All hands on the deck


Before the COVID, some 50% of the children worldwide could not read or write. Since the COVID, the situation has been far worse. UNESCO suggests COVID has wiped out nearly 20 years of gains in education. Girls and young women have been most disproportionately affected.

If there is a fire in the house, we drop everything else, and everyone gets involved. Likewise, in education, we immediately need a fresh wave of activism and disruptive new solutions. It is not enough to rely on the teachers alone, just as we did not rely on the doctors during the COVID emergency.

We urgently need all hands on deck: the government, corporates, funding agencies, civil societies, voluntary organizations/NGOs, entire communities, university students, student volunteers, and everyone else.

The Pandemic has disproportionately affected the education of girls. The best education programs of the past are not a sufficient guide to the future, nor to the intense crises currently facing education.

System-wide and systemic approaches, an enabling policy environment, and bolder policy measures, combined with disruptive teaching methods, are required along with an inclusive education—no girl left behind—and quality education for all as envisaged by SDG 4.

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How can we tackle this mammoth problem? 

Through its New Education Policy (NEP2020) and the NIPUN Bharat mission, the Government, has accorded the highest importance to foundational literacy and numeracy, and State Governments of India are coming up with concrete plans to implement it.

“The highest priority of the education system will be to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school by 2025. The rest of this Policy will become relevant for our students only if this most basic learning requirement (i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic at the foundational level) is first achieved.” (NEP2020)

National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy, NIPUN Bharat, has launched the Education Ministry of India under National Education Policy 2020. This scheme ensures that every child in India gains foundational numeracy and literacy by the end of Grade 3, by 2026-27. It instructs teachers and educators to prepare a study plan that develops the students’ literacy and basic language skills, transforming the monotonous education system into integrated, enjoyable, all-inclusive, and engaging. Among other actions, it asks volunteer teachers to hold lessons, prepare lesson plans, assign tasks to students, administer tests, grade student work, and participate in continuing education. (NIPUN Bharat)

The Policy is candid and clear. Yet, the current actions and delivery mechanisms are neither sufficient nor swift enough to fill the learning gaps, teach the foundational skills, and enroll all the ‘missing children’, all in one deep breath. We can agree that the problem is far deeper and wider and requires novel solutions that are dramatic and immediate.

The policy recommendations

My key policy recommendation for education is a Time-Bound People’s Movement involving all segments of society, and especially drawing upon communities as basic units of transformation. This requires us to:

  1. Treat FLN mission as a national emergency. Direct all resources towards education, as we did for the COVID. This means a commitment to a country-wide government-led people’s movement like was done to eradicate polio in the 1990s in which every government employee was given targets.
  2. Create a time-bound mission for 1 year. Enthusiasm cannot be maintained over a prolonged period. A people’s movement may be extended for one more year to reach the last adult or child. We can further invite the involvement of all segments of society, corporations, NGOs, private schools, and universities.
  3. Use proven methods that have the potential to hugely scale-up FLN quickly. It is possible to make a person FLN capable within three to six months, with just 90 sessions of 20 minutes from the start date using disruptive teaching methods such as Global Dream Disruptive FLN that came out of many trials and research.
  4. Deliberately involve women. Our experimental work in Karouni village in Lucknow has shown it is possible to make big strides in a short period using a people’s movement in which women and youth, including student volunteers, play a critical role. The women in their own communities can further be empowered to ensure all girls and boys are enrolled and attending school. They can hold community-based classes for children and adults. Women are the most powerful antidote to the problem of literacy anywhere. If they take the lead in their communities, they can turn entire communities around. We need to involve everyone, but in particular, empower the women.
  5. Ask everyone to come forward. When the government leads a people’s movement, everyone will come forward. No other action will be stronger or faster than to involve entire populations. We found this happening in Karouni, where we created a movement for literacy in the microcosm of a village. When we asked the women volunteers what motivated them to get involved and to continue the teaching work without any compensation, they said: Samman (greater respect in their communities) and Desh Bhakti (a desire to serve the nation). Such feelings of service to the nation have hardly been evoked in the recent past. People are ready and waiting.
  6. Develop an app for education similar to Aarogya Setu. An app such as Aarogya Setu for education can help enumerate every girl and boy child, and all adolescents monitor their enrolment and attendance. This app could include a door-to-door survey in each community nationwide to identify and enrol all children, especially the girls. We also suggest a helpline for girls and most disadvantaged children. These measures can help us find the ‘missing children’ and bring them back into the fold of education and the Samagra Shiksha scheme for OoSC (Out-of-school children).
  7. Increase financial investment in education. Fund those activities that specifically target adolescent girls’ education in secondary schools. It is one of the most transformative development strategies. These measures may include cash transfers or conditional cash transfers, aimed particularly at girls’ transition to and retention in secondary schools. Ensure that government budgets are gender-responsive and that all national education plans and policies prioritize gender equality.
  8. Accelerate PPPs or Public-Private Partnerships. Among other governance models, the PPP may be the best and quickest alternative combined with conditional cash transfer such as direct benefit transfer schemes India has successfully used in other sectors. The PPP is simple and largely expense-free. Many private schools and school chains will be happy to partner with the government to run their schools in a PPP modality.

