One Touch at a Time

Primary Education in Karnataka’s Villages

MindTree Foundation Journal . September 2010 .Raja Shanmugam

Learning adventures in Indian Villages –Innovations stumbled upon during a field visit
Running MindTree Foundation exposes us to new learning every day with every interaction. More often than not, just plain realities of life. But learning, nevertheless. During a recent field visit, I had an “learning overload” which became the trigger for this note. State of affairs in Indian primary education Out of every 100 children who enroll into the primary school system in India, about 85 children drop out before end of the secondary school. Almost all the progress we have made leading to tags such as “knowledge economy”, “service economy”, “India Shining” etc have primarily been due to this 15% who managed to squeeze through! Imagine what can happen even if we manage to push the needle by another 10%. This is one of the biggest motives for Primary Education being a core charter for MindTree Foundation. In spite of all the controversy on RTE, a sizeable population actually manages to enroll in schools. More than 95% get that opportunity. There are 45000 schools in Karnataka . 127 such schools in just Kanakapura Taluk alone. It is what these kids get (or do not get) as inputs for learning along the way that leads to the high drop out rate. Forget computers and such. When we started our second version of the Life Skills program at the Uttarahalli Government School, the Asst. headmaster warned us. “You guys are starting the program by asking the kids in the 8th grade to respond to a questionnaire. Many of our kids have come in from village primary schools, after finishing 7th grade. They do not know how to read and write. You need to hand hold them individually to get this filled.” BTW, if you are curious, they just need to tick “Yes” or “No” to answer them. In Kannada. Imagine these kids when they are faced with daily trauma when forced to learn with 100 other kids in the same room who are miles ahead of them in scholastic capabilities. Little wonder so many drop out. We recently tied up with an NGO called Sikshana which is quite active in this sector. They support 400+ schools in Karnataka. Their intervention costs just INR 500 per year per student, but produces significant level of improvement in the scholastic and attendance levels in almost all their schools. The children in these schools read and write at much above the prescribed levels. What is more, there is also a trend of reverse migration from private schools to government primary schools they in a few of their schools. Their charter to have a clear exit strategy by enabling the local population take over their work in each of these villages is critical to us. So is their goal of making their process repeatable and scalable and integrate it into the larger program of the state education machinery. As we progressed in our initial discussions, we learnt a few of their key innovations.

Paper Bank – A major problem of children from village schools is their inability to write. The reason? No paper to practice. Yes! Many of these children can not afford the stationary to practice writing and attain the required proficiency. The free notebooks given by the government (that too only for certain communities) are too limited for them to be used for such practice. Sikshana’s solution? Every child in Grades 5-7 gets 5-10 A4 sheets of paper every week, to practice writing. When she is done, she can turn in the sheets and get another set of sheets. No Questions. No limits. I have personally seen the result of this intervention – such beautiful handwriting in the remotest of villages – both Kannada and English. Any class teacher in any school will be proud to have such children in her class! Class Library. The root cause of children unable to read well even at the 7th grade? No practice. Many villages lack decent alternate reading material. No local libraries. Not even news papers for the child to practice at home. How will the child ever be proficient in reading? Sikshana’s solution? Build class libraries with books chosen by the children. Any book, as long it is in the prescribed age group and is in either English or Kannada. Pratham books are recommended, since they are more tuned to the Indian reader. Each child is recommended to read one book every week. Again I have been in remote village class rooms where books are read fluently, dictionaries used without prompting and prodding by teachers.

One Laptop per school. This is one of the biggest attractions in Sikshana’s programs. Student access and use of computer centers are strictly controlled even in well equipped Private Schools. In Sikshana supported schools, each school has a Laptop with open source software and applications preloaded (No DVD and CD support – will talk about this later). The Laptops are freely handled by children and even taken home to do projects in rotation if required. I remember visiting one village school where the 4th standard girl was coaching her class teacher how to open files and operate the laptop!!! Apart from this, the teachers are trained in TQM and in setting specific annual goals for their school. Sikshana monitors and guides the progress of the school on a regular basis through identified mentors. They also provide discretionary funds to the schools to implement programs of their own choice – some have chosen to create a garden while some have set up local competitions/games.

These are impressive system innovations from any NGO’s perspective. So I was not expecting nothing new when we went for the first field evaluation of their activities in our selected schools after signing the MOU. I was wrong. Learning from the Field visit.

