Improving preschool and primary education in India

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By Ashok Kamath, Chairman, Akshara Foundation   1-D8PYyg7_HdSnaXXQTlttIw
Photo courtesy of Akshara Foundation

Omidyar Network is supporting Akshara Foundation to scale its programs to improve the overall education ecosystem in Karnataka, India by focusing on community-driven solutions.

In April 2012, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s Regional Economic Outlook report stressed the fact that “India’s demographic transition is presently well underway, and the age structure of the population there is likely to evolve favorably over the next two to three decades.” By 2020, India’s population will include 28% of the world’s working population, ages 15–64, with potential to accelerate the country’s status as an economic powerhouse in ways that can bring direct benefits to its citizens in all areas, from health care to education. This cautious note of optimism, however, hinges on there being a series of reforms. While the IMF argues mostly in favor of trade and open markets, India can reap the demographic dividend only if our education system undergoes significant change. And it is not higher education alone that must be strengthened; the foundations of the education system (i.e., preschool and primary school) must improve in order for children to perform well in tertiary education.

Why is education and, in particular, early education, so important?

India’s economic growth is critically dependent on our ability to manage our transition from agriculture to manufacturing and services. And that means generating enough jobs to be able to absorb more than 10 million young people into the workforce every year for the next 20 years. At Akshara, we share Omidyar Network’s view of the critical importance of education as a direct pathway to opportunity and empowerment. By investing in higher-quality education, we can have a great impact on the future financial security and well-being of young people, securing a stronger collective future.

Developing human capital to scale is not a trivial task. As one can see, even with the available government resources, we have failed to deliver. One of the key impediments to the efficient delivery of quality education to children in the state of Karnataka, and India at large, is the lack of accountability of the entire delivery system. On the supply side, data has shown that over a quarter of the teachers are not in the classrooms during school hours; the monitoring mechanisms typified by a hierarchy of roles have all become mere sign-offs to ensure that “the lesson plan has been done” rather than focusing on meaningful outcomes. On the other hand, the demand for change is not as great as it should be, which to some extent can be attributed to the fact that most of the children are first-generation learners (i.e., the parents themselves had no access to education and do not have a good sense of what is reasonable to expect).

Unfortunately, the focus has been (and continues to be) on inputs — and too little outcome data is available. For example, there is little or no information on the learning levels of children prior to a child’s first “public” exam, in class 10. This means it is too late to make course corrections with respect to quality. About the only data that has been available consistently in the past several years has been from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). This is especially troubling as early childhood and primary education is so critical to long-term success. Children build foundational skills in their early years that affect the rest of their learning and lives.

So, how do we get the supply and demand sides to intersect for optimal performance?

At Akshara Foundation we developed and incubated a framework called the Karnataka Learning Partnership (KLP), which addresses many of the issues. The framework captures data on every child with the ability of ensuring a unique ID for each child linked to his or her school. Each school is geopositioned and tagged with the school’s code (called District Information System for Education (DISE) code) issued by the central government-administered National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA). Assessments on reading, comprehension and math proficiencies are measured and tracked, as are children’s book borrowing habits from their classroom libraries set up by Akshara. We also track perceptions on education from parents and community members in rural Karnataka.

With this structure, we can start the process of ensuring that every child is tracked in the system. Over time, we will be able to define and measure learning outcomes in more sophisticated ways to determine what is working and what is not working, in order to institute enhancements and course corrections.

What is required to create systemic change?

At Akshara we believe that it will take a network of nonprofits and for-profits working across multiple verticals (e.g., education, health, nutrition) to bring their data on children together to tell a story and use this story to galvanize community-led ownership of the public schooling system to drive responsibility, accountability, and change. Civil society can help spur more effective governance through partnerships that are crucial to stimulating innovation, participation, and empowerment.

So how do we engage various stakeholders in a structure like KLP?

Here are a couple of examples: On the KLP website, we created a module called “Share Your Story” to allow community members to visit schools and voice their opinions. We expect that this will enable us to get individual community members to be more involved in the process of improving education where they live. Additionally, we are making reports with information pertaining to individual constituencies available to elected representatives and government officials — who can be influential, which is essential to making positive changes.

However, we recognize that much more needs to be done to inform the parents of children who go to government preschools and primary schools. A majority of these parents are illiterate and have never been online due to lack of electricity, computers, computer educators, internet connections, local-language content, and illiteracy. This is clearly a constituency that has “no choice and no voice.”

We are, therefore, creating a flexible mash-up of interactive voice response systems (IVRS), live voice, internet, telephone, and Android-based apps on mobile phones to bring the right information to people, on demand, no matter their level of technological literacy. We are adapting and leveraging ubiquitous mobile phone technology to create local language voice systems that any community organization can administer to make their resources and information accessible. We have piloted this approach and are scaling this up this year.

What do we expect in the future?

If we are able to leverage and coordinate the energy of various stakeholders and strengthen the pre-primary and primary school education system in Karnataka, we can demonstrate the power of a model that can be worthy of national adoption, forming a stronger basis for future learning and progress. As the recent editorial comment in The Economist magazine suggested: “India’s century is not an inevitability. It is a giant opportunity that India is in danger of squandering.” It is only by doubling down on improving education solutions that we will make Indian prosperity a reality in the decades to come.

The way forward for ‘Early Childhood Education in Anganwadis’.

