India and South Africa could learn a lot from each other, particularly when it comes to education.
Both have made great strides with primary school enrolment over the last few decades, but still struggle with the quality of learning outcomes – with a significant proportion of children in upper primary school who essentially cannot read. Both countries’ school leaving certificates – the SSLC in India, and the NSC in South Africa – have low value and do not signal competence or skills to employers. Both seek to balance the new opportunities technology affords with the reality that the poorest have limited access to smartphones, data and airtime.
This week, I’m in India to see for myself. I’ll be spending time in Bangalore, Mumbai, Aurangabad and New Delhi, meeting with organisations and visiting programmes that are pushing the boundaries in education. I plan to post throughout the week, and afterwards, about some of the things I’m learning.
On day one, I spent the afternoon with the team at the Akshara Foundation. Today I’ll outline the evolution of Akshara’s library programme, from a hub-and-spoke system to classroom libraries, and rave about their innovative way of tracking book checkouts.
Background of the library programme
The Akshara Foundation was established in 2000, based on the belief that quality education is the undeniable right of every child. Over the last 15 years, its work has touched the lives of more than 1 million children in the state of Karnataka in South India. It focuses on preschool and primary school education.
While most government schools in Karnataka have libraries, these lack age-appropriate, attractive books and a working process. Teachers are not trained as librarians, and view extra work as a ‘burden’ they do not want to take on.
In 2007, Akshara launched a library programme using a hub-and-spoke model, where each “hub” – a physical library with a dedicated librarian – served a number of “spoke” schools, which were visited regularly by a mobile librarian. Books were colour-coded by difficulty, and librarians in hub schools ran additional activities to stimulate learning.
But after a few years, Akshara changed tack. It realised that there was no viable way to keep librarians in schools unless they remained on Akshara’s payroll – which was not a scalable or long-term solution. Usage met expectations: overall, 81% of children visited libraries at least once a month, and in most months, 60% borrowed at least one book. But what if kids could access the books whenever they wanted – not only when their class visited the library or the library came to them? And – while RCTs cannot provide the full picture of a social intervention’s effect – a 2012 randomised controlled trial (RCT) of the programme found no impact on student scores on a language skills test administered after 16 months.
In 2014, Akshara replaced its hub-and-spoke model with classroom libraries – which our South African partner Biblionef also increasingly advocates as the most effective model to get kids reading in schools. To date, they’ve placed libraries in 3 250 classrooms at 1 000 schools.
The libraries themselves are cleverly designed: foldable book kits (which can be put away overnight) that hold about 100 books. Teachers receive a simple, half-day training in how to use the libraries and monitor usage.
A classroom library has a few benefits, compared to the hub-and-spoke model. First, it doesn’t require an extra person, though the burden on teachers remains low. Second, books are closer to kids, and more accessible on a daily basis.
And third, progress is public, through an innovative and incredibly simple M&E system Akshara has developed. This got me most excited – as I’ve seen partners struggle to collect and manage data about library use at the school level.
Each library comes with a histogram, blocked out by month, which teachers hang on the wall (usually with a pencil hanging nearby). When a child checks out a book, the teacher – or sometimes the child herself! – marks it on the histogram, noting the month and the level of the book.
Once a month, teachers take and submit a photo of the histogram, which is then captured digitally to enable large-scale comparison and analysis. (What’s more, the data is all public on the Karnataka Learning Partnership – but that’s for another blog post!)
Ideally, as children use the library more often, and as their reading improves, the histogram will show both an increase in the number of books checked out per month, and in the difficulty of books children are reading.
Over the last year, this was indeed the case: the team told me that the average number of books checked out per learner per month rose from 2.5 at the start of the school year to 5.5 at the end of the year, and difficulty typically increased.
One shortcoming of this method is that it doesn’t tell whether one child is a big reader and another isn’t reading at all. Still, this could be addressed in other simple ways, such as reading logs.
Even with libraries in classrooms, closer to kids, schools close at 3:30 pm, which limits access to books. As an experiment, Akshara also hung 50 libraries at village tea shops in rural areas – the social spaces where everyone congregates after school and work. They aren’t tracking this methodically, but they’ve heard very positive feedback: kids read, adults read, adults read with kids. I love this idea of sparking reading in community spaces, simply by bringing books to where people are – and I wonder what the equivalent of the village tea shop would be in rural South Africa.
Thank you to Ashok, Asha and Vaijayanti at Akshara for so generously sharing your time!