Dreaming for Manju

RUKMINI BANERJI

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IT is early morning on a hot summer day near Bakhtiayarpur on the road from Patna to Nalanda. The road here runs parallel to the Ganga. Through the fields and beyond the houses, one can see the river shimmering in the distance. Just off this road is a government primary school. Although it is barely 6.30 in the morning, many girls are hurrying in through the gate. There is a young woman standing on the main verandah of the school looking out towards the road; she seems to be the teacher. As soon as they see her, the girls begin to walk faster.

The girls are of all ages; seven-eight year olds in frocks and older girls of thirteen or fourteen in salwar kameez with dupattas around their head. The teacher calls two older girls aside and tells them to go to a nearby home and bring one of the students who has not yet arrived. The girls take off their chappals in a line outside the classroom, put their bags and books inside, and quickly come out. There are only twenty or twenty-five girls, but there is a buzz of anticipation of a good day at school.

This is a summer camp designed by the Bihar government for its primary schools – a special programme to encourage girls who are not enrolled to come to school and for those academically far behind to learn how to read, write and do basic arithmetic. There are only one or two teachers doing the summer camp in each school. Both are shiksha mitras or para-teachers. Each teacher has no more than twenty-five children. The summer camp runs from 6.30 am to 10.30 am every day including Sunday. Only children who cannot read words or do simple arithmetic problems are eligible to attend. The class has a simple but ambitious goal: by the end of the summer camp, everyone must be able to read sentences fluently and solve simple subtraction problems.

The girls start the morning by running a relay race – two groups line up and race each other – from the verandah up to the boundary wall and back. Dupattas are tied tight around the waist or thrown to the ground. Barefoot and fast, the girls enjoy the early morning exhilaration. Shweta, the shiksha mitra, is only a bit taller than the tallest girl. She cheers the girls as they run. With a little encouragement she probably would have run too. After the race the girls circle around as we begin to chat; some are still breathing hard as they catch their breath. Everyone introduces themselves shyly. Some of the older girls admit to not attending school during the year, but claim they will join after the summer camp is over.

At this point, a girl comes running to join the group. Her hair is uncombed, her frock old and grey, and with many buttons at the back missing. ‘Manju comes late,’ explains Shweta. ‘She works for an old man, so she has to clean his house and cook before she can come to school.’

Manju has no father and she is the oldest child. Shweta worked hard to convince the old man and negotiate with Manju’s mother to adjust the work time so that Manju could attend the summer camp. Even now, half way through the camp, Shweta or one of the other girls often have to fetch Manju from work. Nobody is sure, not even her friends, about how Manju will cope when the school opens, with different timings and with so many more children and teachers in the school.

 

We start talking about who can read. Some of the girls are able to read words, a few can navigate a sentence, but all recognize the alphabets. We change the subject. ‘How many of you can make rotis?’ I ask. They giggle; everyone can. ‘How were the rotis when you first started making them?’ Now there are loud peals of laughter. Each girl is laughing at the memory of her first roti. ‘Mine was square for a long time,’ says one girl. ‘How did they become round?’ I wanted to know. There is a heated discussion on roti-making techniques and finally we agree that if rotis are made every day then the shape soon begins to become round and you don’t have to work so hard at it any more. ‘So what will happen if you read every day?’ I continue. I see the gleam of understanding in the bright eyes around me. ‘We will all be reading by the time the summer holidays end,’ says one girl quietly.

 

Across the country, in states, districts, villages and around schools, the push for getting every child into school is intensifying. Available estimates indicate that out of every ten children in the age group 6 to 14, nine are enrolled in school. Enrolment only means that the child’s name is on the rolls of the school. But how to translate the high enrolment figures into effective participation, regular attendance and adequate learning for millions of children?

Who are the children we are talking about? We are talking about all kinds of children. We are talking about children who have educated parents, children who have been to preschool or anganwadi, who enter class I at the right age and move progressively through from one standard to another. If these children face any difficulty, their parents know how to help keep their children on an assured path of success. But we are also talking about children who are ten to fourteen years old, who have never been to school but wish they had. Such children cannot read or write but want to be with their friends and other children who are otherwise like them. We are talking about children who went to school in their village but moved with their parents to the city. As the family copes with finding its feet in new surroundings, these children become increasingly distant from schools and schooling.

