In July 1996, the Government of Madhya Pradesh introduced a new teaching-learning package, 'Seekhna-Sikhana', in class I of all the schools of 16 districts in the state, as the first phase for overhauling its approach to elementary education. What is not apparent from this bland statement is a process that can be traced back 25 years. Underlying this process is a partnership between the state government and NGOs that has no precedent anywhere in the country, but has the potential of transforming elementary education and making its universalisation an achievable objective. This is a brief story of that process.
Some time in 1971 two voluntary groups, Friend's Rural Centre and Kishore Bharati, working in the district of Hoshangabad in MP, approached the state education department to allow them to work in a few government rural schools of the district with a view to improve the teaching of science. Legend says that the then Director of Public Instruction called a meeting of his education experts to express their views on the matter. They strongly opposed the proposal, citing dangers of allowing any intervention by non-governmental agencies in formal education, as also the lack of degress (BEd, MEd, etc.) of the persons involved(even though many of them had PhDs from reputed institutions), etc. etc. The DPI is said to have overruled the learned advice with a remark that goes something like this: 'The state of primary education in MP is so bad that these organisations are unlikely to make it any worse - who knows something good might come out of their attempt, so let us allow them.' Prophetic workds, indeed, since the process leading up to the 'Seekhna-Sikhana' package may be traced to such feudal sounding decree of a concerned, sensitive and decisive officer. This was the first, and continues to be the only, example of a government allowing NGOs access to its schools for quality improvement, in an integrated manner, teacher training, examination methodology and a facilitating administrative and a management structure.
This gave birth to the rather well-known Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP) in 1972, which began as an experimental programme in 16 rural government middle schools in the district. The implementation of the programme required another important institutional mechanism of relevance in terms of replication and expansion of the process. The need to involve motivated professionals to help catalyse and evolve teaching-learning materials and conduct teacher orientations saw the creation of a resource group drawn from institutions like Delhi University, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, IITs, later from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, National Institute of Immunology, but most important, from the colleges from within Madhya Pradesh. The involvement of college and university professionals was facilitated through a formal intervention of the University Grants Commision. Consequently, scores of science professionals would be seen at shivirs and in schools in remote areas of the district, rubbing shoulders with village teachers to participatively create an activity, discovery and environment-based methodology for science teaching.
From a 16-school experiment, HSTP was expanded to cover all the middle schools of Hoshangabad district in 1978. This expansion saw the direct involvement of NCERT with the programme through its Regional Institute of Education, located at Bhopal. Such geographical expansion was accompanied by a great deal of unease regarding the choice of the entry point of intervention. It had become increasingly evident that the foundations for under-achievement of children were laid at the primary stage so that a majority of children at the middle stage could hardly read a paragraph or do the simplest of arithmetic. Doing better science at the middle stage, though desirable, seemed hampered by the absence of a similar intervention at the primary stage, beginning from class I. The abysmal achievement levels of children we encountered have now been confirmed by the nationwide surveys done for DPEP(District Primary Education Project) by NCERT, but very few educational professionals believed us then. This underscores the point that merely providing access to shooling is insufficient unless quality improvement takes place in parallel, and not subsequently, if achievements are to increase and, most importantly, if non-enrolment and drop-outs due to lack of relevance and interest in elementary education have to be rectified.
During 1980-82, important events were to shape the course for future action. Friend's Rural Centre opted out of the programme in 1980 and Kishore Bharati's priorities also started to undergo a change. It was increasingly felt that a future expansion of HSTP would have to go hand-in-hand with expanstion in other subjects like social sciences, and definitely at the primary stage. To undertake these responsibilities, some of the resource persons of HSTP decided to give up their professional careers and work full-time in Madhya Pradesh. They founded a new group, Eklavya. The NGO part of HSTP was transferred to Eklavya in 1982 and it has carried forward the work in the subsequently years.
By 1986, Eklavya, with the concurrence of the state education department, expanded the HSTP to school complexes of 13 more districts of MP. Significantly, it was able to locate and attract full-timers and resource persons to undertake the development of social science for middle schools and primary school teaching-learning processes. Choosing about 40 schools in both tribal (Betul district) and non-tribal regions, and during a period of eight years upto 1994, Eklavya completed the development, through intense field interaction, of an integrated primary school package called 'Khushi-Khushi' which included teaching-learning materials, teaching training methodology, non-invasive student evaluation methods and facilitating administrative and management structure, all within the state education department, just as in HSTP. The basic approach continued to be activity, discovery and environment-based, incorporating, however, many child development criteria keeping in mind the younger age of children compared to that in the HSTP.
