McKinsey, India

Grading The System-An Insight Into Education In India | Ramya Venkataraman

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“Teacher – student ratios are reasonable in many parts of the country. In some parts, the government also provides additional resources such as books, uniforms. However, there are significant gaps in the quality of learning and we have tried to diagnose why these gaps exist or what needs to be done to fix these gaps.”

In this interview, Ramya discusses the various aspects of the education system in India – the quality of education imparted; the changes that have taken place, and are continuing to take place in the schooling system; and how to address issues present within the system. She also speaks about the roles that the Government, donors and various NGOs have played in promoting education in India. Finally, Ramya provides us with her valuable opinion on what needs to be changed in order to create high performing schools in India.

Ramya Venkataraman has been with McKinsey & Company for close to 15 years, is based in Mumbai and is part of the Firm’s leadership group in India. For 5 years now, she is the full-time Leader of McKinsey’s Education Practice in India (including school education, vocational skills and higher education) and part of the Firm’s global education practice leadership.

In addition to her core work with clients, Ramya enjoys doing workshops with teachers, principals and NGO leaders, informally guides a few young organizations, speaks regularly at education events and has authored a few articles and publications. She has contributed to McKinsey’s seminal global publications, “How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, 2010”, and “Education to Employment: Designing a System that works, 2012”, and is the lead author of “Designing Philanthropy for Impact: Giving to the Biggest Gaps in India, 2013”. Ramya holds a B.Tech from IIT Delhi and an MBA from IIM Calcutta, and has received prestigious awards for leadership at both institutes.

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Shivraj: Ramya Venkataraman, thank very much for speaking to the Khemka Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

Ramya Venkataraman: Thank you, glad to be here.

Shivraj: Ramya, in an exhaustive study on the need for improvement of school systems –you talk about overhauling processes and not just pumping in resources and creating new structures.How does this specifically apply to the Indian context, especially in up-scaling it to large state run school systems?

Ramya Venkataraman: So in India what we see is that thanks to the efforts of the last several years by governments, and also by donors and NGOs so on, many school systems around the country have reasonably good resources so as you know the percentage of access to schools is generally high and there has been a lot of thrust in improving basic infrastructure in terms of classrooms, toilets, drinking water and so on and there is gradual improvement in all of these. Teacher – student ratios are reasonable in many parts of the country. In some parts, the government also provides additional resources such as books, uniforms. However, with all this as many studies show and as we all know, there are significant gaps in the quality of learning and as we have tried to diagnose why these gaps exist or what needs to be done to fix these gaps. We find that the gaps in quality are often associated with processes and these are processes at all levels – pedagogical processes within the classroom, learning models, the process by which the school as a unit interacts and operates towards high outcomes, the methodology of training and coaching teachers and headmasters, which also we club broadly under processes. The mechanisms for regular review and feedback, whether it is at the block level or cluster levels, zonal level, depending on what system you are and cascading this review right up to the overall system levels, so yes, would very much apply to the Indian context as well, at scale.

Shivraj: And so apart from the big gaps in processes you just talked about we also have the problem of very few integrated schools across India and such a huge issue with dropout rates at every transition stage, how does one then address the issue?

Ramya Venkataraman: Dropouts is of course, it’s a big and complex issue and there is no one answer to addressing it. I think there is one set of initiatives which are around getting some of the basic resources in schools right such as you know separate girls toilets and so on which have helped in reducing dropouts over the years. Now the next horizon of this is probably again getting to real learning quality and real outcomes in education and we do find that with the community becoming more and more aware, with parents recognising the importance of education, when they see real learning and real outcomes from the schools, the dropout does tend to reduce.

Shivraj: And so given your work with official agencies (you have many initiatives running) to find the gaps and help address them, what have been your learnings from that?

