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Immense Potential of ‘Open’ School Data Untapped in India

Mridusmita Bordoloi

25 October 2018

Imagine knowing the details of how children are learning in classrooms and what facilities they are being provided in schools to experience a better learning environment. In many countries across the world ‘open’ school data – information on schools which is publicly available – are being used by parents and communities to either make the choice of which school their child will attend or to hold schools accountable for the quality of education. Indian parents too have the option to access such local data. Yet a new study by us shows that there are multiple challenges in using this valuable information by Indian citizens.

The study is part of 6 country research effort to assess how open school data is empowering people and improving accountability in public education. Accountability Initiative wanted to understand how open school data is utilised by different stakeholders in the country’s public education system, and to what extent this has acted as an enabler for citizens as well as the government. We undertook the research[1] in three states during the latter half of 2017 and our findings have now been published.

In India, the Unified District Information System for Education (U-DISE), an annual database maintained by the government, is the only source of information on the status of every school. Based on U-DISE data, school report cards (SRCs) are created and can be accessed online. Indicators covered in a U-DISE SRC include enrolment across grades, gender and caste representation, dropout rates, infrastructure facilities available in schools, teachers and their qualifications, incentives given to students and expenditure of government funds. This data provides rich insight on how the school is functioning, whether children are able to access facilities as per legal mandates and if there are enough teachers for every class. Thus, the data can help in identifying roadblocks to the provision of quality education.

The study found that this mine of information is being extensively used by the government for annual financial planning of school education and understanding the status of schools. On the contrary, only 10% of parents knew that this type of data existed and 2% actually logged on the U-DISE portal to access school-level data (based on a sample of 154 randomly selected parents of children attending public schools in the three states). The lopsided participation of parents is problematic as they are currently not in a position to use such data as evidence to demand accountability from government-run school education services or to register grievances with respect to the public education system.

Across the world, countries have faced obstacles in citizen uptake of open school data and figured simple ways to tackle them. A recent policy forum organised by UNESCO-IIEP was revealing in this respect. The event was attended by representatives from government education departments and civil society organisations from more than 10 countries ranging from developing to advanced economies. I am sharing some of their insights and the findings of the study.

Awareness generation on school report cards among citizens has been a major roadblock, especially in developing countries. This was one of the study’s findings too. Till now, there has hardly been any large-scale initiative by the Indian government to raise awareness about the existence and usage of U-DISE school report cards. The effort of government schools – another source of information sharing – is inadequate. For instance, none of the sampled schools had put up the SRC on their notice boards for public view and only some discussed it with parents and community members in their monthly management committee meetings. In the Philippines, school report cards are disseminated in school assembly meetings twice a year for parents. This is makes for an easy to implement solution.

The study also revealed how data presentation is of consequence for parents. Even if people knew of the data, it was not always presented in a manner that was easy to understand since school report cards in our country are laden with numbers and statistics. Australia has launched ‘My School’[2]recognising the potential of an easy-to-comprehend platform. It has a range of indicators about each Australian school. However, instead of displaying all information, parents have the flexibility to only look at indicators that they are interested in and that too in the form of graphs or another form of visualisation. Citizens can also look at trends in school performance over time. The uptake for such information is bound to be more promising.

In addition, capturing the kind of information that most parents want to know and the inclusion (or exclusion) of such data in the current format of school report cards is important. The study found that the top three aspects on which parents wanted information were: the learning levels of their children; the provision of basic infrastructure facilities in schools which ensure safety and hygiene; availability of qualified teachers on a regular basis. U-DISE data does not address learning levels even as it features the other two indicators among other information. Learning levels are assessed by a different government body (the NCERT) through the National Achievement Survey (NAS) based on a sample number of schools across every district in the country. As a result, the data on learning outcomes are representative at the state and district levels only, not for each school in the country.

Australia’s equivalent of U-DISE contains data on performance of students in annual national literacy and numeracy tests (NAPLAN) along with many other indicators such as enrolment, attendance, teachers and expenditure of school funds. School report cards published by the Philippines government include mean scores from a ‘National Achievement Test’. Similarly, many Latin American countries include learning outcomes in school data made available to public. The relevance of school report cards for Indian parents is likely to be less in the absence of indicators such as learning outcomes.

A fourth challenge to usage emanates from weak infrastructure.

Countries such as Australia do not have to jostle with the limited reach of online platforms as we do.  A large proportion of parents of children attending government schools in India are from rural areas, and from economically poorer sections of the society. Most of parents have low literacy levels and they may not have access to the internet. Until and unless they can access school report cards through offline modes and in local languages, the usage will be restricted. At present the only way a parent can access a hardcopy of the school report card and compare it with another school is by requesting a copy from the block level office. This involves considerable investment of time and there is no guarantee on the time it might take to have the information in hand. Increasing availability is thus of importance.

The Indian government has introduced a public participation model of accountability wherein parents and communities can be directly involved in the provisioning of education in India and get their voices heard. It is well known that India faces varied challenges in this path. Low levels of literacy among parents, low income levels which force them to prioritise a livelihood over their child’s learning, inadequate school infrastructure, lack of teachers, are only some issues. They directly or indirectly impact the usage of school data as evidence either to make school choices or to demand accountability. The experience of other countries offers insights on exactly how open school data is a useful tool for ensuring accountability in the public school system. As we recommend in the study, a multi-pronged approach is needed to solve the usage problem among citizens.

[1] Bordoloi, Mridusmita. Kapoor, Varun. 2018. Using open school data to improve transparency and accountability in India. Series: Ethics and corruption in education. Paris: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.

[2] ‘My School’ is run by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), an independent statutory authority responsible for collecting and reporting data on Australia’s schools.

Available online at: https://www.myschool.edu.au/

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