On 22nd February 2021, the Government of India (GoI), the Government of Nagaland (GoN), and the World Bank signed a $68 million project to improve and enhance government schools. The project is titled: Nagaland Enhancing Classroom Teaching and Resources (NECTAR). The actual project, according to the World Bank, is worth $85 million (Rs.629 crores) shared between the World Bank contributing $68 million (Rs.503 crores) and the Government of India contributing another $17 million (Rs.125 crores).
This project will be implemented by the GoN’s Department of School Education (DSE) through its constituent agencies: Directorate of School Education (DoSE), State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT), Nagaland Board of School Education (NBSE), and Samagra Shiksha State Implementation Society (SIS), as well as School Management Committees (SMCs)/ School Management and Development Committees (SMDCs). Nagaland’s DSE also has entered into a contractual agreement worth (around Rs. 9.9 crores) with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), and KPMG Advisory Services Pvt. Limited to deliver the services for the project “Lighthouse” (i.e. NECTAR). All this information as well as the project documents is freely available on the World Bank’s website.
On paper, at least, the project seems to be very opportune and timely for improving the education system in Nagaland, which at present seems to be in utter disarray and in need of a major overhaul. But the challenges that await this project is enormous requiring a herculean task and efforts, given that none of these implementing agencies (DSE, DoSE, NBSE, SCERT, and SIS) have “prior experiences handling World Bank-funded projects” coupled with a “lack of adequate resources or systems for efficiently procuring project-related activities.” These are World Bank’s own words. Thus, it is no wonder that the GoN has recruited TISS and large advisory and accounting firm KPMG.
The GoN has indeed admitted how the 2000 plus government schools catering to about 1.5 lakhs students are largely characterized, in GoN’s own words, by “…low enrolment, low learning outcomes at all levels, [and] large inter-district disparity in achievements…” Our state, according to Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) 2016-17 data, ranked Nagaland at the bottom five in terms of enrolment rate, retention rate, and rates of transition from elementary to secondary education. Nagaland also has the second-highest dropout rates at primary and upper-primary levels according to UDISE data. The number is significantly worse when we look at the secondary and higher secondary level, where Nagaland ranks second-last from the bottom in the country on net enrolment rate (34.03%) and third-last in retention rate (30.9%). A very gloomy picture indeed!
To make matters worse, Nagaland also performs poorly on basic reading and arithmetic skills. A glaring sign of a systemic fault in teaching quality and teacher workforce management, exemplified by widespread phenomena of ‘proxy-teachers,’ ad-hoc recruitment of teachers, and with GoN’s own admission that Nagaland “has yet to begin recruiting teachers through the use of the Teacher Eligibility Tests (TET).” Compound to these troubles is, according to the World Bank, the inept and confused condition of “education functionaries in the district and sub-district administrative units of the state (such as district education officers, block/cluster resource persons, etc.), [who] suffer from unclear roles and responsibilities and weak core capabilities.” So, where does the Rs. 629 crore NECTAR project stands with respect to these challenges?
According to the GoN, 15 “target schools” out of 44 government higher secondary schools will be selected and transformed into composite schools, “the Lighthouse Schools,” offering kindergarten to higher secondary level education. These schools will be fitted with STEM laboratories; library space; internet connectivity; transformable classrooms to enhance the learning environment. All these are proposed to be done with the objective of improving the state’s school management index; and improve teaching, learning, and passing rate in these “target schools.” At the same time, the NBSE will review and make necessary changes to the current curricula, syllabi, setting of question papers, marking schemes, and exam settings, etc. for Class 10 and 12, reflecting the aim of India’s New Education Policy (NEP). Simultaneously, the GoN will also clarify the roles and responsibilities of district and sub-district level education functionaries as well as strengthen the Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) to monitor and improve the school management index.
However, what is deeply troubling about these objectives and methods about this project is: what are the criteria or basis (poor class 10 and 12 pass results, low enrolment, low net retention rate, etc.) for selecting these “target/lighthouse schools”? To give readers a context, the 2020 NBSE class 12 results for government higher secondary schools will serve as a good baseline to consider and understand these concerns. Out of 2000 odd government schools in Nagaland, there are only 44 government higher secondary schools. Out of these 44, only 8 higher secondary schools have a science stream and 6 have a commerce stream. And when we look at the pass rate, some of the worse performing government higher secondary schools are (those below 45%): government higher secondary schools in Satakha (7%), Zunheboto (39%), Aghunato (40%), Wokha (32.5%), Bhandari (45%), Longkhim (32%), Mon Town ‘D’ (45%), and Singrijan (43%). There certainly are good performing government higher secondary schools (Jotsoma, Chiechama, Meluri, Pfutsero, Mayangnokcha, Mon, and Chumukedima) with 100 and 95 plus passing rate.
From this baseline, the government is in a better position to inquire what works and identify the best practices. For instance, from the better performing schools, it would be good to finds reasons (good practices, teachers’ affinity with the demography of the place, incentives, teachers’ attendance rate, rate of proxy teachers, etc.) behind high pass percentage rate. These can be further incorporated into broader data to understand why some schools are performing poorly. It would be very beneficial if the schools selected (for the lighthouse) are based on a mixture of poor as well as good performance schools, rather than concentrate only on good schools or schools in two or three districts.
Interestingly, the 2020 higher secondary results prove the preliminary findings conducted by the World Bank suggesting that the “distance of the school from ‘headquarters’, i.e., Kohima, emerged as a primary factor impacting information flows, access to resources, and continuous engagement with the district administration.” Hence, the criteria for selecting schools ought to be prudently thought out, keeping in mind the interest of the students in the rural areas, before tribal sentiments and appeal to mismanage the project’s funds overcome the policymakers.
Another equally troubling concern is: Does the GoN really need Rs. 629 crore on 15 school complexes? These concerns are reflected in the World Bank’s own assessment of the project, where it has rated the NECTAR project to be SUBSTANTIALLY RISKY. Substantially risky because of Nagaland’s lack of “institutional capacity for implementation and sustainability” and assessed Financial Management/fiduciary to be risky “as multiple agencies are involved in the implementation of project components at the State level.” This is not surprising given that in Nagaland, according to the World Bank, the “…government employs 4.7 percent of the state’s population. The next biggest employer in Nagaland, after the government, is the Church.” The concern here is to ensure that the GoN does not mortgage the future of the youths; since the World Bank loan must be repaid (it is not a free gift).
Despite all of these concerns and troubling indications, the World Bank in good faith decided to approve $68 million. It is now up to the GoN along with the implementing agencies (DoSE, DoSE, NBSE, SCERT, SIS, and SMCs/SMDCs) and agencies contracted (TISS and KPMG) to deliver on the promised services of the project to work diligently, and successfully achieve the proposed objectives. Wishing GoN the very best for this challenging project!!