Support systems for first generation learners - Ensuring Learning India S1 E.010

This blog  earlier discussed that majority of students in a classroom of a typical government school are way behind the class level. This blog also discussed that simplifying curriculum, slowing down and teaching to the level of the kid can possibly address this challenge but it is easier said than done. What if a student doesn't understand something in school? What if students, especially in primary school, need support at home? In case of rich students, they do have personal tutors and parents supporting them. What's the case with students of low income communities? 

Lack of support systems at home is one of the main differences between first generation learners and others. In the absence of such systems, it is difficult for students to catch up with concepts taught in classrooms. It is true that simplifying curriculum in classrooms, teaching to the level of kid and other measures may help address this but even after all this, students may need some individual attention. The advantage of after school support systems is that there is relatively lesser pressure to complete syllabus removing an operational constraint. Thus, they can give can relatively give better personal attention as compared to a regular classroom. 

Places like Hong Kong recognized this need and have started implementing after school support systems to help the first generation learners. These support systems are called by various names - remedial centres, tuition centres, study hours and so on. These are prevalent in India with around 24% of primary school students attending tuitions and with states like West Bengal having rates as high as 74% (ASER 2013, page 73). A recent phone survey conducted by Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi showed that 66% of the respondents send their children to private tuitions.

The effect of private tutoring systems is encouraging. This paper by Centre for Policy Research, Delhi says that private tutoring in India has ‘a large positive effect on test scores of math and language (separately or combined) for students in the age-group of 6-14 years. The effect is as large as an additional year of education or the effect of attending a private school instead of a government school.’ Further, the effect is stronger for the disadvantaged students – those who are less wealthy, and those whose parents are relatively less educated.

The support systems needn't always be outside the school hours. However, all of these should have the following characteristics. They should be (i) local; (ii) closer to students' residences; and (iii) should be able to provide relatively better individual attention than in schools.

The design and implementation models can be the choice of the governments and the location, decided based on each government's own strengths and implementation capability, and the context. There are broadly two approaches that can be taken.

One, teaching assistants to public school teachers. Prof. Karthik Muralidharan outlines a proposal to provide each regular teacher with two teaching assistants recruited from the same village. These teaching assistants would have  and "explicit mandate to focus on first generation and weaker learners and to provide small-group instruction that is tailored to their current level." The teaching assistants will serve for a period of four years during which they receive ongoing training, after which they can be recruited into regular track conditional upon good performance, getting necessary qualifications and clearing the examinations. Those who can't do so will receive an amount of Rs.1,00,000 and will be relieved from the purpose.

The paper argues that, this can serve as a good entry point for individuals interested in pursuing teaching career, can be effective if the performance of candidates has implications for their further career and can help ease significant load from regular teachers.

Since the teaching assistants are from the same village and also work in the same school along with a regular teacher, they can get mentoring support and training from these teachers and can be monitored by regular teachers. This approach also ensures that all public schools are covered. However, there can be certain possible constraints with this approach, mainly due to the weak governance capacity - (i) Teacher recruitment and training is a cumbersome process and generally the demands aren't met. This might turn out to be the case with recruitment procedures in this case too. (ii) Training for teaching assistants through government machinery can face the same problems that in service teacher trainings now do. (iii) The presence of two assistants in classroom to take care of the children, can provide an additional incentive for some teachers to not to attend the school. there is more reason for regular teachers to be absent. (iv) This approach excludes students going to low cost private schools.

Second, vouchers or cash transfers. Parents with school going kids can get a voucher or a cash transfer of equivalent amount, so that they can use this money to ensure support to their children. Interested service providers in the village can get accredited through skill vouchers and can then run the support centres. This can also act as an additional employment provision in rural areas, though it's not the primary objective of this policy. Apart from the other arguments related to vouchers, choice and accountability, there are certain other strong reasons to go for voucher's approach in this context.

Education is a complex process and needs lots of innovation and hence need multiple players to work on this. The government systems currently aren't able to innovate much due to their own constraints. Like in other sectors, where private sector and multiple entities with different approaches bring in innovation, there is a stigma associated with the private. Private schools aren't allowed to be for profit and also there is significant resistance to the vouchers for school education, considering the political economy around it. The lack of scale of the existing private schools means that it is expensive for them to invest in pedagogy and related aspects.

Vouchers for support systems is an easy way to bring in this innovation. Organisations like Pratham can start their chain of centres, each with their own methodology of teaching. Pratham's after school learning centers currently operating in Delhi charge around Rs.250/- per month. Unlike regular schools, after school support systems don't have huge infrastructural requirements and they are out of the ambit of RtE. So, it is easy for service providers to scale up once they have their pedagogy in place, thus creating incentives for people to enter this space. In fact, this will also helps us test the hypothesis that there will be innovation if vouchers are introduced.

This form of vouchers isn't a threat to existing system of teachers and hence there is little political economy associated with this. This exercise will also serve as pilot for the broader school vouchers and would help test the exaggerations and skepticism of voucher approach in general.

Certification, monitoring and rolling out vouchers/cash transfer can be possible hurdles in this approach. More importantly, unlike teaching assistants under monitoring of a regular teacher, the private tutors can end up just making students complete their homework, because it's the most popular demand from parents.

There are strengths and possible constraints in both the approaches. The decision has to be taken by the governments based on what they think is easy to implement, as discussed in one of the posts earlier. It may not be also possible to use the same approach for all geographical locations and a mixture of these approaches can be used. For example, in urban areas where there is higher density of students, there is greater possibility for private service providers, where vouchers can be implemented and for interior rural villages, teaching assistants can be recruited.

The first step is the recognition of the need for providing support systems to first generation learners and the commitment to address it, solutions will follow.

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