Management co-operation – The NGO believes that sustainable improvement will happen only with both the Principal AND the teachers work in complete cooperation towards that goal. A major portion of the evaluation by Sikshana mentors is on this aspect. This is highlighted in reviews and stressed as an important requirement for the school grading. Community Involvement – As a foundation for self sufficiency, the program expects the local community – especially parents of the children – to be actively involved in the development of the children and also the welfare of the school. To this effect the mentors visit the homes of the parents, deal with local community leaders and gain their confidence and support. Scalability: In spite of the immense goodwill generated by volunteer programs, the biggest challenge is to keep the volunteers. In a program like the Sikshana, this could be a severe limiting factor for success and scaling. Sikshana’s Solution ? Hire local village youth, who are mostly unemployed, train them and deploy them to become mentors to their schools. Their part time (one day a week) salaries keep the expenses under control, while creating sustenance and confidence in the youth. Since they are local, their acceptance within the community is also high. They get to do their own work on other days. Sikshana subsidizes the cost of higher education for these mentors. And, to train the local administrators for the eventuality of directly funding these mentors, they are made to pay from their pockets right now, even if it is Sikshana’s money that is in their pockets! Visible Health Tracking System : The most interesting innovation I noticed was this:

Simple paper pouches, one each for each school. Color coded to visibly indicate the health of the school. Eg. Red – Attention required, Green – Good, Yellow – Satisfactory, but needs further work.

Stuck on Chart sheets on the wall, one sheet per Mentor. All schools arrayed across to give an impressive and immediate view of the overall program and the comparative state of affairs among schools and mentors. School Diary: A village school child having a formal diary where she can note down her homework, calendar, reading records etc? The children love it. They feel immediately responsible and accountable. To help win over the teachers to this concept, the diary is packed with content that has been chosen by the teachers themselves – about basic tables, facts about Karnataka and India, tips on how to keep a good hygiene.

An interesting feature of this diary is that each child makes a commitment of his / her daily work habits and writes it down on the diary. Since it is a voluntary commitment, the schedules are broadly followed without much issues. Then comes the Reading Log in the Diary. A key aspect of the program is to increase the reading skills of the children through “class libraries”. How do you ensure that the children really read? There is a provision in each child’s diary to list out the books she read, with a brief one liner on the content. This way, the child, the teacher and the Sikshana Mentor can track progress.

At the Ambetkar Nagar School, many children here come from families where both parents are daily laborers. They find little time, energy or interest to ensure that their wards get ready and go to school in time every day. So how did the school solve the problem?

By forming a Class Committee for bringing in the absentees! This committee has 10 children who are regular attendees to go and locate the absentee child. If the child is sick or otherwise in need of help, they will do what they can and report back to the teacher. Else, they persuade the child to accompany them back to school  The actual innovation in this process is that the committee also includes 5 habitual absentees!! This actually helps the team to understand the situation from the absentee’s perspective and act with empathy and understanding.

The response has been amazing – most schools with Sikshana are running with >90% attendance!! Incentive for Local administrators to get involved: Sikshana spends just about Rs. 500 per child per year. Even this adds up to a lot of money when you deal with 40,000 children. One way to ensure that the process is sustainable is to convince the local population to bear some of the financial burden. The solution presented itself in an unusual way. There is a huge shortage of notebooks in the village schools. While the government supplies free notebooks to children certain communities, the others have to fend for themselves, however poor they are. To bridge this gap, Sikshana used to buy and supply notebooks to the schools. One particular village wanted them to deliver these notebooks in bulk, for about 10 neighborhood schools. The bigwigs of the village offered to pay for this.

While negotiating for these notebooks, Prasanna, CEO of Sikshana, found that not only could he get these books printed at a better quality and lower cost, he could also get it custom printed! So he went ahead and printed the names of the donors on the back page and distributed the notebooks. They became an instant hit because of their quality. This also created sort of a competition among the other big wigs around the Kanakapura area. Now, almost 50% of his annual budget for notebooks is already paid for. And he has to have different versions of the back page to accommodate different clusters of donors and villages!!! Prevention of Anti-Social Activities: Supply of Laptops to schools caused a peculiar problem. The village “dadas” demanded to “borrow” the Laptops on evenings and weekends. These Laptops were to be used as CD/DVD players – to display questionable content for private audiences under questionable conditions. Sikshana’s solution? All Laptops run open source software and the CD players are disabled. Since the CDs/DVDs don’t run on them, the Sikshana Laptops are left undisturbed . Not all learnings were of a positive nature, though. We saw that the children were learning better. We saw that the attendance was increasing. We could see the extreme commitment among the teachers. They are proud about what they have been able to achieve against all odds. However, when we reviewed the enrollment statistics, almost all schools are steadily dropping in their enrollment numbers. When I tried to probe further, I was told that the village populations themselves are shrinking, leading to drop in school enrollment. Sobering thought.

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