In 2018, the Department of Education of Himachal Pradesh found itself at a crossroads. While the state was performing well academically, and had shown marked improvements in reading levels and arithmetic competencies, the involvement of parents in their child’s education was quite low.
This meant that while in some cases parents did not even have visibility on whether their children were going to school daily, in many cases they were unaware of their child's academic track record in terms of homework completion and performance in assessments. Additionally, they also did not know when a PTM was being organized in the school, further exacerbating the information asymmetry.
This was because there was no easy way for parents to be in the know of what was happening in their child’s school and to some extent low level of interest in finding out. Therefore, while the state’s performance on key educational indicators was good, a crucial piece in terms of engagement of the parent community in the education ecosystem, which held the potential to truly pivot Himachal to the next level, was missing.
It was against this backdrop that “e-Samwad” was conceptualized. Envisioned as an open source application which would bridge the gap between teachers and parents, the application revolutionised communications in the educational ecosystem. It allowed teachers to send simple, personalised SMSs in a standard format to parents about daily attendance, weekly homework completion, assessment dates, assessment performance, holiday announcements and PTM announcements. The idea was that provision of timely information to parents in an easy-to-understand manner would increase parental engagement in education, eventually resulting in better academic performance of students, a hypothesis proven by research.
Recognizing the inherent value of this product, e-Samwad was launched in the state for all elementary government schools by the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Mr Jai Ram Thakur in July 2019. In October 2020, having seen the benefits of the application, it was extended to higher grades by the Education Minister, Mr Govind Singh Thakur. Today, e-Samwad is being used by 15,000 (98%) schools across the state to connect with parents of more than 6.5 lakh students.
However, Covid-induced school closures have disrupted this communication chain. With schools shut for months and lessons being conducted online as part of the state’s remote learning programme, Har Ghar Pathshala (HGP), once again there seems to have developed an information gap between teachers and parents. In the initial 4-5 months of the lockdown, not only were parents unaware of their child’s performance under the HGP programme, they were also anxious about how long schools would remain closed and the resultant learning losses. Recognizing this gap, another initiative called the e-PTM was pioneered by the Department of Education in August 2020. Launched by the Education Minister of the state, e-PTMs sought to achieve 4 key objectives:
The e-PTMs were an instant success with 48,000 teachers getting connected to parents of 92% of the students in the state over the course of 4 days. Around 92% of the participating parents found the e-PTM to be helpful for them and their children, and about 88% of them said they would like to attend such an e-PTM in the future as well. Feedback from parents was that e-PTMs provided them with critical information about their child's academic performance and due to the direct interface with teachers, also helped them resolve their doubts. A parent from Jubbal, Shimla said, “It was helpful as teachers guided the students and parents regarding the latter’s studies. The teacher also talked personally with the parents, and took everyone's opinion”. The state has since conducted 2 e-PTM drives, with a third one planned next year.
These initiatives around parent engagement have resulted in multiple learnings for the state, as well as for the Samarth team, some of which have been recounted here.
While community engagement was considered as an auxiliary component to students’ learning earlier, the e-PTM drives under the ‘Har Ghar Pathshala’ campaign are rooted in the parent's active involvement in their child’s education. Parents are the ones who are nudging and supervising their students to attend to their daily lessons and assignments. This has been an unprecedented exercise in making the parents an active stakeholder in the child’s education. Students have also taken assessments within the confines of their homes, with parents acting as invigilators and facilitators. Even after the schools reopen, it would prove to be beneficial to continue actively engaging with parents given its impact on the students’ academic performance.
The rollout of e-Samwad was the first step in decentralizing communication to parents from the Department-level to the teacher-level. e-PTMs have now opened up an avenue for two-way communication between parents and teachers, with the former now in a position to actively seek relevant information from teachers. This has not only meant greater accountability being expected from teachers, but also that the onus is on parents to be more involved in their child’s education.
While the continuity and sustainability of initiatives is something that remains a challenge across verticals in the public sector, one way of ensuring this has been creating champions in the system who would vouch for the efficacy and utility of useful initiatives and therefore demand their continuity. If parents see the positive impact that regular communication with teachers has on their child’s education, then they would hold the teachers and Department accountable to continue such initiatives even in the future.
Given that the success of community engagement initiatives rests on their wide uptake within a system by the teachers and parents, it is essential that they be scaled up to accrue benefits for all. To this end, the political leadership of Himachal Pradesh has actively endorsed and encouraged participation in key educational initiatives.
While solving for the overarching problems in the education space in India, much attention is paid to reforming the curricula and the assessment systems. What often gets lost in process are the human connections. These are what Himachal is actively trying to build.