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Operation Blackboard
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Monographs in International Education

Operation Blackboard

policy implementation in Indian elementary education


2001 paperback 184 pages, £30.00, ISBN 978-1-873927-88-5

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About the book

Ever since it was first written into the new nation’s Constitution in 1950, achieving universal elementary education has proved an elusive goal for India. Caroline Dyer’s book looks at the failure of the Operation Blackboard scheme to establish a minimum norm of essential facilities for primary schools but argues that, in spite of its failure, the scheme has been rich in important policy lessons. She considers two in particular. First, that the prevailing view of implementation is deeply flawed – the evidence shows it is not something straightforward, following on automatically from the policy blueprint. The second is that teachers are central to meaningful educational change and must understand the hows and whys of changes if they are to implement them. The lessons she draws are of service to policy-makers and administrators in all educational contexts.



Educational Developments in Independent India

Progress towards Universal Elementary Education in Gujarat and Challenges Remaining

Promoting Implementation Success: what the theorists say

Implementing Operation Blackboard: from idea to practice

Teachers in Schools

Towards More Dynamic Policy Implementation


Ever since it was first written into the new nation’s Constitution in 1950, achieving Universal Elementary Education (UEE) has proved an elusive goal for India. A good deal of policy rhetoric has accompanied the notion of free compulsory education, but progress in the face of some extremely demanding circumstances has been slower than expected. A series of deadlines has been set, each one subsequently shifted when the target could not be met in the allocated time. India is now home to the largest non-literate population in the world, and while socio-economic circumstances of non-literate groups have traditionally been blamed for this, it is no longer possible to claim that the quality of India’s elementary schools is not a key contributory factor: a recently published report based on comprehensive field research (PROBE, 1999, p. 8) claims that ‘the state of elementary education in India is dismal’.

By the 1980s, a major planning goal had been met, for the country had achieved the planners’ vision of almost universal provision of schooling facilities: most children – unless they belonged to migrant communities – had a school within ‘easy access’ (a maximum walking distance of 1.5 km; over 80% of children were served by a school within their village itself). Access, therefore, was no longer seen to be a major barrier to UEE. Although supply had preceded demand in many places, enrolments had picked up, as the social demand for schooling strengthened. But retaining children in schools has proved a challenge the school system has been unable fully to meet. The Fifth All-India Educational Survey, in 1986, established that just over half of the children who enrolled had dropped out again within only 5 years. In that time, many of them had not yet learned how to read and write. Attention therefore turned to the vexing question of why this large network of schools was failing to attract and retain children.

Salutary discoveries were made. The network of schools was very thin indeed. Over a third of elementary schools were single room, single teacher establishments run by a single teacher. 53% of them had no playground; 51% had no water; 83% no toilet facilities; and 40% not so much as a single blackboard. Yet education had been identified by a highly influential national commission as ‘the cornerstone of a nation’s progress’ (Education Commission, 1970, p. xx) and by Mahatma Gandhi as ‘the spearhead of silent social revolution’ (cit. Majumdar, 1957, p. 135). If education is so central to progress, why were policies and plans promoting Universal Elementary Education having so little impact? How could such infrastructural deficiencies arise; what did they mean?

Starting from questions such as these, I set out to explore the gap between policy rhetoric and practice. There appeared to be, for the Indian context, virtually no published research into the link between the two – implementation. Analysts within India tend to focus on policy analysis (Guhan, 1985) and to regard implementation as a separate, self-explanatory – and less prestigious – phase, which lies in the domain of public administration (Jain, 1990). As a result, little had been documented about the procedures adopted to implement policy, although there was increasingly widespread concern within the policy community itself (cf. Dhingra, 1991) and among analysts (eg. Khan, 1989; Jain, 1990) with the failure to implement policy successfully. The remarkably slim body of research into practices in elementary school classrooms in India still remains a major problem, leaving policy makers with little relevant research to draw on. The objective of the initial research project was to carry out an applied policy study that included description and analysis of conditions in elementary schools in the public sector. The resulting book is a case study of how one particular policy scheme – the militaristic-sounding ‘Operation Blackboard’ emanating from the 1986 National Policy on Education – was implemented during the early 1990s. In pursuit of the wider policy intentions of enhancing the quality of elementary education, this ‘Operation’ was to upgrade physical facilities in elementary schools across the entire country. Remarkably, given the scale of the challenge implied by the statistics, completion was scheduled for 1990.

