer is Tata Trusts. From broadening access to education and developing curriculums for training teachers to building technology-based teaching resources, the Trusts are driving a host of initiatives to make learning and teaching more effective for millions of children across India.

The mandate is clear. Education is the foundation for a nation’s socioeconomic development and, hence, a critical investment for the future. India has about 300 million children aged between 3 and 18 and the quality of education they receive in the present will decide if they can give wing to their dreams in the future.

To change India’s prospects, there has to be greater parity in access to education and better learning outcomes. This calls for children to be provided with the means to learn the right lessons in the right manner in language, maths, science and more.

A doctor from the SEARCH team examines a mother and her newborn baby
An activity session in progress at the Bai Navajbai Tata School in Navsari in Gujarat

Learning for all

That is where the Trusts are pitching in, with a vision for education that can be summed up as ‘authentic learning for all’. “It’s about high-quality, real-world and active learning experiences that mould productive and well-rounded citizens,” says Satyajit Salian, head, education, the Tata Trusts. “It’s also about advocating to ensure access to these learning opportunities.”

A significant part of the Trusts’ effort is aimed at strengthening the government school system, the only option for the majority of India’s marginalised children. “We are striving for the overall development of children and their academic skills,” says Amrita Patwardhan, zonal head, North India, programme implementation.

Education has, in fact, been a part of the Trusts’ developmental mandate since their inception back in 1892, when the JN Tata Endowment was founded as a scholarship for young Indians wanting to go abroad for higher studies. Before that, the Tata family founded and supported the Bai Navajbai Tata Girls School in Navsari, Gujarat, which is more than 160 years old and one of the earliest schools for girls in India (see Early riser).

Since setting up that first school, the Trusts’ engagement with education has grown manifold. Today, their education portfolio supports 84 projects that impact a total of about 3.6 million students and teachers in 26 states and 145 districts of India. The numbers indicate the depth and spread of the Trusts’ commitment.

We want to deepen our conversations with nonprofits, convene likeminded entities ... and create a strategy for convergence...”

Satyajit Salian , head, education

Over time, the approach to and direction of the education programmes under the Tata Trusts canopy have evolved. In 2014, the Trusts aligned their activities to focus on backward regions and communities. In 2018, they revisited their education strategy to find ways to achieve greater scale and impact.

“We want to deepen our conversations with nonprofits, convene like-minded entities around specific causes and create a strategy for convergence; this will help us achieve scale at the national level,” says Mr Salian. “The Trusts want to play a vital role at the fulcrum of the sector.”

Scale is critical

Scale is crucial given India’s burgeoning population and its young demographic. Over a quarter of the country’s 1.3 billion people are under the age of 14. That’s about 300 million children (roughly the population of the Unites States) who need a good education.

Yet studies show that India’s classrooms have fallen short in consistently delivering what they are supposed to — adequate learning. A 2017 survey covering some 2.5 million students, conducted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, revealed that these students found it difficult to solve simple problems involving time and money, and that they were unable to read and comprehend as per their grade.

It’s clear that India’s students need better resources, that its teachers need to be supported in teaching more effectively, and that the government-led education network of 1.5 million schools needs to be lifted to a better standard. The country’s big numbers make this task extremely challenging (a 2018 KPMG report on learning outcomes in school education in India called it “insurmountable”).

Governments at the central and state levels need all the assistance they can get to cope with this challenge and that is what the Trusts are doing with their multi-pronged approach to improving India’s education systems and outcomes.

“Almost all of our work is in the government school space but we are not looking at infrastructure building or service delivery, given that the government has significantly expanded the school base,” explains Ms Patwardhan. “But a large number of these schools have underprepared teachers.

“There are close to a million teacher posts vacant, mostly in the northern states. Enrolment rates have grown impressively, but important aspects of education, such as regular attendance and nurturing school environments where children learn and thrive, have continued to be a challenge. We are trying to make a difference by addressing these quality-of-education issues.”

India’s patchy education system has left uncovered large sections of its populace. Lagging on human developmental indices, these sections include children from tribal, socially backward and minority communities, as well as illiterate women. The Trusts have focused on this aspect and their ‘broadening access’ vertical addresses issues that are more sociological than pedagogical.

Literacy and beyond

With women’s literacy it involves using education to not just help women communicate but also become more aware about health, finances and the like. With tribal communities, traditionally at a disadvantage because of their physical and cultural distance from urban centres, the Trusts have invested in improving the quality of teaching and learning by engaging with local education bodies. Migrant workers face a unique set of difficulties and the Trusts have tried to help here by working with district administrations.