Organised by Akshara Foundation, the national seminar on `Early Childhood Education in Anganwadis – Partnerships & Opportunities’ highlighted the need for quality early childhood learning in government-run anganwadis. DSC_0641 The seminar was inaugurated by Smt. Umashree, Hon. Minister, Women and Child Welfare and Kannada &Culture, Government of Karnataka. On the dias were also some of the staff of ICDS- an AWW, a supervisor and a CDPO rubbing shoulders with the Minister and the Trustees of AF. The Minister in her inaugural speech seemed very open to a discussion regarding ways to implement effective ECE through the system. DSC_0659 _DSC0048 This was followed by a very thorough talk by Prof Venita Kaul, (CECED, Ambedkar University, Delhi) on the importance of early years and the necessity for good quality preschool education. _DSC0060 Soon after, a panel discussion on the role of NGOs in partnering with the government followed. The panel discussion concluded with a consensus on enhancing collaboration between the Government and non-Government sector to realise the full potential of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) policy 2013, in the government run anganwadis. _DSC0150   Click here to view the entire seminar, in pictures.

Investing in Early Childhood Education

Usha Ganesh writes about the emergence of Pre-schools and the Pre-school educational content in Karnataka.

Via Searchlight South Asia

Children from poor families are the unfortunate inheritors of poverty – in India, every eighth urban child in the 0-6 years age group stays in slums, as per a report published by the Indian government in 2011. Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) is critical to help these children begin their climb out of poverty, and yet it receives scant attention in national policies such as the Right to Education Act.
India has the world’s largest integrated program – the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) – that focuses on nutrition, health and education for children. The program covers 48% or 75.7 million children of the total 158.7 million children in the 0-6 age group in India. It is largely implemented through centres called Balwadis and Anganwadis that operate in rural areas as well as urban slums. These centres provide a range of ECCE services such as immunization, health check-ups and monitoring as well as referral services in addition to pre-school education. Given the implementation focus on health and nutrition due to high incidence of malnutrition and its impact on child development, the education component of the program has been found wanting.

The proposed National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy is expected to set some standards for a comprehensive approach towards pre-school interventions. Reports indicate that a thematic ECCE Committee will be initially constituted under the ICDS Mission Steering Group. It will eventually form a National council for ECCE with corresponding State and district level councils to ensure better co-ordination and implementation. In the meanwhile, private sector stakeholders are working to improve the pre-school education experience for children at the BoP. While most initiatives aim to strengthen the Anganwadis though capacity building and curriculum development, a few aim to provide affordable pre-schools for the poor.

Others like Sesame Workshop, Akshara Foundation and the Centre for Learning Resources work in the area of capacity building and training the Anganwadi workers so that they are better empowered to deliver education. Akshara Foundation initially set up their own Balwadis in slums where children could not access the government-run Anganwadis. Over time, they felt it made little sense to work parallel to the system, and they invited the Director of Women and Child Health Department in Bangalore to visit their centres. Says B S Latha Devi, Head – Pre School Programme, “The IAS officer saw the difference in the enthusiasm and interest at our Akshara centres and invited us to work with the State.” Today Akshara Foundation supports Anganwadi workers in over 1700 centres across Bangalore by providing teaching learning material, training and community engagement. It has also developed assessment tools to measure learning outcomes.

Read the entire article here.

A sneak-peek into the Balwadi Programme at Malur

 The preschool programme is one of Akshara Foundation’s most far-reaching initiatives. A flagship programme which, in scale, content and structure, is unique, as it is imaginative and scientific in pedagogy.  At the heart of its design is collaboration with government to revive the anganwadi that cornerstone people’s institution, a deliverer of preschool education, social distribution and community welfare, beset by decay and drift. Akshara’s focus is on resurrecting the long-buried education component in anganwadis wherever it can in Karnataka. Setting benchmarks of quality, sharpening the edge, making anganwadis competitive and comparison-worthy.

When Akshara ran its preschool programme for four years in all 1778 anganwadis in Bangalore covering nearly 32,000 children it harvested a yield of successful outcomes. Children ascended a learning curve. Anganwadi workers became more responsible, more committed, and community support systems of anganwadis were strengthened. It left an enduring footprint in that the Department of Women and Child Welfare, which manages anganwadis, has from this year absorbed key elements of Akshara’s preschool programme in Karnataka anganwadis – the innovative teaching-learning material (TLM) for child development, child assessments, and keeping the spirit of the anganwadi worker alive.

Currently, Akshara’s programme runs in 335 hand-picked anganwadis in Bangalore, which it is grooming into centres of performance. It vigorously supports 109 anganwadis in Hubli and Dharwad. And change is sweeping in, in measurable terms.

Now, the preschool programme also has a presence in 51 anganwadis in Malur Block in Kolar District, about 40 kilometres from Bangalore. A new strategy has been forged, experimental but effective. A third worker, an Akshara volunteer, has been introduced into these anganwadis as a force for education. She should have cleared her SSLC or class 10, which is one of the eligibility criteria for selection.  Akshara has trained the volunteers in preschool education, classroom management, TLM use and handling children.

Chavenahalli is a small village in Malur Block, remote but not backward. Its people are not poor, they are disadvantaged; deprived of facilities, not unaware. There is this
aspiration-dispersal from the big city next door and people have expectations, not matched by the realities of government dispensation. Anganwadis are seen as inefficient, unaccountable and sub-standard providers of education, and only parents who cannot afford private preschools retain their children there. It is in these centres that Akshara’s programme is bringing hope, energy and new direction.

Chavenahalli Anganwadi is an unpretentious little centre with 18 children. Sunlight does make an appearance, says Firdose Begum, the Akshara volunteer, but the anganwadi could do with munificence. The children could use a fan on hot days. “But they adjust,” she says. The anganwadi has no electricity, no water. There is a toilet, with a damaged roof though. And a single room, which by contrast is resource-rich with Akshara’s TLM, an anganwadi asset.The walls are vibrant with Akshara’s learning charts and the Department’s posters on equality for the girl child and guidelines for the community’s health and hygiene.

