A people's preschool
  aniela r.v.taneia and ira joshi

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STEPPING out of its cozy family environment to establish the first contact with the outside world is an event of seminal importance in the childs’ life. This is the time when the most permanent and lasting images are carved in her impressionable mind. The experiences that children have during the first few years form the basis of all future interaction and lay the roots for future social, language and intellectual development.

Rapid growth and accumulation of experiences characterize the early years. Children constantly see and experience new things and add to their store of knowledge. Research shows that 90% of the brain development is completed by the age of six. The child’s natural curiosity needs to be reinforced by providing challenges that respond to her thirst for knowledge. Needless to say, the child also needs an environment that is safe and healthy, one which provides her with love and care.

While the importance of care for the young child is constantly cited, the reality is that the needs of millions of children in their formative years are not met. It is a tragic fact that most Indian children lack access to proper care in the home; they suffer from malnutrition, ill health, often impaired physical and mental development and a host of other problems that stem out of the root causes of poverty and illiteracy. Ignoring the needs of children before they enter primary education is to jeopardize educational success at later levels of learning and adversely affect their subsequent course of holistic development.

Children have a fundamental right to proper development, irrespective of their age, social class and gender. In contrast, according to latest government figures (Multi Indicator Survey, 2001, Department of Women and Child Development, MHRD and UNICEF), only 48% of children have access to preschool facilities; the actual reality is likely to be much lower. Overall, growth monitoring of only 27% children less than five years is done; of those weighed 22% are found to have low birth weight. This effectively means that a quarter of our children are at risk of ill-health right from the start. 62% of children in the second year have not completed immunization; 25% of children are not immunized at all. While there is a now considerable stress on ensuring the needs of school age children, the needs of the very young are ignored.

There is a need to recognize the distinctive nature of early childhood and plan for it accordingly. These efforts fall under the framework of Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) which by definition involves providing the necessary support for every child to realize his/her right to survival, protection and care and ensuring optimal development from birth to the age of eight years. The government has repeatedly stated that ensuring the needs of young children is a matter of priority which is reflected in its policies and programmes. While the recent move to make education as a fundamental right is a step in the right direction, it has effectively meant the dilution of the government’s commitment to ensure education and care for children under six (which were earlier included in the state’s commitment to ensuring education for all children under fourteen years of age).

Bodh, as an organization, has over the years stressed education and ECCD as an integrated whole serving the overall mission of the formation of an egalitarian, progressive and enlightened society through the evolution of equitable and quality education system for all children. Its work originated in 1987 by establishing an integrated community school in one of the slums of Jaipur. The idea was to reach out to the most deprived and educationally backward sections. Of course, its intervention is small, but it has resulted in a model that has scope for up-scaling.

Our work started in the framework provided by our schools that were already working in the Jaipur slums. The child friendly environment attracted some younger children while their older sibling caregivers brought others. We felt a need to plan for these younger children who deserved a good programme in their own right. Also, the presence of younger brothers and sisters in the classroom tended to distract older siblings. We had to engage the young ones in order to free their siblings to learn. Furthermore, since a majority of mothers in these slums worked, there was a need to provide good care to children while they were away. This is over and above the realization of the role of ECCD and preschool education in child development. This experience resulted in the establishment of the Bodh ECCD programme in 1993.

The Coverage of the Bodh ECCD Programme

Running preschools in its schools since 1993.

Currently caters to needs of 845 children in rural and 375 in urban areas, aged 3-5 years.

Preschool sections present in 25 Bodh schools (Bodhshalas) in rural and seven in urban areas.

34 mother teachers in the rural region conduct activities with preschool children. Some schools also have preschool teachers. In urban Bodhshalas, mother teachers and pre-school teachers work jointly.

All teachers undergo intensive pre-induction, annual and monthly refresher courses. Teacher circles formed.

Total children enrolled in urban Bodhshalas (Bodh schools) is nearly 1,600 whereas in rural Bodhshalas this number is as high as 3,212.

207 adolescent girls part of adolescent groups in urban and 202 in rural areas.