My strategy of research was one of ‘backward mapping’ (Elmore, 1980; Dyer, 1999), using qualitative methods and beginning with classroom observations and teacher interviews in 30 government lower primary schools in the District of Baroda in Gujarat. Since by the time I started my field work, Operation Blackboard was scheduled to have been completed, I began by finding out what contribution the policy scheme had made to upgrading conditions and improving schools’ teaching-learning environments. I then mapped backwards – or upwards, in policy terms – through tiers of bureaucratic administration in the governments at the District/Municipal Corporation and State levels, to the point from where the policy had come – the central government in New Delhi. The mapping process lasted for a year, and was greatly facilitated by generous access to extensive official documentation, and the support of an Indian researcher (see Choksi & Dyer 1996 for an account of this, and a second, collaboration; Dyer, 1999 for a fuller account; and Appendix 1 for mapping routes).

Operation Blackboard is widely perceived to have been an expensive failure. In terms of achieving its intention of establishing a minimum norm of essential facilities for primary schools, it was largely unsuccessful. As a policy innovation, it offered many rich policy lessons, and many of the reasons for its relative lack of success seemed to be characteristic of the highly centralised and top-down mode of implementation prevailing at that time: many elements of this still exist. As this case study will illustrate, this strategy of implementation is an ineffective way of bringing about change in India. Even when the same policy goal is overtly espoused, as it was with Operation Blackboard, central directives meet with active opposition or passive resistance when key stakeholders at other levels are not drawn into policy dialogues. Apart from conditions in some classrooms I visited, in respect of the will to bring about change, some of my findings were dismal indeed. Certainly, it was evident (as Chapter Four illustrates) that the then prevailing view of implementation as something straightforward, centrally prescribed, amenable to central control and following seamlessly from the policy blueprint, was deeply flawed for all sorts of reasons.

Operation Blackboard, in retrospect, may have marked the end of an era. During the 1990s, after the field work for this study was complete, India embarked on the lengthy, painful but long overdue voyage of educational decentralisation. The nation is currently engaging with the enormous challenges of moving from the highly top-down system, described in this book, towards a model of decentralised educational management. The arena for this large scale experiment is the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), a project which has injected into the system, along with substantial funds, a renewed optimism and vigour which was little in evidence a decade ago. The project’s intention is to promote the development of local capacity and enhance the responsivity of educational management, while aiming for ‘holistic pedagogical renewal’. It does so in the context of many other systemic changes which took place in the 1990s: Minimum Levels of Learning all children should reach have been laid down; platforms for teachers to meet and discuss educational matters are being created through Cluster and Block Resource Centres; and District Institutes of Education and Training have been established, which means that in-service training for teachers is now available. Many issues of quality remain, even so.

In this decentralising era of educational development, a scheme like Operation Blackboard would justifiably struggle to find political or educational legitimacy. In providing an account of some of the educational conditions that preceded the latest changes, this book indicates something of the nature and scale of the challenges India faces as it attempts to realise its pledge of Education for All. Historically, all policy documents have re-iterated that teachers are central to meaningful educational change. Chapters One, Two, Three and Four show in various ways how this has tended to happen neither in practice, nor in theory. Chapter Five describes a primary teacher culture with low motivation and lack of accountability towards children: supporting improvements to this culture remains a key challenge for educational managers at all levels.

Although there are now new structures which did not exist when Operation Blackboard was launched, the professional cultures which are illustrated in chapters Four and Five are well established and hard to change. Defining and providing effective, quality educational services for all children are professional challenges of the highest order, and re-orientating staff towards the prime raison d’être of a school system – children – is a demanding process. I hope that this case study will be useful in stimulating reflection on the wide range of areas which, recent changes notwithstanding, continue to require improvement if all children are to be offered good quality schooling.


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