The volunteer’s role is that of performance-driver. Value building is what she does in a Malur anganwadi. When Firdose joined seven months ago, empowered by Akshara’s training and an altered prism to look at early childhood requirements, these children “knew nothing.”Neither to play nor to learn, she says. Firdose recalls how Ashwini, 4 years and 9 months, would laugh, largely in self-deprecation, and partly to gloss over her ignorance, when asked to read the Kannada alphabet. Today she reads and writes the letters ‘aa’ to a-ha’ with ease. Ashwini has a foothold in learning and playing. Much like Shahid, says Firdose, who, around the same age, would stand in utter silence when asked a question. No response, no communication abilities, no learning. Today he is conversationally adept, wishes everyone “Good morning,” and understands how to go about what to say and do.

In the two hours that Firdose is there she segregates children and delivers an age-appropriate curriculum. The older children get a reinforced school readiness module. The younger children get grounding, get used to the idea of playing and learning. All of them have plenty of playtime with the TLM,when they pick up knowledge about fruits and vegetables and forms of transport,or develop coordination skills. These children had never seen colour pencils and crayons before, says Firdose, let alone a paint box. Now they happily draw and paint, dabble and splash with Akshara’s art material, intent on freedom of expression. Children are getting accustomed to socialisation processes too, peer interaction, sharing and giving, good conduct and discipline. They line their slippers neatly at the entrance, use the dustbin, queue up for the toilet.

Word about the programme is spreading and the community is reaching out with support. Parents are delighted with the enlightenment they see in Chavenahalli Anganwadi and come personally to register approval, says Firdose. Their children have become storytellers at home, mothers tell her. They communicate a lot and if they are stumped for words they mime their thoughts. Gram Panchayat members gifted a pressure cooker, books and pencils recently and gave away prizes to achievers on Independence Day. Arifa, a Gram Panchayat member, makes sustained efforts, visiting often and staying on to observe the impact the programme is having on teaching and learning.

As for Nagaveni, the anganwadi worker who has been at the centre for almost 16 years, she is a relieved person, glad that Firdose is there to depend on, an ally. The volunteer is trained to supplement and support, not constrict the anganwadi worker. She isan important, integrated, non-intrusive strand in the anganwadi. Nagaveni used to be a harried, pressed-for-time teacher, managing two anganwadis, running back and forth, overwhelmed by all the community work and maintenance of prodigious registers that her job entails. She never had the time to teach. Now she can entrust and delegate. She tells Firdose, “Don’t ever leave.”

Firdose has no intention of doing so. “The freedom to work feels good. And that too for the benefit of children. That feels great,” she says. “I want to be with children, improve them. It will make me happier.” Firdose is 28, her husband is a lorry owner and they have two small children. It is a forward-thinking, supportive family, and a progressive community in Chavenahalli. Her mother takes care of her children when she is away.

Firdose was doing her 2nd year in pre-university when she dropped out. She worked for three years in a private preschool in Malur town. “I knew nothing,” she confesses. “Till Akshara’s training happened I had no idea how to engage with children, or that children need inputs at this early age for their overall development.” It taught her both theory and practice, with which she enlarges her domain knowledge every day at the anganwadi.  “The training was a revelation,” she says. “It has also given me confidence and a sense of pride in myself. I like what I am learning all the time. I like expanding my knowledge, learning things. I enjoy working with Akshara. What they are doing in my village is simply great.”

A Glimpse of Akshara Foundation

Arunsathyaseelan P, Venkata Rakesh Kolli, Venkateswarlu Linganaboina and Rajkumar T of Indian Institute of Management – Bangalore, share their experience. 
Anganwadi at Konanakunte

We are a bunch of 4 students from the Indian Institute of Management- Bangalore (IIM-B), who had to study the working, impact and day-to-day activities of an NGO as part of one of our courses. When we had to choose we had several NGO’s in and around Bangalore. All of us had really felt that the kind of education that we have received to be one of the best things that have ever happened to us in our lives. We therefore wanted to study an NGO that is working in this field. Once we had chosen the education sphere, Akshara was a natural choice. We had done some secondary research about the organization and we were really impressed. We wanted to know more about the organization. Though, we only have had an opportunity to interact with Akshara volunteers and with two Akshara-supported schools, those interactions have helped us understand the kind of transformative role that Akshara is playing in improving the quality of primary education in Bangalore and in Karnataka.

To start with we first met Mr. Ashok Kamath, the Chairman of Akshara Foundation. To be truthful, that meeting made us think. It made us think deeply. He told us the ground realities about the standards of primary education in India. India ranks 73rd out of 74 countries in OECD’s PISA test. Only 1 out of 2 children can read well. He also explained to us the role of government the corporates and other like-minded individuals in Akshara’s activities. Akshara on the whole, acts as a turn-around artist in our government schools and anganwadis. What the Mckinsey or a BCG does to a corporate company, Akshara does the same to our government schools. Right from developing the content for the children to helping the parents monitor the performance of the children in academics, Akshara is doing the best it can to improve the quality of education imparted in our schools.

