Samina is building an inclusive and accountable education system, opening up access for children to an equitable education irrespective of socio-economic status. To do this Samina is building a movement of students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and government officials who are demanding an inclusive education system through policy and implementing it through accountability mechanisms.
The New Idea
Samina Bano believes that the key to building a socially equitable society is through an education system where children from all socio-economic backgrounds have equal access to quality education. From her personal experience of studying in an inclusive classroom, and later proven by several research studies, Samina believes that classrooms with children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, improves the quality of education in the classroom. In order to do this, Samina is using the Right to Education (RTE) Act, passed in 2009 but not implemented, as a tool to build an inclusive education system that gives equal access to quality education to all children.
Realizing that there is a huge gap between an inclusive education policy and its implementation, because neither the public nor the private education system have the understanding or the capability to implement a high quality inclusive education system, Samina is building a comprehensive, step-by-step RTE implementation system, which will ensure that all recognized private schools especially the better ones admit children from low-income families in order to make their classrooms inclusive, and government schools which are inclusive by law are held accountable for providing high quality education. Samina is doing this through a unique model of students-based social accountability system implemented using low cost, accessible technology platform to facilitate scaling and minimize human discretion, thereby reducing chances of corruption.
India’s schooling system has gradually segregated into two segments – ‘state-run schools’ for the poor and range of private schools for the rich. This ghettoization in access to education in India by ability to pay has seen a sharp surge since the 1970s when private schooling space opened up for middle as well as lower income families. As private sector in schooling space is growing fast while already catering to 53% students in Uttar Pradesh and performing slightly better than state-run schools, the role of private sector in facilitating universal access to education cannot be ruled out. However it has led to genuine concern of the socio-economic stratification based on ability to pay that privatization brings along.
. On the other hand, government school classrooms are diverse by nature as they are mandated to admit any child that comes to them, However in terms of learning outcome the quality of education has been very alarming for such public schools. In shocking statistics as per ASER 2014, only 26.8% children in class V of government schools could read class 2 text while this figure was 61.4% for private schools in the state of Uttar Pradesh
There are multiple factors, primarily related to lack of accountability and weak institutions leading to such poor performance in public schools. Parents cannot hold the teachers or the school administration accountable for providing quality education. There is no evaluation or monitoring system in place to assess the quality of education in government schools. As a result of poor quality of education in government schools, even parents from low-income families struggle to pay the fees to send their children to private schools.
Almost 52.8% of the children in Uttar Pradesh go to private schools, and this number is increasing by approx.. 1.5% every year, whereas, only 30% of the total number of schools are private schools. This results in over crowding of private schools, while government schools are lying vacant wasting precious government education resources. Children from low-income families in private schools face a high level of discrimination as there are no inclusive practices in these classrooms. This schism between private and government schools widens the gap between the education children from different socio-economic classes can get and increases social inequity.
The Right to Free and Compulsory Education came into being in 2009 in India. The act lays out education as a fundamental right of all children between the ages of 6 – 14 and provides for free and compulsory education for any child in that age group. The act was formally notified in April 2009 with directives for implementation. However, only 19 out of the 36 Indian states have ratified the RTE rules. Even in those states where the RTE rules have been ratified, implementation of the law has not been effective, due to the ambiguities in the act which allow for loopholes for schools and other authorities to use to not comply to the RTE. In addition, neither the government machinery, nor the private school system have an understanding of the Act, or the capability and skills to implement it.
In the state of Uttar Pradesh, the problem is specifically aggravated, because as the most populous state in India, there is the highest number of children in need of quality education in this state. In addition, the private school lobby is politically strong in the state and has pushed for an amendment in the RTE which exempts them from admitting 25% children from low-income families in their schools, as the RTE mandates in the rest of the country, under section 12.1.(c). Even after this amendment was overturned in the court of law, the private school lobby, especially (an internationally renowned school chain with name in the Guinness Book of World Record – I think we shouldn’t name the school), which holds the Guinness World Record for the most number of students in a school, has sued the State Government in the highest court of law in the country and refused to become an inclusive school.
In order to build an inclusive education system, Samina started working on a pilot in Uttar Pradesh, where education indicators were one of the lowest, in 2012. Samina began by bringing together children from low-income government and elite private schools together in same classroom to experiment with inclusive pedagogy. Through this Samina understood the two key obstacles for an inclusive education system: first, private schools with a high quality of education were not admitting low-income children in their classrooms in spite of the Right to Education Act (2009) mandating them to admit 25% children from Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) because these elite schools were afraid that this would hamper their quality of education, and second, in government schools where there was a fair mix of children from diverse socio-economic classes had a very poor quality of education, as there was no accountability mechanism in these schools to evaluate teachers or the quality of education provided. Samina decided that her strategy to build an inclusive high quality education system had to be two pronged- build a system to include EWS children in private schools, and build a monitoring and accountability system for government schools.