“When we talk about the right to education, we need to consider communities that have particular needs,” says Ms Patwardhan. “The children of migrant and tribal communities are, typically, first-generation learners. They come from oral traditions and non-literate home environments, and often speak a different language than the one used in school. We need to equip the system and the teachers to deal with children from diverse backgrounds. We need to design learning systems tailored for them. And support has to go in tandem with accountability.”

Learning material and resources are crucial in improving outcomes and the Trusts have been working to plug large gaps in this part of the education ecosystem through the ‘deepening learning’ vertical.

When we talk about the right to education, we need to consider communities that have particular needs.”

Amrita Patwardhan, zonal head, North India, programme implementation
Students at the Madrasa Ejaz-ul-Uloom in Kheta Sarai in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district have benefitted from the Trusts’ ‘madrasa improvement programme’

The majority of children studying in government schools only have prescribed textbooks as their reading material. But literacy research shows that learning improves when children have access to books that are interesting, preferably in languages that the child is comfortable with. The Parag initiative is an attempt to bridge this gap by creating books in regional languages, and setting up libraries where children are encouraged to read for pleasure.

Technology is a great enabler of scale in education, and this is a lever that the Trusts have used to good effect to create what Mr Salian calls “an environment for active learning”. The ‘connected learning initiative’ and the ‘integrated approach to technology in education’ programmes are examples of digital technology being employed to make learning visual and interactive.

The Trusts’ interventions to build parity in education unfold through a combination of local partnerships (such as Kalike in Karnataka, which drives learning improvement projects in schools), or through direct implementation (the engagement to improve curriculums in minority schools in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh).

At a higher level, the Trusts have partnered the Indian government’s Ministry of Human Resources Development and the National Council for Teacher Education on a four-year professional development curriculum for teacher training. “We are developing courses for teachers that will help them absorb 21st-century skills and engage with children who are digital natives,” says Mr Salian.

Whether it’s the battle against ignorance or the journey to gain knowledge, India’s teachers need better tools for the job and digital technology can play a role here. The Trusts have collaborated with the central government to support the creation of an app that provides teachers with learning material.

The ‘Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing’ (or Diksha) app will host videos and animated material that makes it easier to teach abstract concepts in maths and science. Every chapter in a textbook will have a code that points to a related video, which can be accessed by a smartphone.

Teaching is dependent on teachers and the Trusts have kicked off a series of interventions to ensure that they are supported with exposure to best practices. The teaching component is critical in the context.

Traditional teaching is dependent on good teachers and the Trusts work at multiple levels to improve ‘active learning’. “Learning takes place at the teacher-child interface and we are working to build communities of teachers that can convene and learn from one another,” adds Mr Salian (see Language lessons).

The together way

The strength that the Trusts bring to the country’s education sector lies in their capability to gather together partners to tackle systemic weaknesses. Apart from interventions for schools and students, the Trusts are working to bring about change by engaging with state and central authorities.

Students at the government school in Phulambri in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district cheering their teachers
Priyanka Dalvi, a teacher trainer, at a workshop being conducted in Phulambri to help government schoolteachers improve their English-language skills

“There is a significant education base that the government has built over time and we want to find ways to reinforce these existing systems,” says Mr Salian. The ‘badi parivartana’ project in Andhra Pradesh is an example of how this is panning out. Another is the work that the Trusts are doing to build capacities in the anganwadi network in states like Odisha and Rajasthan.

Anganwadis are early-childhood centres where children from three to five — vital development years — get their first taste of education. “Early childhood is a new area for the Trusts and the idea is to make the child school-ready,” says Mr Salian. “In Andhra Pradesh, we are looking at working with 1,000 anganwadis that are co-located in primary schools to improve the early education experience.”

India’s vast canvas of state boards, national boards and schools that are private, municipal or government-funded requires processes and frameworks that will help standardise learning. The Trusts are backing partners with solutions for improving school performance, as with the Adhyayan Foundation, which has set up quality frameworks and school development indices. These serve as a feedback mechanism for principals and teachers.

The wide range of programmes under the Trusts’ education portfolio addresses a multitude of needs and challenges across the sector. Diverse in nature they may be, but they are united by the objective being pursued — helping India score higher than it has managed to thus far in the education examination. And children are at the heart of this endeavour.