Government Kannada Middle Primary School, Kormangala
We first visited a government school in Koramangala. We saw the school’s library which was being managed by an Akshara volunteer. This school is under Akshara’s library programme. It has a huge collection of books which have been developed exclusively for promoting the reading habit among the children. There are books with different color codes signifying different levels of difficulty. The lowest level starts with small words while the highest one has paragraphs. There is one library period per week wherein the children come to the library and chose the books they want to read. There are charts which monitor the progression of students from one level to the other. This helps the class teacher monitor the student’s reading performance. Adjacent to the library there was a computer room with around 5 computers. We also had the opportunity to interact with a few students. They were very enthusiastic and were comfortable with reading in Kannada. They told us about the Lego Habba (An Akshara initiative to engage parents in the child’s learning) which was scheduled to happen the next day.

We also visited an Anganwadi in Konanakunte. Having seen anganwadis in one of our native places, we were really impressed by the facilities in this Anganwadi which was under the Akshara’s Pre-school programme. There were a lot of charts and other teaching aids. The tiny tots were playing with Lego bricks and were well versed with colors. The black board had the month-wise teaching plan. The kids were very active and doing something or the other. We are very sure that these 3-5 year olds would be school ready with all the learning they acquire in the anganwadi. The fact that the kids study well ensures that the parents enroll them for subsequent classes. The visits have helped us understand the state of our government schools and also about the role of Akshara in turning them around. Above all, it has left us deeply motivated and has inspired us to contribute for this cause in the future.

Working the “Together We Can” Way!

Kids at play
Akshara Foundation has been involved in an exciting new coalition designed to bring together a group of NGOs to work together to nurture and resource the children of Bangalore for a self-sustaining life.
Initiatied by Akshara, Nowhere and the National Institute for Advanced Science (NIAS), the coalition has adopted a two-pronged approach – to create a means of reaching as many children of Bangalore as possible to improve their life chances, and to share data for advocacy purposes through the Karnataka Learning Partnership.  Under the slogan “Together we can” the coalition, which includes Dream A Dream, Magic Bus, Centre for Education Innovations (CEI), Pratham Books, Arogya World and a host of other organisations, is running a series of Sunday camps in slums around urban Bangalore.

Children in these slums are desperately in need of life skills and mentoring in order to widen their horizons and expand their chances of succeeding in creating a better life for themselves.  Even those children who do have ambitions in life are often unsure how to achieve them, and lack the access to information and advice that will set them on the right journey.

Sunday camps are the perfect setting for several NGOs to practice their interventions on a single group of children – and for eager children to be exposed to a variety of learning opportunities.  The first Sunday camp took place in Ambedkar Nagar, near the Pepsi Factory in South East Bangalore.  We expected 30-40 children – 180 turned up.  Three partners in the coalition participated in this unique even: Dream A Dream, Magic Bus worked with children aged 8-13, and Akshara Foundation used Lego and Duplo to work with younger children.

Dream A Dream’s vision is to empower young people from vulnerable backgrounds through life skills.  One of its programmes uses arts activities and games to build self-esteem and leadership skills.  Through these children learn to value their uniqueness, appreciate their individuality and express themselves.  Working in teams helps build their team-skills, sense of worth, responsibility and discipline.  It develops critical life skills in a fun-filled, unobtrusive environment. The session lasted an hour and a half and the 80 or so children who took part were amazingly responsive.

Magic Bus is one of the largest mixed-gender programmes in the world, aiming to steer children towards a better life with better awareness, better life skills, and better opportunities.  Impact areas include school attendance, gender equality, health & hygiene and sexual & reproductive health.  They held four sessions aimed at different age-groups, all using football games designed especially to help build physical, social, and personal skills.

Akshara Foundation’s ultimate goal is to have every child in school and learning well.  Together with the LEGO Foundation they have created a programme to give school-readiness skills to 3-to-5 year olds, using a variety of games using colourful LEGO bricks.  Children were divided into groups.  The younger ones played games using different coloured duplo pieces, and the other groups built various constructions using teamwork.  The LEGO games were extremely popular, and when the children’s games had finished the mums were to be found playing with the LEGO themselves!

Plenty of lessons were learned in this first Sunday camp, but the most important was that this is an initiative with enormous potential.  The anganwadi played a key role in appointing several assistants in recruiting children and helping out on the day.  Parents, teachers, youth group leaders were all involved, with the eventual aim that they will take over the organization and running of what will be a regular event.  The most positive outcome was the reaction of the children, who flourished in an atmosphere of possibility and group play.

Next camp is planned for Sunday 11th August, if you would like to take part, or just come and watch, please contact Francesca on +91 95 38 303949 or email
Otherwise, watch this space for more updates.

Akshara Foundation in North Karnataka

A Dynamic Discussion
A dynamic thrust is being given to the preschool programme in Hubli-Dharwad. Shankar Narayan, Head of Operations, and Latha Devi, Programme Head, Preschool Programme, were at Akshara’s office in Dharwad for a discussion with the field team. It went on for three hours, a wide-ranging exercise, with the team’s personal field experiences enlivening the proceedings. Latha commended the Hubli-Dharwad team for Akshara’s imprint and impact that is clearly visible in the anganwadis.

Action to be Taken
The team will train Supervisors to become Master Resource Persons (MRPs) of the programme. The same training to be imparted to Akshara’s team and all 109 anganwadi workers in the programme. LEGO training also to be organised and the LEGO kit distributed to the anganwadis.
Administer pre-tests to all the children.
The team will concentrate on observing the condition of the anganwadis, use the observation sheets when they visit and fill in the columns accurately.
All ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ grade anganwadis to be visited. The outreach should focus more intensively on ‘B’ grade anganwadis, as there is greater scope for quick results there. Strengthening all anganwadis, whatever their grade, to reach the top will be the endeavour. The grading of all the centres should be reviewed once in six months.
Friends of Anganwadis must be reactivated, or formed anew where they do not exist, and developed into forums that nourish all the 109 anganwadis. Friends of Anganwadis are groups of mothers who support the anganwadi worker in teaching children, relieving her of some of her work burdens.
• Community meetings to be held mandatorily, and in the presence of education officials.