Samina realized that education was not a priority issue for the government since children are not voters, so her first priority in early 2013 was to build a sense of urgency on the issue, which she did by launching a research study on the status of education and RTE compliance in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) - India’s largest and most populous state. Samina went public in leading media channels, like Outlook magazine, with the shocking findings, which, amongst other data around dismal quality of education, showed that out of the 6 lakh or 0.6 million admissions of low income children that should have happened in UP every year since the RTE was passed, only 108admissions had taken place in the last four years!
Once there was a buzz created, through 2013-2014, around the issue of the RTE not being implemented, Samina created an interface between the Government of UP, leading educationists such as Prof. Karthik Muralidharan, Prof. Lant Pritchett and education think tanks such as, , Centre for Civil Society, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad ,Central Square Foundation, and Accountability Initiative to come together as a cross-sectoral team in round table discussions on RTE implementation .Samina judiciously leveraged the media hype created post the research disclosures, for the Media to cover the discussion and take on record the action items committed. Samina had been very strategic in determining the cross sectoral compositions as the commitments were consensual, ensuring ownership and implementation.
The round table discussions resulted in key next steps in implementing the RTE, and as all the key stakeholders had arrived at them together, they felt ownership over them and were proactive about playing their respective roles in implementing them For example, the State Government agreed that setting up the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR)to regulate RTE implementation, as commissioned in the Act, was the first step, and as the Chief Minister had said this himself, and his statement was made public in the media, his office followed through and set up the SCPCR swiftly. With Commission in place, Samina spent her energy in 2015 building a system to get children from EWS who do not have a government school in their ward, admission in 25% of the seats available in private schools, as mandated by Section 12 of the RTE.
Simultaneously, Samina and her team helped government in capacity building by training government officials in the education department, district administration and SCPCR and over 700 school administration representatives from different districts across the state on how to become RTE compliant schools, who now act as trainers and ambassadors for inclusive education and train other officials and teachers in the system. Samina strategically got high ranking government officials to invite the school administrators and to host the trainings at their offices, which held the schools accountable on compliance commitments and incentivized them to attend. Samina also trained the social issues beat journalists in both print and television media on the RTE and the responsibilities if each stakeholder, so that the buzz around the issue did not die down, and the media continued to hold the public and private education machineries accountable for becoming RTE compliant.
Once Samina had rolled out mechanisms to get the machinery moving, she turned her attention to parents and students to spread awareness so they applied for admission in private schools. Samina partnered with Parshads (Corporators of Wards), over 100 high school student volunteers, local business owners, like shop keepers, to spread awareness amongst low-income families and help them fill and submit the application for school admission for their children. The volunteers also ran a 24 hour helpline for parents, school representatives and anyone else interested in learning more about the RTE, to provide information and facilitate the admission process. The parents were trained on the admission process : what documents would be required, what they should pay or not pay for, so that they were empowered to demand education rights for their children and were protected from being harassed by school administrators trying to deny their child admission. Samina upheld the schools who were the early adopters to admit low-income children in their schools as champions of inclusivity in the media to make it aspirational for other schools to follow suit. Samina focused on the most reputed schools in the state first to ensure they took admissions, because if they were seen as inclusive schools, all other schools too would want to be in the same league as these elite schools.
The system Samina built enabled 4600 children to be admitted in private schools and study there for free, across 26 districts of Uttar Pradesh in 2015 alone, creating history as the state had entirely failed in RTE Section 12(c) implementation so far. This is 80 times improvement over the last year’s figure of 54 admissions. Samina believes that this admission system is an irreversible step towards inclusion, as once EWS children are admitted Kindergarten, the schools have to practice inclusion in every class as these children graduate towards higher classes. Samina is now institutionalizing the admission process by building an online digital system that requires minimum human intervention so that chances of corruption are minimized. The online system will be run through Lokvani Centers (rural cyber cafes), where families can pay Rs. 50 (US$ 1) to the operator to fill the admission application form for their child while other manual channels will remain open to allow maximum participation. The centralized lottery system will assign schools with open seats in the priority order of the schools applied for, the parents and the school will be simultaneously notified from the BSA office as well as schools and the admission finalized after paying a visit to the said school.