Creating a new model of accountability

Away from the typical carrot and stick approaches, the threat of transfers, or reprimand, we need a novel model of accountability that comes from within. Cultivating intrinsic motivation yields dividends year after year; it harvests an inner sense of responsibility and a deeper commitment. It also inspires greater personal and professional satisfaction.

Research shared by Andreas Schleicher, Head, PISA, shows that when teachers share their classroom practice with other teachers, it leads to better practice. This new peer dynamic leads to new psychology and wider accountability. These sharing spaces at the local, regional and national levels lead to the cross-fertilization of ideas and improved practice. These, in turn, lead to greater satisfaction and fuel intrinsic motivation.

To share their successes, teachers will begin to undertake new and innovative work with their children. They will collect evidence of their new and innovative work.

We can mainstream these teacher sharing spaces in a teacher’s monthly timetable. This will lead to a better outcome than awards that have a short-lived impact. The best praise for a teacher is when they feel appreciated by their own peers, and when their students perform well.

For decades, we have tried the model of extrinsic accountability, rewards, and punishment. Now it is time to try out intrinsic motivation.

What are the indicators that intrinsic motivation is working? How can we train the teachers better?

It is easy to tell when a teacher is intrinsically motivated. We can see them spending more time in the school and on teaching. They spend more of their time learning and looking for resources on the internet, for example. We know many such government teachers such as Ugrasen Verma of Shravasti. He keeps searching the net for ideas, and on one of his searches, he ran into Global Dream. He downloaded the Toolkits and immediately printed them with his own funds, in color, for his Grades 1 and 2 children. The actions of such teachers result in greater student attendance and improved performance. These teachers become even more extraordinary with time. We just need a critical number of them to tip the balance.

Creating intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than the usual regimes of training that teachers receive. Most of the training is soon forgotten and rarely translated into classroom practice.

We also need to focus professional development on gender-responsive pedagogies. We need more rigorous scrutiny of teaching-learning materials for removing gender bias, among others.

Where is the child in this process?

It is important to consider how children feel, especially the girl child. Does she feel safe in school or in coming and going to the school? How is her social well-being and emotional health? Children should be able to express their views.

Joyful learning brings children into the fold of learning; boredom does the opposite (-0.13 effect size by John Hattie). The enjoyment of learning environments influences children’s development and disposition to later schooling.

A desire to improve equity for the disadvantaged children, creating more sensitivity, and a climate of caring and responsibility towards the girl-child needs to be combined with more mentorship and guidance by the teacher, better relationships within the school, between students, teachers and the school head.

(Author is Dr. Sunita Gandhi, Former Economist, The World Bank, a visionary educationist who launched ALfA, Accelerating Learning for All process and the Global Dream Disruptive FLN Campaign to attain 100% foundational literacy and numeracy.)