The team is invigorated and has chalked out a work plan, on the basis of which they are visiting anganwadis, which they have always been doing, but now, with complete focus on the action points. During community visits, the team targets parents, self-help groups and the energising of Bal Vikas Samithis (BVS) to make them aware of the need to create model anganwadis in their areas. The team visited 300 households; organised 15 parents’ meetings and met 48 BVS members. They have collected the child tracking formats from all the anganwadis, which will determine the number of children who have moved to school, the new admissions, and the actual number present. 
On Many Fronts
Ashok Kamath, Chairman, Akshara Foundation, and Shankar Narayan met with Ashok Shetter, the Principal of BVB Engineering College, who extended his support to Akshara and said he would send his students to volunteer for Karnataka Learning Partnership (KLP). 
Ashok Kamath and Shankar Narayan also met Naveen Jha, CEO, Deshpande Foundation, at his office in Hubli and got an understanding of what the organisation is currently doing.
The District Facilitator trained 27 private school teachers in Akshara’s Mathematics Programme. The two-day training was well-received by the teachers and they were eager to implement the programme’s methods in their classrooms. 
Angelina, the District Facilitator, held a meeting with Nagaralli, who supports Akshara’s work in Kushtagi and Mundargi Blocks in an advisory role, on how to get data from all the schools in Gadag, Dharwad and Koppal Districts. The District Facilitator of Mundargi Block, Vijayalakshmi, was present. Nagaralli took on the responsibility of collecting the data as soft copy, which Angelina and Vijayalakshmi will cross-verify with education officials. 
Also decided at the meeting was that there would be a concerted effort to enlist supporters for Akshara by visiting all the blocks in these districts along with Nagaralli and persuading the heads of different colleges to join hands.

The Malur Project

Neglected geographies where Akshara Foundation aims to set foot in resulted in an entry into Malur Block in Kolar District where a new model of work is being experimentally fashioned. The project is on in 51 anganwadis where Akshara has deployed its own staff of third workers, or volunteers, who, trained and equipped in preschool education, are propelling children along a learning curve that was noted for its absence.

Making do – often with very little – was what these anganwadis had been doing. There was poor quality TLM, or none at all; poor skill-sets to engage and educate children; and insufficient understanding of the value of preschool education.

These anganwadis are now flush with play material that promotes learning, provided by Akshara. The atmosphere is turning vibrant where once dullness and a certain lack of direction reigned. The third workers are handling their responsibilities reasonably well, with the team’s constant monitoring and support. The children have been administered a pre-test, an Akshara assessment tool with 56 activity-based preschool indicators. The answer sheets have been collected and despatched to the data centre. The TLM for the coming year has been distributed.

Some Malur centres are also being supported to become model anganwadis and the volunteers went through a second round of training in the additional TLM.

Challenges in Malur

There were challenges, though. On the 31stof May the team held a day-long meeting with the volunteers to elicit their opinion on the programme and to find out how they were faring. The anganwadi workers had been registering their appreciation of the model anganwadi concept, telling the team that its fundamental theories are sound.

At the meeting, the volunteers, however, gave the impression of being a bit half-hearted about their work. They endorsed the curriculum and the methods and were ready to do things. But there were issues. Some anganwadi workers did not support them enough. There were cracks developing in the team work between volunteers and anganwadi workers – there from the beginning and not healed sufficiently. There were infrastructure problems – no rooms, no space for some centres, and some centres housed in rented places. All of which inhibited their upgrade to model anganwadi status. “It would take time,” noted the team.

There are other challenges surfacing. Two volunteers got married and left. One quit due to personal difficulties. Not that their commitment was in question, just that life’s unavoidable processes create attrition. The number of volunteers has come down to 48. Not a vast reduction, but it raises factors that the team must take cognisance of. If young, active and energetic volunteers are recruited, this is a problem, notes the team. They are not being replaced right now as it is not an easy task organising comprehensive sessions of training for just 3 volunteers. The overheads are unsustainable. The Anganwadi workers are being supported to handle the curriculum.

Community Participation in Malur

But there are strong rays of hope. The community component, so vital in Akshara’s scheme of things, is getting a new boost. The team is active in the community, motivating and invigorating, and now that awareness is seeping in of the need for engagement, contribution is flowing in both as monetary support and effort. These are not people who are wealthy by any standards, or even comfortably off, but they are giving with a fullness that deserves credit.

At a community meeting in Bhuvanahalli, Nagesh, a Gram Panchayat member, came forward with Rs. 5000 for painting the anganwadi in the village. The Stree Shakti Sangha met the labour charges, and Jyothi, a Gram Panchayat member, put up a blackboard in the classroom at her expense. Gram Panchayat members have installed water filters costing around Rs. 1000 each in two anganwadis in Ramenahalli and Hungenahalli.

A discussion the team had with the Gram Panchayat President of Shivarapatna had a galvanising effect. He issued a letter to the anganwadi workers of the five anganwadis in the area stating that their centres should work from 9.30 am to 4 pm. The President also took it upon himself to oversee their day-to-day functioning.

Hanumanayakahalli Anganwadi has registered an unprecedented spurt in enrolment, attributable to the programme. In the last two months, new admissions went up, the number of children rising from eight to nineteen.

Training for Field Staff

The team organised a day’s training for Akshara’s field staff in Bangalore and Malur. Securing their feedback is a window to future implementation; it helps the team modulate practices and devise strategies. Half a day was devoted to problems and their solving, and to plans for an unfolding academic year, the other half to training in LEGO activities.

Extending Support to the Department

The team visited 7 anganwadis, urban and rural, in Arakalagudu in Hassan District to observe a pilot, christened Makkala Mane, or Children’s House, initiated in 95 anganwadis last year by the Department of Education and the Department of Women and Child Welfare. The anganwadi workers had been trained by a local non-governmental organisation to upgrade their centres to Upper Kindergarten (UKG) level to avoid the flight of children to private preschools and to wean back those who had left.

The team’s visit was meant to fulfil two objectives. One was to observe and understand the concept, compare it with Akshara’s own preschool strategies and learn from the experience. The second was to extend support to the Department of Women and Child Welfare in its plan to improve preschool education in anganwadis.

Akshara’s Together We Can initiative on the 18thof April, where an anganwadi worker was felicitated for her commitment to excellence, prompted the Department to come up with a vision for anganwadis in 12 selected districts in Karnataka. The Department has requested Akshara for a budget proposal with a financial breakdown, which they can submit to the central government for funds. Akshara’s role is not yet in the picture, but the team is hopeful and ready to offer any support the Department might need.

Child Tracking

A child tracking format that will ascertain a child’s trajectory has been given to all anganwadis in the programme. It is a process that will extract last year’s post-test list of children and check if they are continuing in the anganwadis or have moved to formal schools. This will give the team a more authentic child information directory to work with.

Akshara’s Summer Camp at the Government Higher Primary School, Hasigalla

A bunch of happy kids at the Summer Camp
The Summer Camp – A Prelude
Children are latecomers that first day of the Akshara summer camp. The Government Higher Primary School, Hasigalla, Hoskote Block, wears a wind-blown, deserted look – dry curls of leaves in the verandah, dust everywhere. Headmaster (HM) Hanumantarayappa is opening doors that have stayed stubbornly locked most of the summer. Akshara’s Cluster Facilitators are there. Srinivas, there are two Manjunaths, Lakshman and Krishnappa. A rock-solid contingent of courage, conviction and purpose. The Akshara banner announcing the summer camp as a part of its Namma Makkalu, Namma Abhimana (Our Children, Our Pride) initiative  flutters against the outside grill, unmistakable and immediately noticeable.

The Cluster Facilitators are arranging the classrooms, shifting the furniture and setting things up for the formal inauguration. The children troop in, faces radiant with expectation, the girls dressed iridescently in flowing, gold-laced skirts or in the latest trends in salwar kameezes, the boys in casual shirts and trousers or shorts. All bedecked for an occasion. Not one of them sartorially inelegant.

They grab brooms made of coconut sticks, stiff from disuse, and buckets and cloths and become a whirlwind cleaning force, thorough and efficient. Triveni of class 6 dusts the furniture and sweeps in a rush, says a friendly, throwaway “Good morning” and continues the focus. Not satisfied, Jayakumari of class 6, repeats the exercise, her rust silk skirt trailing, holding her broom flat against the floor, sweeping every bit of dust out of the room. Jeju of class 5 diligently collects the trash in a bucket. It is difficult to believe, unless told, that he is mentally retarded and has speech impairment. Jeju is vigorous, salutes everyone, keen not to be left behind. Manoj, Pavan, Anusha, Bindu and Darshan gingerly raise their dangling legs for the broom to go under the bench they are sitting on. They are in classes 1 to 3, and exempted from this daily ritual in school.

“Cleaning is a custom in school,” says the HM. Every day groups of children – boys and girls – take turns to sweep the school and the large compound. The principle of self-reliance is instilled early, and that no job is too low or menial to do. The children take pride in their work, they feel a sense of kinship with their school, and it drives them to do a good job.

They are multi-dexterous. The next moment they are settling down on floor mats for other pursuits, other engagements. The Cluster Facilitators organised the room, the chairs are positioned, a small lamp was placed on the table with oil and wicks and a twist of orange flowers around the stem.

Summer Camp Objectives

Akshara designed the summer camp with two key objectives in mind, which Cluster Facilitator Srinivas enunciated at the inauguration. It was a three-day event for children, parents and people, with nearly 25 such camps taking place in May in Hoskote Block and Kushtagi and Mundargi Blocks in North Karnataka. At the GHPS, Hasigalla, the dates were the 24th, 25th and 26th of May.

After a short introduction to Akshara Foundation and its work, Srinivas talked about Akshara’s aim to sustain children’s interest in learning and to preserve unbroken their link with education during the holiday season. It was the centrepiece of the summer camp. It would support, as evidenced at the Hasigalla School, a continuous flow of stimulus, sustenance and strengthening through group learning activities.  The sports competitions punctuating each day were pure fun amidst the cerebral flexing.

The second intention was community participation in education. The event was meant to precipitate awareness and a groundswell response to education, people coming forward and owning a village government school as their cause, their agenda, discussing problems and being part of the solution.

Five volunteers who were local village youths from Hasigalla were intermediaries in the management of the summer camp. The idea was a far-reaching one – to involve local youth in education, get them invested, so that they felt it was their project and that they could be change-propellers.

“A Special Three Days….”
Somashekhara, the President of the School Development Monitoring Committee (SDMC), who is a staunch pillar of support for the school, said the summer camp will increase children’s knowledge. The HM called it “a special event, a special three days favourable to our children.” The school had progressed because of Akshara’s in-school programmes, he said, and prospered because of the SDMC that takes care of it like their own home.

The lamp was lit, and Mounika, class 5, Bhavya, class 7, and Triveni recited a short morning prayer, the accents, the pronunciation and the emphasis impeccable. Sheets of paper went around the 45 children present who wrote down their names and grades.

