A Visitor’s Note!

 Geeta Kumar,visited Akshara Foundation a couple of weeks ago. She was a school teacher in Delhi and also a member of the Committee which wrote the Position Paper for teaching of English, under the NCF 2005. This is what she had to say about us.


A chance conversation  with a Satsang Foundation devotee brought me in touch with this organisation. Scrolling through their website, I felt quite interested , especially because I had wanted to make some difference in the government school education sector but was clueless about how to make it happen.The response from the Managing Trustee was most welcoming and warm, to say the least. A visit to the Foundation’s office and interaction with her was gave me a good idea of the nature and scope of the work that they are doing, and I was truly impressed and thrilled.

For the first time (and I really mean this), I saw evidence of something being done to address the real needs of the student and the teacher in learning and teaching English. It is most exciting to see that a model is being developed  which can make a difference. I was also given an opportunity to visit some schools in Hoskote where the programme is being used presently. There I saw that the commitment of the Foundation members was receiving a very positive response from the teachers and the children.

The personal inter action of the programme executors with their target teachers and students seemed to me  a wonderful way of making learning actually happen at the primary school level. If only our state and national bodies in charge of primary education would care to notice this model and learn a few lessons from them, things will begin to brighten in the dismal scene of primary education in the country.

My congratulations to the team for the great work that they are doing and my prayers that they will reach out to other parts of the state and the country so that the aspiration of millions of students for gaining competence in the use of English  will become a reality.

The ASER Report 2012

A kid answering the evaluation test


The ASER 2012 report is out and like every year the ASER centre has made use of simple yet effective methods and techniques to bring out the outcomes of the social sector programs. In simpler terms, the ASER Centre works towards evaluating the basic skills in reading and arithmetic acquired by the children across urban and rural India.

 While the ASER Centre makes sure to see that the money got is channelled into social sector programs like education, health, nutrition, and livelihoods, among others. Lack of information on how these investments often translate into outcomes on the ground is a major barrier to evaluating their effectiveness and determining whether money is being well spent.

The ASER Centre approach has its roots in Pratham’s work across urban and rural India to help children acquire basic skills in reading and arithmetic. ASER Centre was established as an autonomous unit within the Pratham network in 2008 and have been going strong ever since.

According to ASER reports 2012

·        Enrolment in the 6-14 age groups continues to be very high. But the proportion of out of school children has increased, especially among girls in the age group of 11 to 14.

·         Private school enrolment continues to rise in almost all states.

·         Reading levels continue to be a cause for serious concern. More than half of all children in Std. V are at least three grade levels behind where they should be.

·         2012 was the year of Mathematics. But it has been a bad year for basic arithmetic for children in India barring Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala.

·         ASER 2012 assessed Basic English by giving the children English reading and comprehension tasks. Of those who could read words or sentences, well above 60% could convey the meaning in their own language.

·         Private inputs into children’s education, such as private schooling and private tutoring, are widespread. Their influence on children’s learning outcomes is substantial.


·        School facilities have shown improvement over time.

According to the ASER 2012 findings in Karnataka

Increase in the percentage of students who were present on the day of the visit.
The number of students from class 1-4 who were present on the day of the visit has increased from 81.7% in 2010 to 89.1% in 2012. Additionally, the number of students from class 7 and 8 who were present on the day of the visit increased from 70.9% in 2010 to 83.1% in 2012.

Slight decrease in the percentage in the Teacher-student ratio
The student teacher ratio percentage decreased from 69.4% in 2010 to 66.9% in 2012.

Slight increase in the percentage in the Class and teacher ratio
The Class and Teacher ratio percentage increased from 82.8% in 2010 to 83.2 in 2012.

Increase in the percentage in the access versus usage of toilets for female students.

Decrease in the percentage in the access versus usage of libraries.

Read the complete ASER 2012 report here.
Read the ASER 2012 report for Karnataka here.

Volunteering at the GKHPS, Doddaholluru, Hoskote


The Spirit of Volunteering

For people who volunteer for a cause it is the ultimate sublimation. Volunteering is activity on a higher plane, an attempt at an idealized world – the involuntary instinct for the level playing field, breaking down barriers of inequity and deprivation, giving everybody a fair chance, the belief in bringing about systemic change in a system that under-performs, simply drags its feet or outright fails. It is an act of betterment and uplift. Those who have giving to those who do not.
  • Akshara regularly facilitates volunteering in education in Bangalore – at government schools, anganwadis and community libraries, or prepares the ground for homework support classes, English teaching sessions, a sports event. Akshara galvanizes the corporate sector, parents, the student community and citizens and is looking to expand the volunteering base exponentially.
The Larger Question

