Audacity of Hope: One day, all children will attain an excellent education
By Padmini Copparapu
On a scorching summer afternoon, hundreds of children pour out of their classrooms onto the ground for lunch in the Government Primary School, Kulsumpura, among the largest English-medium public schools in Hyderabad. But the teachers in the school are all headed another way. They assemble in a quiet classroom to bid farewell to two of their youngest colleagues. Over the next hour, they take turns to talk about the contributions of these teachers to the school, most notably, in improving the motivation and learning outcomes of the kids in their classes.
“This summer, I kept getting calls from parents asking for us to reserve seats for their children in our school, a government school. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years, and I think a lot of the credit goes to these youngsters,” remarks a senior teacher in the school, amidst loud cheers from the staff.
Two years ago, it was a very different welcome that awaited these youngsters. So, this is a touching moment. Especially given that, for them, it’s not a farewell party at all, it’s graduation. These are no traditional teachers; they are Teach for India Fellows who have spent two years teaching with an aim to transform the life paths of some of the most vulnerable urban deprived children in the country.
With a student body of nearly 1000 children in primary school (Grade I – V) with 16 teachers to man 25 sections, Kulsumpura is a testament to the story of India’s government schools ravaged by crippling teacher shortage, burgeoning teacher-pupil ratios, insufficient infrastructure and unenviable learning outcomes.
It is stories like these that have fed the Teach for India revolution.
Indian economists say that the next decade will see more children go to school than ever before in the history of our country. In fact, the United Nations, in its recently released status report, indicates that with over 97% enrollments, India is now on track (and even making accelerated progress) to meet the Millennium Development Goal of Achieving Universal Primary Education.
By all means, these are heartening developments. Yet, even a cursory glance into our public schooling system shows they’re not enough. Enrolments don’t mean graduation, attendance doesn’t necessitate learning, and improved infrastructure by itself has not lead to positive student outcomes. As ASER reports have consistently revealed, children in upper primary grades are still grappling with even basic literacy and numeracy, far behind their grade levels even after the introduction of the Right to Education Act in many States.
Non-governmental players in the sector however have long since identified qualitative and outcome-oriented education as the need of the hour and have been working towards bridging this gap.
In the five years since its inception in 2009, Teach for India, for instance, has grown to work with over 300 of the most under resourced schools across the country placing nearly 1000 of its rigorously selected Fellows as full-time teachers with a view to deliver transformational education to 30,000 children in six cities across the country.
While this might be tremendous growth for the organisation, these numbers are still only a veritable drop in the face of the country’s enormous learning crisis. In fact, there’s little doubt that any one NGO or collective cannot hope to realise excellent-schooling-for-all without the interest and support of the largest and most crucial stakeholder in the process – the government. In the Indian context, however, it is working within the deeply entrenched system that’s often the more daunting prospect.
In its aim to create both transformed schools on the ground and affect changes at the policy level, Teach for India engages with the government at the Centre (NCERT, NUEPA, MHRD, NCTE, SSA) and State/local levels (DSE, municipal corporations, DISE, SCERT).
And as with most NGOs working within the system, it comes with its own set of challenges.
First and foremost, of course, is the quintessential challenge of the nature of interventions in education. Just by the virtue of long gestation periods for change, governments rarely put quantifiable metrics to determine progress. A natural by-product of this is policies and schemes that are open-ended and lacking accountability.
Building long-term and sustainable relationships with key stakeholders in a volatile system; and investing into public policies that change with every election cycle is another grave concern.
As an expert in the area puts it, “The biggest challenge is to get appointments. Once you have the appointment, the challenge is to invest them in a mission in a short span of time. Most of the time they would understand the aim of the organisation but don’t know how they could help us. The system doesn’t allow innovation and it is hard for them to draft guidelines to allow for it. It is difficult to get the government officials to walk the talk.”
Finally, a marked divergence in teaching methodologies, curriculum delivery, and impact assessment in the classroom make it difficult to showcase proof points of excellence to Government stakeholders who prefer conventional methods of examinations and measuring outcomes.
Our learnings in the last 5 years have been to have constant interactions with the government and slowly build credibility through our performance in the classroom. The government is interested in feedback from the community and stakeholders and we work tirelessly to invest parents, teachers, and Head Masters of our partner schools in our movement and the idea of excellent education.
It’s perhaps why despite the dynamic and unconventional model of intervention, each of Teach for India’s six placement cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad), has been receptive in welcoming us into their schools. In fact, more than 60% of the schools in which Teach for India intervenes today are all government run schools.
At the school level, we take our best practices to every government classroom, and work to positively impact the schools beyond the classroom by attempting to transform these schools into centers of excellence which can then serve as pilots for more schools under the Government. Some governments in cities such as Hyderabad and Chennai have endorsed the model by part funding the Fellows for their contributions as full time teaching resources working in government schools.
In addition, the organisation is working towards its long term vision of becoming a trusted advisor to the government on all matters relating to primary education. Shaheen Mistry, Teach for India’s CEO, has already been nominated to be a part of the National Mission of Sarva Shikshya Abhiyan, the Central government’s flagship programme focused on primary education. It is also working with the National Council for Teacher Education to open up the B.Ed degree through multiple avenues.
The sheer scale of complexity and magnitude of India’s primary educational system, largest in the world, is astounding. It is slowly opening to new ideas and innovations and schools of thought. But there needs to be a sense of urgency, the shift from quantity to quality in our schools cannot take another decade. For those working in close quarters with the bureaucracy, the risks of failure are immense, but so are the rewards.
Our painstaking efforts to make strategic, sustainable, and meaningful engagements with the government is (i) so we can continue to impact the kids that most need us, in the short term and (ii) in the long term, build a work force of alumni and capacity within the Government to influence key decisions and shapes policies that transform the educational landscape of our nation.
One day, socio-economic conditions will no longer determine the prospects of our children’s future, excellent education will. Our aim is to work with the government to see this day in our lifetime.
Padmini Copparapu is currently the Government Relations Manager for Teach for India in Hyderabad. She is also an empanelled writer with UNICEF India covering issues of child and women welfare. Prior to this, Padmini worked as a journalist for 3 years in Andhra Pradesh reporting mainly on development related subjects such as urban poverty, public education, child labour, and trafficking, among others.
[With inputs from Teach for India’s Prateek Kanwar and Santosh Charan Prasad]
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