The Mathematics Quiz

The Mathematics quiz was the first item to start off. The children formed four groups and sat in large circles. Quietude settled, but there was no fear or performance anxiety on any face. These children seemed capable Mathematics students, springing up to answer even before Cluster Facilitator Srinivas had completed his question.

The quiz was developed by Akshara’s resource team and has more than 45 questions compatible with children’s competencies, not of the textbook variety, but questions of a general nature that applied across classes. For instance: What is the seventh month of the year? How many days are there in May? Name the shape that has three sides. How many minutes are there in an hour? What do you add to 999 to make 1000? Triveni, Manjunath, Soundarya, Ananth, Arun – all stood up with agile answers, with confidence.

In the midst of all this certitude, little Sanjay of class 3 floundered on the question to his group. How many hours are there in a day? He pounced on it without consulting his team and said, “Twelve hours,” so sure of its accuracy. His group members fixed him a glaring, unforgiving look. He had spoiled their chances. Sanjay’s eyes welled up in humiliated defeat. As it happened, his group lost the first spot by a single point, further mollifying him.

A Spell of Drawing
Children engrossed in drawing pictures
The whole incident was soon forgotten as chart paper, pencils and sketch pens are passed around for a drawing competition.

Charan of class 7 had swiftly conjured a riotous scene of shrubs, trees and unusual green shoots. There was a house and a sun’s drawn face, like an old man’s, peering between hills, shining down fiercely, blighting all that foliage. It eventually won Charan a prize for its creative amassing.

Madan of class 6 drew a cat. It was a neat delineation, quickly executed. Then, imagination ran out. After a spell of distraction, he added a tail and, in an attempt to thicken it to bushy proportions, he lost steam again.
From a lot of other children, there were essays into the familiar – homesteads, animals, and flowing streams with embellished ducks.

The English Quiz

The children waited with bated breath for the English quiz to begin, wary yet expectant. It was every child’s dream – to become conversant in English. It was also a language that intimidated, as their grounding is weak. Some of the questions had to be interpreted in Kannada, but, overall, they acquitted themselves creditably.

The questionnaire, created by the Akshara resource team, flung its net wide, with overarching questions that children ought to know. Which country do you live in? Which is your city? They were not daunting questions. Name the capital of India. Hands were not raised, no one jumped to attention. Manasa timidly got it right.

A perturbed silence meets the question: Name the President of India. Pratibha Patil, someone suggested. Hamid Ansari, said someone else. The question was passed. Who is Karnataka’s current Chief Minister? The response was immediate. Who wrote the national anthem? Sagar had no doubts in his mind that it is Rabindranath Tagore. Who is your favourite actor? Jayakumari says bashfully, “Ravichandra.” Which planet do you live on? Manasa was sure of it. “Bhoomi,” she said, but couldn’t find its English equivalent. None of the children could, but the point was given.

A Session with LEGO

A session with LEGO, the learning-oriented play material from the world renowned Danish toy manufacturer, LEGO, was exhilarating for the children. It was their first encounter with the multitudes of multi-coloured pieces and bricks. And it was awe-inspiring, confusing and frustrating.

Mounika pored over the LEGO leaflets with instructions in English, referred to the models pictured there and conferred with her team mates. It did not help, but Cluster Facilitator, Manjunath was with them and the bottlenecks were soon dismantled. Houses and towers and trees sprouted on a platform.

Parents participated too, the mothers as collaborative partners, the fathers, reluctant spectators. A middle-aged father with a shock of grey hair pleaded that he was too old for a children’s game, watched noncommittally and retreated. Nagamma, a mother, teamed with students Ambika and Mala to fashion a watch tower with a man on top, possibly a guard. She laughed self-consciously every time she fixed a piece and surveyed the outcome.

Jayakumari and Manasa had a big, impressive creation – a fort with towers and turrets, and bridges spanning roofs. The diffident charting of unknown territory was over, and in thirty minutes children assembled some inspired models, a small, exquisitely made field plough among them.

Opportunities for Self-Expression

Children revelled in the opportunities the summer camp provided for self-expression. Jayakumari was cheered on as she represented her group in a self-chosen creative act. Singing is her forte and her song is about coming to school every day and her experiences – the learning, the knowledge, the fun she has. She teamed with Bindushree for a prayer and a patriotic song. They sang at the top of their voices, their self-esteem soaring, and some of the front row children shut their ears and smiled conspiratorially just to taunt the singers. Manjunath presented a story laced with humour. Bhavya recited a rhyme and Madan would not budge even as a thunderous round of applause tried to get him to go up and say or do something.

Extempore speech making on topics like Education, Health, Environment and School was an activity that provoked a gathering of thought and cogent presentations. Each group got five minutes to marshal their forces.

The older children had an advantage. Anupa, a volunteer, coached her group fervently, asked for pen and paper and wrote down her points furiously on the environment, its beauty and how it is people’s duty to protect it and develop it responsibly. Poornima of class 6 found Anupa’s high-flown Kannada too challenging and handed over the short write-up to Jayakumari to read, who too dries up halfway through.

The boys did a good job with Education and Health, prompted by Cluster Facilitator Lakshman, who handled the session. Monesha, a college student, began her talk about School with a short Sanskrit invocation and emphasised punctuality, discipline and respect to teachers and elders as its corner-stones. She summed up by saying that the onus is on children too to make school a conducive place.