Ramya Venkataraman: We find that, one, there is increasingly a lot of keenness among many governments in this country to focus on quality of education beyond just access and enrolment and there is better understanding of the gaps in quality, which is good and several efforts over the last several years have led to this understanding. Secondly, we also find that there is openness and even proactive efforts by many governments to form strong partnerships that that can drive system improvement together and from our experience we believe strongly that such partnerships where governments, donor agencies and implementation agencies, programme management agencies and so on come together with each partner bringing their own unique strengths, can play a bring role in driving overall system transformation. Is this too long? Would suggest keeping this

Shivraj: In fact that was my next question, on how open they are, I think you have answered that, but from the perspective of the private sector and other civil society organisations, what is the key role that they can play?

Ramya Venkataraman: We see three four possible kinds of roles for the private sector if you are talking about school system reform at scale. One, there are several organisations which are gradually becoming specialists in aspects like teacher training, headmaster training, assessment of student learning and so on and technical capabilities of these organisations can play a significant role in building these capabilities and using these capabilities in the broader system. Second, we also find entities who can run high quality schools on an end to end manner and by definition they may always be smaller in scale or much smaller in scale than the government system but can hopefully serve as both a model and a resource for the system, that’s another important role that I would think of. Third, there is probably a role of designing and managing a system transformation in an end to end manner, bringing multiple components and stakeholders together and focussing on gradually building the system’s own capabilities and that’s the other kind of private sector role that we see. Four, I mean moving away from these sort of operating entities to donors, we find that whether it is foundations, corporates, multilaterals, donors can play what we call a quote unquote ‘catalytic role’ in system improvement and system transformation, because on one hand the system has a set of resources but on the other hand sometimes there might be a specific thing that the government is let’s say unable to spend on, which is important for overall system transformation and this sort of one percent input from the donor which can allow for better more effective utilisation of the 100 percent, can also play a very big role, so these are the kinds of roles we see for the private sector.

Shivraj: Ramya you talk about outcomes, so where or how do you see evaluation of impact and quality measurement taking place? After all monitoring and accountability has been an issue with the school system?

Ramya Venkataraman: Measurement of outcomes in a school system has never been easy but assessment of student learning is something that we find to be quite central to all high performing school systems and increasingly in many other school systems around the world, including in India this has started happening and when I say assessment of student learning, this not for passing or failing a student, so it is completely low stakes for the student himself or herself. But it is meant for the system to receive feedback on both how students are doing as a whole and more granular view on how specific schools are doing, how students are on specific topics which in turn will also feed into teacher training, in terms of which topics students are learning better, which topics they have struggles with, if they have a struggle with some topic then what is the reason behind that, so which part of the concept has the student not understood. So this kind of scientific assessment of student learning and assessment of conceptual learning is quite central to measurement in a school system. And apart from this of course, we also feel the need to measure a few input side matrix and processes, so which would include aspects such as you know how well teacher training is being done, how well headmaster training has been done, and obviously all these would need to get broken down into more measurable elements and we usually find that when we are measuring the input side also then firstly it gives us a leading indicator, because student assessment might take time to change and this at least tells us whether we are going in the right direction.

Shivraj: And finally from your perspective what are the three key things that need to take place next to bring all of this together to create those high performing school systems across India?

Ramya Venkataraman: One, I think we do need across India and maybe even at a nationally standardised manner regular assessment of student learning. Second, the teacher constituency of course is central to this program and as a society how do we sort of respect the teaching profession a lot more, motivate teachers a lot more, make them feel special, given the challenges they are dealing with on a day to day basis and probably provide them with very tangible support that they can use in the classroom every day. I think it is important for us to get more and more of these partnerships together, where government, donor agencies, implementation entities, program management entities, come together to drive systems transformation at least at the city level or district level or state level. Getting some frameworks in place for appropriate and high quality public-private partnerships, which again, some of our states have started moving towards that, but what is the right way to have partnerships where private entities selected in the most appropriate manner, they are evaluated regularly, the outcomes are measured and so on and there is government support behind this so that would probably be my number three.

Shivraj: Ramya Venkataraman, thank very much for speaking to the Khemka Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

Ramya Venkataraman: Thank you. Thank you very much.


Views expressed here are solely that of the person interviewed and may not represent the views of The Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation.