The Case for a Unique Identification System in Public Education

During a visit to Hubli-Dharwad in November 2009, the local pages (Hubli-Dharwad-Belgaum) of the Times of India had the following headline: “Sky is their roof; the road their classroom – Government sanctions school without building”. The school is question was the government primary school in Ram Manohar Lohia Nagar in Hubli, with 67 students from classes 1-4 with one teacher who doubled up as the head teacher. With multiple such reports, it is not very surprising that few public institutions rival our government primary schools in public dissatisfaction –  and all along we have been making significant investments on schools. It is estimated that in Karnataka we spend about Rs 6,500 per child per year and, in one study done by PROOF for primary schools run by the then Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) the number exceeded Rs 10,370 per child per year2. So how do we explain this lack of performance?

For a long time, the focus has been (and continues to) on the input side, on schools rather than on schooling and the primary questions were whether children have access to a school and whether children get uniforms, books, mid-day meals, etc. As the “road-side” primary schools shows even this fails often enough. While inputs are required for any process to work, in this case it has been done at the cost of focus on the outcomes of the education system. For example, there is little or no information on the learning levels of children prior to a child’s first “public” exam (We believe there is general agreement that the internal school reports are not good indicators in most cases) when she reaches class 10 which means it is too late to make course corrections with respect to quality.

About the only data that has been available consistently in the past five years has been from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) and some key findings for Karnataka were that only about 39% of the children between standards 1-8 can read a standard 2 level text with the implication that around 5.3 million children in the state who are unable to read in their medium of instruction. The performance in math is even more appalling. Over 30% of the children between standards 1-8 could not recognize double digit numbers. Less than 20% of all children could do simple division and less than 30% could do simple subtraction. This means that between 10 and 11 million children cannot do simple math. Only 11% children in Standards 3 to 5 can read an English sentence ans only 35% children in Bangalore can read English.

This pathetic state of affairs threatens to ruin the lives of millions of children in Karnataka and much larger numbers across the country, and it would not be entirely out of place if we were to say that the the failure of the schools is gradually destroying democracy. The often repeated rhetoric of elementary education being a fundamental right (now further enshrined in the Right to Education Bill 2009) seems to be accompanied by an inability to make the schools work for the children. It is true that over the past ten years enrolment has increased but enrolment does not mean attendance. Further attendance does not imply learning, for in many schools across the state, pupil-teacher ratios are very high and given the fact that teacher absenteeism is greater than 25%, these ratios get further skewed against children. Single teacher schools, such as the one in the Hubli case, are common and multi-grade teaching even more so.

It is our belief that a universal and unique identification system will help in improving quality outcomes in a significant manner. What this means is that there is a need for a unique identity that is assigned to a child from birth through till the end of her education and this unique ID will help in ensuring that all her rights as a child are available to her and that she receives a quality education.

In the ICDS anganwadis, the anganwadi worker has to worry about health, nutrition and education issues covering pregnant women, lactating mothers and children from 0-6 years. Clearly the education component suffers and has to be currently supplemented from the outside. It would be meaningful if data on all children is collected from this stage onwards so that the system would be able to (a) see to health needs if the data-base is accurate and updated regularly ; (b) check for issues like learning disabilities which can be “cured” if remedial interventions are done early enough ; (c) ensure that at the appropriate age children are admitted to primary schools and that the schools are made aware of every child’s proficiencies.

In the primary school system, there is a definite need to track migration issues. For example, children may be enrolled in a rural school and during difficult times the family may migrate to urban areas for livelihood reasons – this means that the child will also been enrolled in an urban school and therefore counted twice.

In the primary school system, there is a need to track attendance of both children and teachers on a regular basis. It is not uncommon to find out when you visit a school that declared enrolment / attendance is higher than actual. Attendance for both children and teacher communities need to be tracked.

Remedial interventions are required to bring what the system calls “slow learners” to the mainstream levels. This means that we need to know who needs help and this is possible only by administering diagnostic baseline tests and logging this data on a child-by-child basis. Currently, what happens in the government’s Parihara Bodhane programme is that teachers are asked to identify “weak” children and the number of children in these initiatives is limited by the budget. Moreover, children are not tracked because this is considered to be a burden on teachers (indeed every remedial intervention is considered a burden by the teacher community). We think it is vital that within the next 3 years all children should be at mainstream levels and this will be possible through budgetary support for planned remedial interventions accompanied by teacher training and teacher support for this programme and finally, with continuous child-by-child tracking of outcomes. Once remedial efforts are completed children need to be tracked so that we can en-sure that their acquired 3R skills are not lost. Libraries are a great vehicle to track children’s proficiencies and it is important to track how many books are being borrowed by each child every month so that we know by child who is NOT borrowing and these children are vulnerable children and need attention  Beyond primary school, we should be able to track children going to secondary schools or vocational schools or even colleges.

There are many spin-offs for this tracking methodology which could feed into the government budgets – one could track how effective the Mid-Day Meal Scheme is ; or outlays for innovative Government schemes like scholarships, cycles and free books distribution. And, from a management perspective, we could even track budgets of individual schools and provide decision-makers with the kind of information they need to ensure that schooling happens and that the focus is the child.

For this system to work there is definitely a need for multiple departments within government to use this – Education Department, Women& Child Development, Health Department and Labour Department – as a minimum should be users of this system and drive multiple applications and reports based on the system and  the success of such an initiative predicates upon a number of applications depending on this system.


About gkjohn

Recovering lawyer, erstwhile entrepreneur, pretend polymath, hopeful zookeeper and future dilettante and farmer of organic strawberries. Work at @aksharadotorg and @klpdotorg. Previously at @prathambooks. Was a @tedfellow.
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