Work undertaken for capacity building of grassroot level workers on the ECCD component of 14 organizations in the North zone of CCF India.

Worked with Bernard van Leer Foundation, Aga Khan Foundation, European Commission, UNICEF on ECCD related issues.

Initially, Bodh teachers went to the community and talked to the parents about child related issues. The idea was to create the trust and acceptance of the community and develop an understanding of the universe of slum families and children. Training was undertaken which brought together teachers who were expected to work in these schools, slum women and adolescent caregivers. Its purpose was not to train and tell the slum women in the ‘right way’ of taking care of children, but rather to learn from them.

We learned about the indigenous childcare practices prevalent in these areas and teachers developed an understanding of the situation experienced by the preschool child in the slum. Sensitization to the prevailing conditions, a realization of the constraints affecting parents’ lives and understanding of the culturally accepted way of caring was created. The intention was to create an atmosphere where teachers and slum women came together to work on issues related to the needs of young children. These women were then given responsibility to work within the programme as ‘mother teachers’.

A mother teacher is a woman from the community who has been trained on issues related to ECCD who is involved in undertaking activities in the centre. The intention during the process is to enhance her own capacities as a caregiver and mother of children, spread the message of education and child rights in the community and act as a resource to the teacher within the classroom. Being from the same slum or village, she has a better understanding of the local reality and, in our experience, has often been more effective in spreading the message then the more professionally qualified teachers. Her knowledge of her own village or slum also provides a valuable resource to the programme since she is able to communicate with the children in their own dialect and knows the local songs, games and poems – a bridge between the preschool and the home for these children.

Initially, children were apprehensive about the preschool. Children preferred playing in and around their own courtyards – the angans. A teacher and mother teacher would go through the slum and play with the small groups of children in their own courtyards. With time, larger groups were formed and the angan provided a launching pad for children to come together. This system also had an added advantage of being open to continuous assessment of the community, creating opportunities for discussion between the school and parents on educational issues and at the same time blurring the boundaries of home and school. It also provided exposure to a more caring approach to children in the slum. Parents would at times stop, observe and comment about the activities.

Simultaneously, efforts were made to ensure involvement of adolescent girls and older children of the school within the programme. The skills of these older children as caregivers of their siblings and as future parents in their own right were and still are emphasized. The fact that the preschool is attached to the school offered scope for creating linkages between the two. The teacher is often the one involved with the adolescent group that offers scope for strengthening the process.

It goes without saying that parents need to be involved in order to ensure that children learn well, especially when one deals with children that young. At the same time, interest and involvement of the stakeholders in any programme (and an ECCD programme is no exception) is essential for ensuring that it runs well. Bodh regards the community as a key component of its educational endeavours. For us teaching and learning is a collective process where teachers and parents jointly conceptualize, plan, design and reflect on preschool activities and programme. Parents are contributors to the educational programme rather than recipients of advice about correct parenting and information about the academic performance of their children. An effort is made to create a sense of collective ownership where stakeholders pool ideas, problems, aspirations and resources for a meaningful educational endeavour.

Every Bodh teacher makes daily visits to the community and holds meetings with family members of at least one child in the group. She shares the child’s progress with the family and learns about their perceptions and opinions, which is recorded in the child’s cumulative assessment record book. This provides parents with first hand opportunity to observe teacher-child interaction and the teacher to familiarize herself with the child’s environment and parent child interaction, thereby facilitating a better understanding of the child’s behaviour and the context. In addition, the visits also pave the way for mobilizing the community on issues pertaining to the requirements of preschool children.

Regular community meetings are organized to enable joint deliberation on issues like children’s attendance, school infrastructure, pedagogy and other related issues. These serve as a platform from which the community can pool their ideas, concerns, aspirations and resources as well as voice their concerns/queries about related issues. Inputs are taken from the community on aspects related to curriculum development. An attempt is made to ensure that a preschooler is taught about things that come from her culture and environment, things that the young child can understand.

There is also a move to involve local self-government bodies – the panchayats – in monitoring the rural school programme. The government has provided them with certain rights in the area of education, rights that they unfortunately often do not exercise.