We are talking of children whose parents have never been to school, who do not have the confidence to talk to teachers, nor the ability to understand what their child is doing in school or needs to do in school. We are also talking of children who are in school but only attend every now and then, don’t understand what is happening in class, and fail to cope with school work but look forward to being with friends, playing and having a life and identity outside the home. We are also talking about children who work and wish they did not have to, that they too could have a tiffin box and school bag and red ribbons in their hair and go to school everyday.

We are talking of children who cannot read but can make rotis, children who cannot do sums but can sell newspapers and can show you where you can catch the best fish or find the sweetest mangoes; children who cannot write but can fly kites, can bring home safely all the buffaloes from the river and tell you stories that you have never heard before.

 

What kind of school do we need for all these children? We need all kinds of schools. We need schools in a variety of places, different locations, different duration and timings where children can be together with their friends and part of a bigger whole. We need schools where one can enter no matter what age one is and no matter whether one can read or write. We need schools who will understand a child for what he or she is and help move them to the next stage. Rigid schools, rigid age-grade organizational structures, rigid time schedules, rigid entry and progression criteria and rigid curriculum will not help to bring every child to school. Of course there must be well-defined and well-designed structures and processes to organize time, teachers and children for effective teaching and learning, but these need to be meaningful in the local context.

Who will teach? What kinds of teachers are needed? There is ongoing discussion, debate and dissent on who is to be a teacher. Opinions run strong and deep on the issue of teachers and para-teachers. We are all concerned with the current conditions of employment, recruitment and certification. States like Bihar still need thousands of teachers quickly. If these teachers do not enter the schools soon, the children who are being enrolled will simply flow out again. Today there are new kinds of teachers with profiles, aspirations and capabilities that are different from the familiar and traditional ‘master-ji’. More importantly, we need a vision of teachers and teaching, not for today but for where we as a country are likely to be ten or twenty years from now. We must think through how we will transform our teachers and teaching of today to the teachers and teaching we want tomorrow.

 

What are children to learn? Are they to learn from textbooks or from the world around them? Or are they to learn from both and integrate the different sources and experiences as they grow? Are different children to learn different things or are all children in India to learn the same things at the same age across the country? Are we trying to help our children learn what we learnt but know it better? Or should we be trying to think about the changing world as it unfolds and imagine what our children are going to need in the years ahead.

To bring and keep millions of children in school and to help them learn well in a few years is a mammoth, yet essential task for the future of the country. The challenge is not impossible. Such transformations have taken place in other countries and at a rapid pace. Here too we are beginning to see changing patterns. Many changes are criticized, especially those which stretch or contest the traditional definitions of ‘school’ or ‘teacher’. For example: the massive education guarantee schools – like those in Madhya Pradesh in the nineties, or the growing number of locally hired para-teachers on contract who are paid substantially less than a regular teacher. The critics point out problems with the long run viability of these initiatives and the possibility of weakening or diluting current provisions and delivery of schooling.

 

The fundamental issue for transforming our elementary education system has to do with our vision for schooling-teaching-learning for the next decades. The vision must include not only what we want for all our children but also how school systems can become accountable to children and their parents for achieving these outcomes. The very definition of a school or of a teacher cannot remain the same; the process and practice of teaching and learning has to undergo change.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, the core of a new vision for schooling has to guarantee learning to all children. Looking at where we are today, we must honestly define what we can enable our children to have and realistically by when. Recent nationwide assessments done by government agencies like NCERT or by citizens’s groups like ASER 2005 clearly show that as a country there are enormous backlogs in terms of children’s learning. According to ASER 2005, 48% of surveyed children in the age group 7 to 10 could not read a set of four sentences at the class I level of difficulty and 31% children in the 11-14 age group could not read a simple story at class II level of difficulty.1

The traditional path of age-graded classrooms and curriculum will not allow the massive numbers of children who have ‘fallen behind’ to ‘catch up’. Neither will it permit children who have been ‘left out’ – the out-of-school children of different ages who are now coming into school to get a fighting chance to succeed. To enable children who have been ‘left out’ and ‘left behind’ to ‘catch up’, time-bound, outcome-oriented campaigns are urgently needed within schools that move away from the age-grade structure.