But looking at the broader scene in the city, is volunteering a case of isolated largesse? Will it remain the occasional wholeheartedness, the odd abundance, not a continuous stream of the spirit?
  • Says Ashok Kamath, Chairman, Akshara Foundation, “For many years Akshara talked about doing learning programmes for children, about building a relationship with government schools. That alone is not enough. If we can get people who have had the privilege of education – teachers, parents, citizens – aligned to a common goal of equitable access to quality education, we can make an impact.
  • The problem is we always think of our glass as half-empty. Can we look at our Indian situation positively? Can we do something? There are 95 lakh people in Bangalore. If 40,000 people could go into a thousand government schools on a regular basis can you imagine the difference it will make? The larger question is: How can we together make the world a better place for government school children?”
What can be done to enlarge the volume of contribution and make volunteering a self-sustaining movement of substantive results? This is what two of the Target India employees who volunteered recently at the Government Kannada Higher Primary School (GKHPS) in Doddaholluru, Hoskote Block, giving freely of their time, energy and resources, had to say.
  • Ann: “Not many people like us know that such opportunities exist, that government schools need such diverse inputs. Everybody wants to help, but we do not know what we can do or which platform to go through. If there is a volunteers’ group that can propose volunteering projects to companies and facilitate the process, or encourage employees to participate in large numbers, that would be great. The message should reach people, and 99% of us – you can even say 100% of us – would come forward to help and support.”
  • Keshav: “We do something like this once in a while and sometimes forget about it. A more consistent approach is called for. A more dedicated approach – the same pool of volunteers in the same school repeatedly so that children and volunteers can come together. So that children can look on us as somebody they can count on. We’re setting all this up in this school – a library, a science room. But we don’t know how these resources will be used by the school and its students. We must come back. We want to come back.
If urban children come here and see for themselves the deprivation they will value everything they have much more. I think students in the city must volunteer. A lot of parents would want their children exposed to the other side of the world, the larger fact.”
  • Asha Sharath who handles donor relations and volunteering activities at Akshara says, “Every small step a volunteer takes is a great stride. A day makes a difference. For long-lasting impact, volunteering has to be on a regular basis.”
  • The crux, however, she says, is to connect citizens to schools. Akshara is positioning itself to do that through the Karnataka Learning Partnership (KLP) framework. What Akshara has learnt from experience is that schools are wary of arbitrary goodwill. They have specific deficits they would like enriched – a drop in Mathematics, language failure, or, as in the GKHPS, Doddaholluru, a library in decline or a thriving science laboratory with no place to call its own.  
  • Says Asha, “KLP intends to bridge this gap in communication with a platform where schools can upload their requirements and interested volunteers can pick up from there and give them what they need. KLP is thinking of coming out with a prototype soon.”

A Quiet Sense of Purpose

It is the 17thof September. A remarkable instance of volunteering is taking place at the GKHPS in Doddaholluru. The thirty five Target India employees who are volunteering here are enablers, providers of opportunity that day, as they go about restoring to pristine condition an old, disused library in the school and a room for science.

The school wears a discreetly festive air. There is a quiet hum of activity and purpose. Visitors are streaming in and Harshita and Manjula, Std. VII students, welcome them with a single red rose and a shy smile and fade tactfully away. Today it is the volunteers who are unwittingly centre stage as, with a hushed sense of mission, they take to completion their self-appointed task.

A Targeted Intervention

The Science lab before the make-over
  • The library used to be a picture of rundown depletion, sadly, for a school with no obvious infrastructure deficits. The volunteers are painting it and stocking it with books. The science room, once painted and invigorated, will accommodate the many projects the children undertake under the guidance of their tireless science teacher, Basavaraj, a live wire of a person. It will be a place for experimentation and discovery, for unravelling science, a subject that is one of the school’s singular strengths.
  • This is example-setting volunteering. Guru, the Target volunteer in charge of reconnaissance, made three fact-finding trips to identify and assess the school’s requirements. The day’s endeavour is a targeted intervention to provide something the school needs and will, hopefully, make use of. Not random goodwill.
An Image Make Over

  • An image make over is in progress in the large, light-permeated library. A preliminary coat of thinner has been applied, but the soiled walls show through the thin translucence, scooped out or peeling in places, which the volunteers have scraped and filled in even-handedly. A painterly landscape dominates, with brushes and big hammers, screw drivers and rollers, and large cans of thinner and synthetic enamel. Mugs half-filled with cloudy blue paint for the room’s many metal windows jostle in the assortment.
  • All bought through volunteers’ contributions, including the elegant, red metal racks and the 2012 books that will go on them. The number 2012 is significant. It signals the year of the library’s resuscitation.
I too Have a Part to Play in their Growth”

  • It is a thoroughly professional approach, not least the painting, though most of the volunteers are first-time painters. Like Stephen, with a protective bandana round his head, about to go up a step ladder to paint the upper reaches with an intuitive sense of the work at hand.
  • A seasoned volunteer, Stephen says, “Volunteering is all about enhancing the next generation, making space for children to learn, providing opportunities for them. I too have a part to play in their growth.”
  • Mormita, part of the painting crew, says, “I feel strongly that what we’re getting we should give back. Everybody should, in whatever way, big or small. I feel satisfied and happy seeing the smiles on children’s faces.”
It’s a Pleasure Doing This”

Outside the library a section of the verandah has been unofficially cordoned off. There, on sprawling mats are the 2012 books meant for children up to Std. VII. They are in Kannada and English primarily, and some in Hindi, straddling fourteen classifications – stories, comics, General Knowledge, science, computers….There are books that build skill-sets too, in grammar and essay writing, for instance. 