The model that emerged over the years is one of a community-based umbrella school which fulfils the educational needs of the community and functions as a centre for social awakening. The educational and social needs of children are addressed, as are the needs of the surrounding community – preschoolers, adolescent girls and women. All these come together to form a learning community under the umbrella of the school.

Over time the Bodh programme has consolidated and become more streamlined. It has expanded into new social-geographical areas; after working in urban slums for 11 years, Bodh moved to new areas in the countryside and established community schools and preschools in the Thanagazi and Umren blocks of Alwar district. The coverage has increased, and the programme has become relatively more structured with fixed timetable, location, curriculum and a sizable pool of activities and materials. The mother teachers are fully involved in the programmes, undertaking most of the tasks carried out by teachers developing lesson plans, doing child assessment and undertaking activities. This is done jointly with the teachers. It is felt that they are now more competent and aware than most of the newer and more ‘qualified’ teachers. The strength of the programme lies in three broad areas – pedagogy, community involvement, and continuous ongoing intensive teacher training.

Bodh’s vision of education is embedded in three cardinal principles of quality, human dignity and a democratic way of life. Knowledge gained in classrooms is product of the child’s own creativity. The curriculum is built on the existing skills and abilities of parents and families and seeks to create an educational system that is holistic, relevant and activity based. The effort is to create an environment that is conducive to optimum social, emotional, motor, cognitive and language development. It is our belief that what the child learns in school is only a part of the general broader socialization process that takes place in homes, neighbourhood and larger society.

One of our Bodhshalas (Guruteg Bahadur, Jaipur) ran a gurdwara for several years. As a result of dynamics within the community, Bodh was evicted from the premises by some influential persons within the slums.. The children attending the school resisted the move and went on a hunger strike. Only after the teachers were welcomed back by the community did the children end their hunger strike. In the Amagarh basti, the school was started on land covered by a garbage dump was cleaned. When this happened, the owners of a nearby petrol pump staked claim on that land. When the authorities came to stake claim on the land, the slum dwellers came together, courted arrest, but did not permit the Bodh school to be demolished. These accounts are not exceptional.

It has brought about not only a change in children, but also teachers. Sita, a mother teacher of Gokulpuri Bodhshala (the first Bodh school to be started) says, ‘I was illiterate and could not even hold a pen. Yogendra ji came here and motivated us… It was as if some kind of magic spell was cast on us… I no longer use my thumb impression. I have seen this Bodhshala grow, right from being held in a shed to its present state. It’s a two-storied building. My own child studied in this Bodhshala. Now that my child has grown up, he has given his 12th exam from another school…Bodh has done wonders’!

Bodh’s curriculum is derived from traditional wisdom and knowledge, oral literature, cultural values and worldview of the slum community. It has been developed after undertaking a number of surveys and constant intense interaction with the community. A comparative study had been undertaken to examine and crosscheck the validity of the approach, comparing with and drawing upon the best practices in the field. It is also constantly reviewed and refined by the teachers. They act as organizers, thinkers and planners in the process.

A fundamental problem that often plagues the traditional educational system is the question of teacher attitude and relationship towards children. There is a ‘marked distance’ between them, both in the physical as well as social sense. Students have limited scope to question and discuss, and physical punishment is considered to be the best way to discipline children. This produces disinterest towards school and education. Bodh recognizes that the foundations of ‘child centred’ quality education lie in a classroom culture which is marked by a congenial child-teacher relationship.

The teacher places herself at the level of children and acts as a facilitator in the teaching-learning processes. She refrains from giving them any sort of punishment and has an intimate knowledge of their needs, deprivations, likes and dislikes. Children are left to learn at their own pace, based on their own interests, inclinations and capacities. No restriction is imposed on their movement – they can leave the group to join their seniors or withdraw at will. The effort on the part of the Bodh teachers is to create interest in the child and provide her with a learning situation that would be exciting enough to hold her attention.

