Nanjunda is a daily wage worker at the construction site in Marathahalli, Bengaluru. Shiva, age 14, now in 9th standard is the eldest among his three children. He has to choose between continuing his studies at the local government school to complete his SSLC exams and dropping out of school to take responsibility of his family’s expenses, being the elder son in the family. His father earns barely enough to meet their monthly family expenses, let alone spend on books or uniform for school, for his three kids. Nanjunda also thinks it better if Shiva starts getting involved in construction activities with him and learns manual labor so he can become a construction worker like him one day or maybe even a contractor earning a better salary than him. Shiva is just one among many children wanting to drop out of government schools.
The 2009 Annual Status of Education Report for Rural India shows that 96% of the children in the ages from 6 to14 enroll in school. Nearly 73% of those children go to government schools, but most of these students cannot read even simple sentences or perform basic math like division and subtraction. Moreover, the number of children out of school increases with age, from 4% for ages 6-14 to over 17% for ages 15-16. Clearly, there is something lacking in government schools that is not motivating the students to learn or even stay in school.
One commonly cited problem is the inaccessibility to clean drinking water, electricity, toilets or proper infrastructure in some schools. Some schools face a shortage of well trained staff or teaching materials to impart quality education. Others have high rates of teacher absenteeism. Some teachers in public schools believe that children do not receive enough support at home to pursue their studies since most of their parents are uneducated. While any of these could very well be the reason for high drop out rates, it was found that students are in fact more enthusiastic to learn, and teachers more motivated to teach if an outside facilitator could give the public schools the needed direction and help them turn their plans into reality. It is with this idea in mind that Mr. E S Ramamurthy founded Sikshana in 2001. Sikshana is a Vibha funded non-profit organization focused on improving learning levels in the public education system.
Sikshana aims to act as a facilitator rather than a provider to improve management practices in public schools. Mr. Ramamurthy meets the headmasters, teachers and students, and listens to the issues they face and the suggestions they have for improving their schools. For example, one issue that Mr. Ramamurthy identified was how teachers in public schools did not give students sufficient homework everyday. They feared their students may totally ignore it due to obligations to help out with their family trade or to indulge in other activities. This resulted in students not spending the required amount of time to acquire basic skills like reading and writing.
Mr. Ramamurthy initiated a sheet writing program, where he supplied a new sheet of paper to every student who finished writing up on the first sheet of paper. Students are encouraged this way to write and use as many sheets as possible. As one school implemented this program, they began to observe that students were using 8 sheets of paper per week. To offer more writing practice to children, Mr. Ramamurthy suggested raising the target to 20 sheets per week. Teachers hesitated initially, fearing it might be too much writing and take more of the students’ time. The suggestion was tried out anyway. After all, it was Sikshana that was providing the sheets of paper and they found the children successfully finished writing on the entire quota of 20 sheets!
Sikshana has many such simple innovative programs currently in implementation in various government schools. Some of these are loaning solar lanterns to help students study during power outages, giving spot prizes to encourage students to ask and answer questions, taking students on field trips to provide variety exposure to students, providing sports and lab equipment to schools, offering extra evening and weekend coaching classes for difficult subjects like Math and English especially for 10th Standard students, and assigning mentors to monitor student progress.
Sikshana has worked with 235 government schools in Karnataka to implement such ideas since 2001. Quantitative assessments are made based on the results from bi-annual tests conducted on Azim Premji University/Karnataka State Quality Assessment Organization models and there is follow up of kids getting Grades below B at the semester examinations. Based on this assessment in Mar 2008, out of 36 government schools in Kanakapura, only 4 were below the minimum target – 65% score or 10% improvement over the previous academic year. Sikshana has accomplished these results working hand-in-hand with the government, using existing resources and infrastructure, instead of creating new schools. Sikshana joined hands with Gandhian Organization for Rural Development (GORD) in August 2009 to replicate the education model in Andhra Pradesh. So far, 15 schools in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh are successfully working with Sikshana.
In recent years, the Government of India has also stepped up its efforts and increased investment in public education. In 2001, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was launched to ensure that all children in the 6–14 years age group attend school. An important component of the scheme is Education Guarantee Scheme and Alternative and Innovative Education, meant primarily for children in areas with no formal school within a one kilometre radius. SSA also focuses on girl’s education and educating children with special needs. Rastriya Madhyamic Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) was launched in March 2009 with an aim to achieve universal access to quality secondary and higher secondary education focusing on children in classes 8th to 12th. The Right to Education Act for providing free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of six to fourteen came into effect on April 1, 2010. With this act, India became one among 135 countries where education is a fundamental right of every child.
One hopes these measures will make a significant difference in the quality of public education over the coming years.
Let’s hope children like Shiva continue their schooling to follow their dreams rather than their father’s footsteps.