 
Every book is being labelled with a unique code that will ensure that they do not all end up in a disorderly mélange where nothing can be found. Thick, plastic-coated brown paper is being fitted on the racks and the books will be arranged on them.
  • It’s a pleasure doing this,” says Samyukta who is leading this group. “Children come up and say they didn’t have access to such books before. I believe that knowledge shared is knowledge gained. Even we are getting to learn a lot.”
  • Shivaprasad who is sorting and labelling the books echoes much the same sentiment. “I have a passion for volunteering. There is self-satisfaction and fulfillment. I enjoy giving back to society. When we were young we got so much.”
The library was a crumbling institution in school. When this ensemble comes together – the fresh newness of paint, the scenery charts, hand-painted inspirational quotes on education, the gleaming books on smart racks – it will symbolize renewal and create a space for children to read, learn and grow.

I will Improve my Knowledge”
  • Kantalakshmi of Std. VII is excited about the new ordainment. “I am happy. I am looking forward to reading in the library. I will get to understand from library books what my teacher tells me in class. I will go there and find out. I will improve my knowledge. What I don’t know I will get from there.”
  • Harshita has to be goaded into thinking about the benefits of a library by her teachers. She begins hesitatingly and is nudged along. “Library books will be useful for reference, as guides to class lessons. I like reading jokes and short stories very much.”
  • Jayalakshmi who teaches all subjects, including Kannada and English, in Std. IV, V, VI and VII says, “It is good to have a library. Every class, I-VII, has a library period once a week. Library books are important for children to learn language, improve reading skills, for understanding and communication. The English books in the library will be particularly useful. Children will learn different kinds of words, difficult words. English is their second language. They have an English period every day.”
Different Hues
  • In volunteering there is also the not-so-exalted department of the mundane – the logistics, the hot food, the cold drinks…… All the eminently forgettable nitty-gritty at times like this. Anantha volunteered magnanimously to organize and provide and clear up. “Too many challenges in that,” he says affably. “What to source, what to provide, at what time. I got beverages, but how would I keep them cold when the school has no refrigerator and there has been no power the whole day?” He worked his way ingeniously around that constraint.
Anantha overlooked nothing – not the drinking water or water cups, the plastic spoons, paper plates or napkins, not the first aid kit. Then there is the humdrum everydayness of garbage, which needed some astute planning. Anantha will take ten bin bags with all the day’s debris back to Bangalore for disposal.

A Science Room – “It will Instil Scientific Discipline”

  • At the far end of the rambling school building is the Science Block, announced in thick, black, declaratory lettering. It underlines the scientific temper of the school, personified by the motivated Basavaraj who leads his students in curiosity-driven exploration. He teaches in Std. V, VI and VII.
  • Propelled by Basavaraj, his students have creatively designed a water recycling plant, a mobile phone tower, a hydel power generating dam with smaller check dams along a river stream to harness water to the fullest. And many more items, besides.
  • Children crowd around their projects eager to explain the scientific principles of each. Now there is a room Target volunteers are recasting and assigning to science. Says Basavaraj, “We did not have a place for all these projects. Earlier I would take the material to the classroom to educate the students. Now there will be a room in honour of science where students can gather and learn. A specially designated space will help children; it will instil scientific discipline.”
I Like Science”
  • I like science, “says Kantalakshmi, showing off the periscope she and her classmates have made. “It is used underwater during war. I learnt how the heart functions also.” Basavaraj was instrumental in spurring the children to make a simple instrument out of a plastic bottle, straws and a piece of fabric. “All low-cost material,” affirms Basavaraj. Kantalakshmi blows through the straws, then takes an inward breath and the pleated folds of the fabric in the bottle expand and contract, simulating the operations of the heart.
  • Harshita too confirms that she likes science, her earlier reticence melting in a flood of words. “I like learning about the heart, about health and nutrition. We carried out an experiment in class that demonstrates the force of air and water. I observe things through the microscope,” she says in wonderment.
I Enjoy the Act of Giving Very Much”

The Target team is in an act of consecration in the science room, dressing it up, painting it. Samir, Anu and Noor also team up to embellish with their art the two pillars that jut out, hand-painting the universe, the earth, a space ship, a rocket taking off.
  • Samir is in Development at Target. He has a speech and hearing impairment. This is his first experience of volunteering. “I am an artist,” he says, hands flying in communication. “I want to do art with children in schools.” A paint-flecked khaki smock over a long-sleeved, dull red shirt bespeaks a heightened awareness of colour. Samir is painting a half-sun on the edge of a pillar in the science room, a yellow semi-circle with dancing orange flames – half the world in light.
  • I like it very much,” he says. “I enjoy the act of giving very much. I am extremely happy doing it.”

Lessons from the Field : Hoskote and North Karnataka


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.
 
Ashok Kamath,
Chairman,
Akshara Foundation