It was the morning of September 5, celebrated in the country as Teacher’s Day in memory of the well respected former President of India, Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. A day dedicated to the teacher and all that she symbolizes.
The drive from our office in Bangalore to the small village of Marasandahalli in Hoskote Taluk took all of forty five minutes. Marasandahalli is a little hamlet with a population of 650 people. It has a Lower Primary School (LPS) with a strength of 35 children. The school building looks solid.
We were visiting to test and validate the theory that schools will work and children will learn if all stakeholders participate. And this was a learning institution where we got the best proof of the concept. It has two teachers absolutely devoted to the school and its children. One of them was present that day, the other was indisposed and could not make it. Every working day they travel 35 kilometres each way from their homes to this school. They walk the last 3-4 kilometres through village roads because the bus stops only on the main road. It does not daunt them; neither does their day disappear in traveling to and fro. These teachers are there for the children all the time.
The parents and members of the School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC) are equally cooperative. They ensure that the teachers are not inconvenienced in any way and that they get a ride from the main road to the school on tractors or motorcycles most of the time. In fact, the parents had a clear statement to make to us, “We have requested the teachers to retire in our village when they do retire.” What more can one ask for?
And the results speak for themselves. As children graduate from the fifth grade, which is the highest grade taught in the school, they appear for competitive tests that secure them admission to the Morarji Desai Schools and KGBV Schools and almost all of them make it there.
After spending nearly an hour talking to parents, SDMC members, children and the teacher we walked away from the school with Lesson # 1: Teachers who carry the children, parents and SDMCs along with them make the greatest difference but these kind of teachers are rare.
The next day saw us in Mundargi Block of Gadag District in North Karnataka. This is a place where human development indices are low. Our strategy in visiting a few villages here was simple – we would follow a routine of first talking to parents and SDMC members, usually a meeting that would take place in the village square. We would then follow it up with a visit to the school, meet the teachers and then talk to the children. Akshara has been supporting these schools with a Math and English component and intends to be here for all of three years to ensure that learning levels are lifted and that children grasp essential competencies.
The first village we visited was Dambala. The villagers and the SDMC met us in the village square and we had the first good conversation of the day. We began by asking the oldest member in the congregation how old he thought the school was. “About 60 years,” came the answer.
Our next question was, “What about engineers and doctors?” They were considered to be great jobs as well. Finally we said, in the last 60 years there have been many children who graduated from their village school. Do they remember anyone who made it to these “good jobs?” That set them thinking. Slowly they started opening up and said that initially they did not have enough teachers, but one day 24 of them went to the Block Education Officer’s office and demanded that their school be assigned teaching staff. It paid dividends. They were allotted two teachers.
The SDMC is very active in this village. The SDMC President himself is at the school every day and makes sure that the teachers are there and that they are all teaching.
We then walked to the school – a Higher Primary School (HPS) with 450 children; went to Std. V and started talking to the children about Math. We gave them simple sums in the presence of the teachers, SDMC members and parents and the children did better than we thought they would. The parents were very excited – this was the first time in living memory that they had actually gone to classrooms and seen for themselves how their children studied. It has given them confidence and they told us they would continue this practice periodically.
So Lesson # 2: Schools work better if teachers, SDMCs and parents work together.
That same afternoon we decided to visit a school by giving them only an hour’s notice. When schools expect us we always hear what we would like to hear and I for one have always been suspicious that we do not really know the truth all the time.
Our first glimpse of the school told me we were in for some rude shocks. The school yard was filthy and there was stagnant water. While the teachers were polite to us it was clear that they did not have a positive story to tell us. They started with complaints – how parents do not understand the value of education, how they were under-resourced and so on. To us the message was clear – it was an under-performing school. And when we started asking questions we learned that the SDMC was not functional, which means there was literally no one to keep an eye on the way the school was managed. This was the only school that asked us to write our comments in their school visitor’s book. No other school we went to had asked us to do so.
The following day we visited a similar school in Kushtagi Block of Koppal District and saw pretty much the same symptoms.
It became clear to us that Lesson # 3 was: There must be a robust, functioning SDMC to make the school work.
During these visits we noticed some interesting patterns:
(a) Enrolment was high but the attendance of children was typically 70-75%, which meant that either on an average school day more than 25% of the children are absent or the enrolment number is wrong. (b) The ratio of male to female children in the schools that were poorly managed was highly disproportionate – schools that were well managed had near parity in the gender ratio.
While conditions are certainly far from desirable it has to be said to the credit of the government and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) that there was adequate infrastructure – nowhere did we see dilapidated schools. It was also clear that when a demand for better schooling was articulated by the community, the system found a way to get what the schools needed.
So, to my mind it then becomes a question of deciding if the glass is half-full or half-empty. If the former, then teachers and SDMCs and parents do manage to find ways to leverage existing investments and improve the schools but if the attitude is that the glass is half-empty and we cannot move till it is full, then the schools and the children lose out. The challenge for all of us would then be – how do we manage to improve the quality of demand, start from what we have and build on it? This is something that Akshara will work hard to achieve and we need the support of everyone in society to make this happen.