There was a lot of debate if parents could have a choice in selecting schools in the High Court as there was no clear mention of it in the Act or any other state’s court order. With suggestion from Samina, UP was the first state that allowed such a choice to parents. In a historical judgement by a double bench of Allahabad High Court on 10 Sept 2015, the court openly advocated for such a right to choice accorded to parents. It was a achievement for UP as well as Samina. Although the admission of EWS children in private schools resulted in diverse classrooms, Samina realized that there needed to for targeted initiatives to ensure the children were not discriminated against. The schools are monetarily compensated by the government for the fees of the low income children admitted free of cost. However, the biggest road block for elite private schools to admit children from low-income families, is that the schools fear they do not have inclusive practices in place. Samina wants to remove this road block by training schools on inclusive practices through three kinds of workshops- training for teachers on inclusive pedagogy, facilitating relationships between the families of all the children through sports and other social events, and peer learning sessions between teachers, students, schools administrators, parents and government officials so they can together take ownership of and run an inclusive education system.
In order to ensure government schools, which have inclusive classrooms since no child can be denied admission to them, provide high quality education Samina has built a community based multi-stakeholder social monitoring and evaluation system. She launched the ‘My School My Voice’ campaign, where she got feedback from 5000 students from 40 schools, on teachers and school systems, collated the data and presented a report to the government and public. This gave children in schools a voice in their own education that was directly heard by high ranking government officials, their teachers and schools. Samina upheld those schools, teachers and school practices that emerged as innovative positive steps towards inclusion in the media and to the government in an event where the Chief Minister of the state felicitated the success stories, to make it aspirational to be a school delivering good quality education. In addition, the consistent complaints that emerged as a pattern were addressed swiftly by the government since children raising them directly was sensitive enough an issue. . For example, teachers who were reported to be consistently absent were reported with evidence to the government authorities, who launched investigations into the reason for absenteeism and with-held the teacher’s salary until the grievance was solved.
Samina is institutionalizing this social monitoring system by developing technology based infrastructure , where data is collected daily from a student, a teacher, a parent and the school principal about various aspects such as attendance of teachers and students, what was taught, whether the mid-day meal was served and so on. The data is triangulated to ensure there are no discrepancies, and a live dashboard in the office of the Principal Secretary for Education displays the data analysis in real time, so the Principal Secretary can launch investigations, take action, and make policy recommendations accordingly. Samina plans to scale the system she is building nationally by 2025 by institutionalizing it in every state, like she is currently doing in Uttar Pradesh.
Starting in 2015, Samina is collecting longitudinal data on the academic performance of students in the school before it became inclusive and through its transition into an inclusive school in order to gather evidence to support her hypothesis that the quality of education and overall leaning in a classroom improves when it is inclusive, proven by research studies like, “From all walks of Life: New Hope for School Integration”, by R. D. Kahlenberg (2013).
Samina was born to conservative Muslim parents. Her father was in the Air Force and she grew up on Air Force Bases, moving every 2 years. While they prioritized educating her brothers, they had no serious plans of schooling samina. However, Samina fought with them to be able to go to school, and they only agreed because the military school (Central school) was very cheap (as good as free) and there was also peer pressure as everyone sent their children to school.
At an early age, due to an accident, Samina’s left leg got permanently paralyzed to an extent of 55%, which strengthened Samina’s conviction that education was her only way for social mobility and creating a fulfilling life for herself. While her parents had dropped out of education after high school, Samina’s faith in education led her to be the first person in her family to graduate from college. Samina went to the premier Engineering and Business colleges in India, and while her disability could have gotten her admissions, extra time in examinations and other advantages under affirmative action, she was determined to never use her disability as an excuse, and always excelled academically and in her career purely on merit and hardwork.
While one of the biggest criticisms of the RTE has been that many believe inclusive schools are not a pragmatic possibility, Samina strongly believes that inclusive schools are possible, because the central schools she went to was inclusive of children whose parents were high ranking military officers, or clerks, or everything in between, and her teachers devised methods to make all the children feel equal. One example Samina recalls is how her teachers would make all the children keep their lunch boxes in a common basket and then blindfold the children and make them pick any lunchbox from the basket, and then all the children would share and eat whatever lunch they picked.
Experiencing inclusivity in school, discrimination in the world outside used to shock Samina. When Samina was 8 years old and moved to a new Air Force Base in Lucknow, she noticed that there were different playgrounds for Officer’s children and non-officer’s children. Samina pulled up the chapter from her Civics text books that said that all public spaces are open to everyone and tried to convince the authorities to not discriminate between children by limiting their entry to certain playgrounds. When she failed, she went back to her teachers and claimed that the text books were lying and that she wouldn’t read them anymore. With this she managed to mobilise her teachers, as well as a group of children from her school to petition the authorities to make the playgrounds open to all children. It worked and till date these playgrounds in Lucknow remain inclusive.
During her days at Engineering College in Pune, Samina read “How to Change the World” by David Bornstein, and was inspired to be a social entrepreneur and build an inclusive education system in India. In spite of being a Muslim woman with a disability in one of the most religiously divided and politically corrupt states in India, Uttar Pradesh, Samina has become the most trusted voice on inclusive education in the State.