A clinical psychologist who specialised in supporting children who were struggling with their lessons in India is now applying research evidence and expertise to shape policies which could help them to succeed and thrive.
In years of working with schoolchildren, Dr Sonali Nag, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Department of Education, found that education policies, and the way they were implemented, often had a bigger impact on children’s learning than the quality of opportunities at home, or children’s innate abilities.
'It made me want to find out why children are falling behind', she said.
According to Sonali, one key issue is that supervisors and mentors of junior teaching staff working in India are constrained by restrictive implementation strategies. This results in them carrying out "tick-list" checks for compliance, instead of interpreting and applying policy guidelines to meet the needs of individual teachers and the learners in their charge. This means that the quality of support for teachers across India is inconsistent.
Sonali’s previous research revealed that the better a child’s foundations in language and literacy, the more they are likely to achieve.
In 2019 she secured an Oxford Policy Engagement Network (OPEN) Fellowship, made possible with support from Research England’s Higher Education Innovation Fund.
The OPEN Fellowship enabled Sonali to work with policymakers in the state of Karnataka in southern India to help to improve language and literacy outcomes for the state’s 6 million pre- and primary schoolchildren.
This enabled her to work with policymakers in the state of Karnataka in southern India to create six new resources to help junior staff to teach children the fundamentals of language and literacy, and help to improve outcomes for the state’s 6 million pre- and primary schoolchildren.
- Content on emergent literacy and language for a new state curriculum – Sonali worked in a team to develop a child-friendly language and literacy strand within Chili Pili – a new, language-rich curriculum for the state of Karnataka, designed to support oral language, communication skills, and beginning reading and writing.
- Guidance on implementation within the state – Sonali worked in an expert advisory role to implement Chili Pili through training institutions in Karnataka – the eighth largest state in India, and mid-level in terms of literacy rate, with a wide gap between rich and poor.
- New framework for improving the quality of education in early language and literacy – She worked in partnership with local and national stakeholders to develop a framework, which enables junior teaching staff to plan and implement quality instruction of the new Chili Pili curriculum – at the right level for every child in the classroom. The framework was aligned to India’s curriculum frameworks and the national education policy, and included lessons learned from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu – both known for successful reforms in primary education.
The framework underpins three further resources:
- Rationale for a teacher mentoring network – Sonali listened to supervisors, mentors, government officials, teachers and junior teaching staff to understand their challenges, before making recommendations, via the framework, on how best to support and evaluate them.
- Guidance note for junior teaching staff – Explanatory notes for junior teaching staff on the new Chili Pili curriculum, and how to use the new resources to support early language and literacy learning.
- Blueprint of best practice in supporting emergent literacy – The Framework has been showcased as an innovation at-scale by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, the body in India tasked with advising governments on "policies and programmes for qualitative improvement in school education".
Sonali managed a series of cultural differences to progress her work.
- Bureaucracy – According to Sonali, people working in teacher support or clerical roles have historically been too focused on inputs – measuring success using numbers and tick-lists – rather than tracking outcomes, such as pupils’ wellbeing and attainment. The system is rushed, with little time for teacher training, and scant provision of mentors. In this climate, it is difficult to refine and deliver new ideas.
- Lack of dialogue with children – 'I am a great believer in lively conversations in the classroom. But in many parts of India, children talking is still seen as a collapse of discipline, and frowned upon in the classroom,' she said. 'It is important that we open up opportunities, so that education is less regimented. Genuine education comes from conversation and dialogue at all levels.'
- Lack of consensus on definition of quality – Sonali said there is limited consensus on what constitutes quality in practice-based education research in India. 'Many claims are based on anecdotes rather than careful collection and analysis of evidence.'
It is important that we open up opportunities, so that education is less regimented. Genuine education comes from conversation and dialogue at all levels.
How She Did It
Sonali worked with a diverse group of stakeholders to iteratively develop the quality implementation planning framework, and incorporate feedback.
Partners included influencers of national policy and officials from central and state government departments, including one serving 50,000 public schools.
She also worked closely with organisations actively engaged with India’s new National Education Policy, including Room to Read (India), the Central Square Foundation, and the United Nations Children’s Fund. She observed planning meetings for initiating education reform and engaged with curriculum writers and teacher trainers tasked with the roll out of the reform.
Working alongside policymakers enables me to broker access to my own research and that of others, and to advocate on issues where I have relevant expertise. Both can inform and improve policy
Sonali’s engagement with actors across the policy landscape and the bureaucracy that implements education policies was to understand their challenges, reach consensus on what quality means, and co-create new materials.
Sonali was asked to be a keynote speaker at a national conference on Quality at scale in New Delhi, hosted by Room to Read (India) and USAID, where she discussed the need for a national planning framework for quality. She spoke out as education policy experts tabled a new National Education Policy in India, setting out high level priorities.
'Working alongside policymakers enables me to broker access to my own research and that of others, and to advocate on issues where I have relevant expertise. Both can inform and improve policy making,' she said. 'Policymakers across the country sometimes contact me to clarify specific points in my reports, and that leads to me explaining links between the ideas. It allows me to make sure that ideas don’t get diluted from what I meant.
'Improving education for children in India is a collective effort. I am grateful for the opportunities that allow me to actively be part of that.'
Advice on successful policy engagement:
- Keep your communications simple and direct: academics can be tempted to use language which other people find unclear.
- Spend time with policy-makers and those charged with implementing that policy, and educate yourself on the best ways to communicate. Consider keeping a diary to record what you are being asked or told, and work out the best way to explain yourself.
- Try to be visible, accessible: good policy flows from the free exchange of evidence and experience – if others dare to share, I must do my best to listen, reflect and reciprocate.
- Try not to make assumptions, and listen carefully: more often than not you will discover an issue or perspective that you haven’t considered.
Dr Nag had gathered all field data and completed two rounds of meetings with project stakeholders when India went into lockdown for Covid-19 – and she handed over her work for other stakeholders to continue. The team is now considering how to apply changes while children are studying at home.
'Now more than ever there is a need for an implementation framework as school systems rush to bring quality learning into children’s homes across the country.'
Are you a researcher interested in engaging with policymakers through an OPEN Fellowship? Visit the OPEN homepage.
Discover more about Dr Sonali Nag's current research project, TalkTogether.