By 1994, the state education department had its own agenda for improving primary education, in the form of DPEP, for 19 districts in the state. Though Eklavya has reservation about the policy of external funds to primary education, DPEP being entirely externally funded, as also the narrowing focus of elementary education to primary education in DPEP, it nevertheless recognised the oppurtunity to deepen the innovative process that such a governmental initiative provided. Without using DPEP funds for its own organisational work, Eklavya decided to participate both at the policy and implementation level in partnership with the state government. Quite apart from what Eklavya may or may not do, the most significant factor is that during these 25 years nearly 5000 school teachers, principals, head masters, DIET faculty, administrators from the ground level to the state capital have interacted in some way or the other with the HSTP, Social Science or Primary School programmes of Eklavya, and the area available to the man force, exposed in varying degrees to new and innovative ideas, also acts as a strong but silent motivating factor in shaping policy and implementation strategies, which can be discerned in what is happening in MP now.
One of the major policy decisions of the MP government, possible because of the general environment that has been created over a period of time, has been to setup a state level Technical Resource Support Group(TRSG), the apex policy-making body for academic decisions, not only for DPEP - and this is very significant - for the entire elementary education of the state. Eminent practitioners and educationists, supportive of innovations, from all over the country and the state, are members of TRSG, which has resulted in some radical policy initiatives in the last year or two. Perhaps the most significant of such initiatives has been the decision to open the development of teaching-learning materials to any group, governmental or non-governmental, university or institute, but to be undertaken through field work, in experimental schools and with the active participation of the teachers in such schools, utilising at least one year for the development of material for each class. In this process of development, the SCERT, which had the responsibility and monopoly for such a task, would now be one of the trailling agencies, meaning it would also have to develop material in the field rather than sitting in the state capital. As of now, the trialling agencies would have continuous peer interactions throughout the year, and their materials and methodologies would be consolidated by them together to form the material for each class for the entire state. Later on it is envisaged that region-specific materials may also be created and used, rather than a singla set of materials for the entire state.
It is such a process that has gone into preparing what is now called the 'Seekhna-Sikhana' package for class I. The process is already on to prepare class II and III material. The approach, methodology and contents of 'Seekhna-Sikhana' closely resemble that of Eklavya's 'Khushi-Khushi', but the significant aspect is that the new package is no longer the experimental effort of a paricular group, but the mainstream for the state. The understanding that the focus of interventions must be on the entire educational system, and not in the narrow sense on the DPEP areas only, has resuled in anothe significant policy decision of the TRSG, accepted by the state government, that all new efforts will be implemented in the entire astate. Consequently, in the first phase of the implementation of 'Seekhna-Sikhana', six districts are non-DPEP districts. The state education department and the SCERT were considering that class I,II and III packages would cover the entire state from July 1997, rather than being phased. But that would depend on factors other than the extra financial burden on the state government, the feasibility of completing training of all the concerned teachers, which would run into lakhs, before the introduction of the materials in the schools. Because - and that has been a strong intervention by Eklavya - every teacher would have to materials for each class each year. A state-level training structure, going beyond the block to the cluster level, has already been operationalised this year.
If this provides a rosy picture of the state of affairs, on must quickly point out that not everything is functioning smoothly. Training structures are still fragile, administrative mix-ups and delays sometimes defeat the basic purpose and ground level support is weak or absent in many areas. Also there is no dearth of detractors or people opposing the effort. An all-party group strongly opposed the entire effort both publicly and through a representation to the state government. Some such opposition is motivated but there are genuine apprehensions too. Parents are wary that something new may affect their children adversely. Never have we evolved a system whereby parents and the community would be involved in the process of education. They must accept what is decided by the experts. With that in mind and on the strong intervention of the NGOs involved, a Lok Sampark Abhiyan was launched in June 1996 before the introduction of the package in 16 districts. People were informed and invited to debate and comment on the entire process, and the total lieracy structure in the districts was utilised for such mobilisation. In these 16 districts, work towards creating live village education registers was initiated by the Shiksha Mission of the state government.
To conclude, the Madhya Pradesh experience clearly and strongly suggests that in spite of many problems and pitfalls, community, NGO and government partnerships are feasible and perhaps the only way to join hands to go towards UEE with quality improvements. But that will not happpen by mere rhetoric. The government needs to decide as a policy to open formal school education for intervention by non-government groups, of course with regulatory and monitoring structures. Area-specific, culture-specific, activity and discovery-based material so created, with matching teacher training and facilitating management would, however, require capacity-building in a decentralised manner, which is what NGOs can become partners in. This process, however, also requires that the apex institutions like the NCERT and SCERTs -- rather than being norm-laying institutions -- must transform into institutions that help create decentralised capacities, not only adminitrative but also academic, and, in fact, cease to be obstacles in this process. And finally, we have to get out of the fragmented departmental mindset of DPEP and non-DPEP bureaux, formal and non-formal schemes, and so on and remember that our constitutional directive is to provide education to all children upto age 14, wherever they are.