Let us think of a concrete example: there are two children, an eight year old boy who is in class III struggling to read simple words, and an eight year old girl who has recently been enrolled in school and cannot even recognize common alphabets. What do these children need? First and urgently, they both need rapid assistance in learning to read simple texts (of class I and II level) fluently and with confidence. Both these children, their parents and teachers need to see that visible change is possible in a short period of time even with the ‘left behind’ and ‘left out’ children. Once both children have crossed the basic reading level, they have to be helped to accelerate to the level of reading-comprehension and writing that is expected of children for their age, and therefore grade.2

 

While the accumulated backlog in learning is being cleared, the foundational aspects of learning need attention too. Why should children fall behind at all? When a child has just started in class I or II, the question of falling behind must not even arise. To effectively achieve learning goals, progressively phased achievement plans over the next decade are needed – goals and plans for implementation that are realistic and doable on a large scale and ‘owned’ by the different levels of the school system.

There are two other important ingredients for guaranteeing learning: preparation of teachers and participation of parents. Old teachers or new ones must be enabled in an ongoing basis to ‘practice’ what is needed for their children rather than be theoretically prepared to teach age-grade curriculum that is beyond the reach of most children in their classrooms. As more and more children ‘catch-up’, the gap between expected and actual learning will reduce, and teachers can then move towards effective transactions of curriculum based on the age of children.

 

How to involve large numbers of parents, especially mothers, many of whom are illiterate, to support their children’s learning? How to engage others in the community to participate in helping children in their neighbourhoods? The mass mobilizations of the adult literacy movements in the late 1980s and early 1990s offer examples that could be incorporated. It is often said that one of the major outcomes of the adult literacy movement in this country was to raise the demand for primary education. Now the time has come to revive the adult literacy efforts, rethink modes of operation and to link them with children’s learning.

The new national curriculum framework, developed in a uniquely participative way, is sensitive to many of the issues raised here. The real challenge is how well, on what scale and up to which level, we are able to ‘own’ the new visions. In implementation, how well are we able to balance the new, emerging ideas and mechanisms with the traditional and standard concepts and practices. This applies not only to content, knowledge and skills but also to organizational structures, teaching-learning techniques and materials, and above all, to mechanisms for participation and for accountability.

 

Manju can just about read the alphabet now. She can also read some words that are without matras. She doesn’t know her age but she is probably twelve. She was enrolled in school several times before but was never really able to attend regularly until now. Everybody wants her to come, a feeling she has never experienced before. There are people on her side – her friends and teachers who want her to be with them in school. It is easier for her to come to school early in the morning, and do other work later. There are more girls of her age in the group so she does not feel shy. She feels it is okay not to be able to read or write because many of the other girls in the class are in the same situation even though they have been attending school.

In this school, the children do many other things together, like running. Manju can run faster than many of the girls. But even in terms of learning, it is actually fun to figure out what is written on a piece of paper, and it does not seem so difficult. This is the first time that a teacher has actually worked so hard with her – a teacher who seems to care about whether she learns or not, a teacher who comes home and argues with her mother. There are still quite a few days left. Perhaps by the time the camp is over she will be reading sentences. Once the summer camp is over, and when regular school starts, Manju wants to come every day.

 

Footnotes:

1. ASER 2005 (Annual Status of Education Report) was facilitated by Pratham and carried out by 776 local citizens’ groups, NGOs and colleges and universities in November and December 2005. 509 rural districts were covered and 330,000 children in the age group 6 to 14 were assessed. For more details see the full ASER report and processes on www.pratham.org

2. State after state is attempting large scale campaigns to improve basic learning. In the last few years there have been serious attempts in West Bengal (ILIP), Andhra Pradesh (CLIP), Maharashtra (reading, writing guarantee programme), Bihar (summer camps), Madhya Pradesh (learning to read), Karnataka (learning guarantee programmes).

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