A Solemn Pledge

Cluster Facilitator Manjunath got the children to take an Akshara Foundation pledge that they will learn well and obey and respect their teachers; that they will study their subjects, take part in extracurricular activities and all school programmes and follow the rules of the institution. It was uttered with sanctity and vigour and evoked a solemn response from children as they repeated after Manjunath with a feeling of piety.

A Village Map

The next item was the delineation of a Village Map, an activity that fostered awareness in children of their surroundings and got their bearings right. It helped them identify important locations, know what is available, where to access services.

Children mapped their world with sure precision and knowledge – access roads leading off the highway and clusters of dwellings and trees drawn with remarkable agility. The village pond, the village square, the temple, the Hasigalla anganwadi, school and higher primary school, the ration shop and health centre were all featured. Prizes are adjudicated on the basis of the most comprehensive picture of their village the groups could come up with.

Playtime – Hit-and-Miss

The rough and tumble of play as the afternoon wore was an exciting time of day for the children. One sports event that went down particularly well with them was hitting the target, a game of misses, as it turned out. That did not dampen spirits. Group representatives were blindfolded and let loose with a long stick in hand with which to hit an improvised target of an inverted bucket. The children wandered here and there, lost, unable to find direction.

Pavan was the only one amazingly on target, walking straight ahead towards his object as if with eyes wide open, causing scepticism in the Cluster Facilitators who suspected he could see through the lower slit of the cloth blindfold. Once his state of temporary sightlessness was tightly ensured, they left Pavan to find his way. He was accurate, did not waver and reached close, a foot or two away, his stick steadily poised for the strike.

A crowd of children cheered him on uproariously. Victory was in sight. The boys urged Pavan, “Come on. Hit.  Bring the stick down.” At the crucial moment Pavan flinched, shrunk backwards a little and the stick came down hesitatingly a couple of inches short of the mark. He sobbed in frustration, all the while watching Jashwant who came next, the last in the line-up. Jashwant went haywire, straying towards a tree and hitting its bark, and Pavan laughed with delight through his tears. He did  not get a prize, but consolation was that no one got as close as he did either.

The Final Episode
Memories of the Summer Camp!
Achievement was woven into the texture of the three days, without making it a paramount consideration. It was not about winning, but about accomplishment, about doing well, though children were spurred by the prospect of prizes and goals attained, the final triumph. The summer camp was about group learning and the freedom to be.

Prize-giving became an egalitarian distribution, all four groups winning the first place in some category or other. Team members were each announced and awarded a prize. Everyone got a chance to be in the spotlight. Children queued up happily in front of their parents and the community for their prizes, more intent on being recognised than in any material reward.

As the momentum abated and the children prepared to leave, this is what they had to say.
Manasa, one of the brightest students in school, who was going to class 8 in June, said, “I liked the summer camp. I felt I had achieved something when I answered questions and felt excited that I might win prizes.” For one who sang so unselfconsciously Jayakumari was tongue-tied. After much prodding she said shyly, “Everything about the summer camp was good. I liked it.” Triveni said, “I liked participating in the quiz. I enjoyed all the games.” Mounika who kept to herself and did not say much, but was an active participant, softly said, “I am happy to be in the group that got the first prize for the Mathematics quiz. I liked the quiz questionnaire. I got to play.” Rashmita of class 4 said, “I liked the summer camp very much. It was really nice.”

Aswathamma, a class teacher at the school, summed it up when she said, “This is a useful activity during the long summer holidays. Instead of merely watching television and playing mindlessly, children did something related to learning. My students enjoyed the summer camp. They were learning without a textbook. The whole year is full of the textbook. This was a welcome break.”

A Word of Acknowledgement

The show in many ways belonged to Akshara’s Cluster Facilitators whose spirit remained undiminished till the end. They scripted its success. They orchestrated it. No detail was too small to be overlooked. They gave the summer camp in the Hasigalla School its structured rhythms, and yet made children feel the days were their own to savour. Learning was interspersed with fun, when the boisterous buoyancies of the children were allowed to flourish. In fact, there were times when it all seemed unmanageable, but order was always calmly restored, the HM and Aswathamma also contributing to the soothing process.

The Cluster Facilitators kept children engaged and animated all through. Krishnappa took them through a resonant recital of rhymes. Srikant, Akshara’s District Facilitator, did a short, powerful cameo. Manjunath had an action song that children enjoyed. Their robust renderings and the children’s enthusiastic accompaniment rented the air.

Seriousness was a mantle never far from reach either as they sat in a tribunal to select the winning teams. Or, as on the final day, Manjunath of the Hasigalla cluster and the other Cluster Facilitators organised a procession of children from the village to the school. The children held aloft the Akshara summer camp banner in an attempt to capture public imagination and draw attention to education.

The major landmarks of the summer camp were plotted out by Akshara’s senior resource team. All the Cluster Facilitators, as implementers, were trained to conduct it. It was their commitment and dedication that saw the summer camp through, with an infallible sense of method and organising skill. For fifteen days prior to the camp, Manjunath of the Hasigalla cluster and Srinivas were in and out of Hasigalla, Vabasandra and Thimmasandra, spreading an awakening in villages somnolent in the sun, motivating children caught in the torpor of summer holidays, disseminating word about the summer camp, requesting everyone’s participation.

The community could perhaps have done more, but the State Assembly elections were just over and it had left political rifts that had not healed. People owing allegiance to one political party declined to be a part of something the other party’s affiliates were going to be involved in. That the Stree Shakti Sangha came in full force and donated prizes; that parents attended the inauguration and the closing ceremony; that mothers made LEGO models with children; that the SDMC Presidents of both this school and the higher primary school came; and that everyone sank their differences to support the cause of educating their children is testimony to the work the Cluster Facilitators put in.