Bodh believes that the basic prerequisite for starting a preschool are a teacher and learner. Its experience shows that one does not need a physical structure to run a successful preschool programme. It is hard to find ideal conditions – plentiful space, running water or electricity in a slum. One has to work within the constraints of the existing infrastructure and make use of what is available. Every preschool is, however, made attractive with the use of colourful and child friendly teaching aids and materials. There is a learning corner for the use of children in the classroom, containing picture books, storybooks, leaves, clay models, toys, nests, eggs – a range of materials that children can play with. There are also specially designed educational materials developed by Bodh.

It is the competence, motivation and commitment of teachers that forms the bedrock on which the effectiveness of Bodh’s programme rests. The teacher acts as a link between the child and the community, between the community and the school and is responsible for evolving the participatory shared framework of pedagogical and other activities acceptable to all stakeholders. The nature of the population to which the programme caters calls for a high degree of sensitivity and creativity among teachers. This in turn creates the need for an intense induction programme that aims to not only develop a repertoire of skills in trainees, but also an attitude that would enable them to imbibe the Bodh philosophy, culture and work ethic.

This is supplemented and reinforced by a thorough programme of capacity building of teachers. Workshops are held every month creating what is effectively a teacher circle offering experience sharing and support from fellow teachers and offering inputs for teachers’ need-based capacity building. An annual intensive workshop, weekly visits by programme coordinators and exposure visits form an integral component of the ongoing process of building the skills and capacities of teachers.

Another important activity that initiates teachers’ ability to reflect is ‘diary writing’. Every day teachers spend an hour writing down their thoughts, impressions and observations that are shared with the group. This enables them to continuously reflect on day-to-day happenings – issues ranging from teaching-learning situations to community activities – and acts as a tool for personal reflection, problem solving and perspective development.

Bodh schools have no head teachers and everyone performs all the roles required for the school’s functioning. This group of teachers and mother teachers of the school forms the teachers’ collective. There are weekly meetings of teachers in which they share and discuss their experiences, collectively try to solve problems, academic and non-academic, that crop up in the school. It provides a platform for reflection, curriculum refinement and planning.

No discussion of Bodh’s work would be complete without recognizing the critical role played by the community. Our work is community driven with a heavy stress on the creation of community awareness, understanding and demand for education and ECCD. No Bodh intervention is started without first initiating an exercise of community visioning. In our experience, village and slum dwellers, as all parents, are enthusiastic about the idea of any efforts that are intended to help their children learn better. If they are approached in the right way, as equals and treated with respect, they are more than prepared to help such an intervention.

The teacher in the rural programme resides in the village and is treated as a member of the local community. He is looked to for assistance in finding solutions to problems of the villagers. Bodh has succeeded in not only spreading the message of education, but also indirectly made the community think about social problems, especially on aspects of gender bias and child health.

A model has evolved that ensures community involvement in the ECCD programme. However, a note of caution. Replication does not simply imply a grafting of the product but rather of the process. There are no shortcuts and easy methods to ensure quality.

Our experience shows that improving the education system should be undertaken through a democratic process that involves the community, and it is the community that becomes the change agent within the system. The process of community involvement and participation can be successful only if they are consistently involved, treated as equal partners and the process is democratic and open in nature. Interventions for ECCE and work with adolescent girls play a major role in ensuring improved awareness of the community on educational issues. Quality ECCD programmes don’t come cheap. Continuous inputs for teacher training, although at first glance expensive, are essential if the quality of educational endeavour is to be attained. Finally, flexibility in the educational system is essential. One model does not necessary work everywhere.

Clearly the experience of Bodh’s intervention will not necessarily translate fully in another situation. Of course, our programme has worked in many respects. We have gone a long way from our roots of running a single slum school, and have met several challenges. One is that of finding enough trained people to match the growing requirements of the programme. The old core of committed workers has remained with us, but there is a need to upscale and adjust to the growing and changing realities. Limited financial and personnel at times creates managerial problems. Scaling up a relatively small scale, high quality intervention and replicating it in a variety of settings has created its own set of challenges. Bodh is a learning organization, one that constantly reflects on its own experiences.