'Community engagement key to ensure underserved kids remain in school'
The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic disrupted the education sector on an unprecedented scale as millions of kids found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide
Access to education for underprivileged kids has always been a matter of concern in India for a long time now despite almost six times the literacy rate since independence. But the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic disrupted the education sector on an unprecedented scale as millions of kids found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. While kids with adequate resources managed to continue their education through virtual classes, the underprivileged kids – with no mobile phones and computers – were cut off from formal education. The civil society, in general, and many individuals and non-governmental organisations, particularly, played – and are still playing – a massive role in helping underserved children access to education. However, ensuring access and keeping the children in school are two different things.
Smile Foundation has been one such organisation that has been running its campaign ‘Shiksha Na Ruke’ aimed at bringing drop out children back to school and also in enabling uninterrupted learning for children through access to resources needed for their education.
We talked to Mr. Santanu Mishra, co-founder and executive trustee, Smile Foundation, to understand the role of NGO in providing the underprivileged kids access to education, especially in the post-pandemic era, the work needed to ensure the students finish the secondary education, and the challenges faced by them on regular basis in a country as diverse as India. Here are some of the edited excerpts from the interview.
When states have the obligation to provide education to children under RTE, where does an NGO like Smile Foundation come in?
Smile Foundation, with presence in 25 states of India, plays its share of role as a catalyst to facilitate underserved children benefit from the Right To Education Act 2009. As per the provisions, every child between the ages of six to fourteen years shall have the right to free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school, till completion of elementary education.
Meaningful participation of the civil society is imperative in order to achieve the efficacy of RTE. While RTE is directed toward providing children with education, the act itself is not enough. Multiple efforts need to be made to raise community awareness and help them avail education. Knowing that education is the key to development, communities need to be sensitised. Right from identification of out of school children, preparing them with age appropriate curriculum through bridge programs admitting them in mainstream schools, and further hand-holding them through Remedial education to avoid their drop out, all these initiatives fulfil the purpose of RTE.
What should be done to ensure that the children are not just brought back to school but stay there to finish schooling?
Interest of a child in being in school is essential for completion of schooling too. The learning-enabling environment with basic facilities of clean drinking water and functional toilets, well-equipped classrooms and properly trained teachers will surely make the environment meaningful.
The overall well-being of the child is as necessary as a holistic approach in education. If a child is healthy and happy then he/she will attend school regularly. Engagement and retention of learning will also be effective. Our Interventions play a crucial role, especially for children from underserved communities, as there are multiple gaps and challenges in their lives. Supporting children with remedial education, providing accessibility of education through standardised digital aids, provision of experiential learning, and training the teachers for effective teaching go a long way.
The Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) 2019-20 says that schools across India taught 265 million children, that is 4.2 million more than the previous year.
Is it enough to bring children back to school when there have been serious questions about the quality of education imparted at government schools? How is the Smile Foundation working on that front?
This would be improper to generalise the quality of education whether in non-government, government or private institutions. As far as organisations such as ours are concerned, we complement the overall efforts.
India is home to one of the largest school education systems in the world with more than 1.5 million schools. Almost two-thirds of them are government-run. Between 2012 and 2020, the pupil-teacher ratio has gone up by 7.5 percentage points. The gender parity index has also been improving.
When we are invited to work with select government schools, we again play the role of a catalyst in furthering its holistic mission. The focus is on making the environment for the student conducive and the teaching-learning effective.
Smile foundation has a 4-pronged approach focusing on children, teachers, infrastructure, and making the community have a sense of ownership. This definitely improves the teaching-learning in the classroom, makes children curious learners with experiential learning, and the interventions related to nutrition, health etc. take care of the well-being of children which promotes the regularity of the children. This involves working towards a child-centric approach, teacher-centric approach, enabling a learning environment, and community connect.
What is the most effective way to create awareness about the importance of education among underprivileged kids, especially when the parents' income is insufficient to support the family?
We connect with children and families through community engagement activities to make them aware of the importance of education. The community engagement activities include focused group discussions, street plays, awareness campaigns, and also orientation of the stakeholders and influencers at the local level.
We also do one to one connect with parents and sensitise them on the need for education for the progress of the family. Emphasis is also given on ‘Girl Child Education’ to let their daughters go to school. Creating Mothers’/ Parent Teachers’ association, School Management Committees, other such important community stakeholders and raising awareness on the importance of education help the mission a great deal too.
We make the communities aware not only of the importance of education but also its availability and accessibility. It is important to make the community aware of different government schemes to provide free and quality education, free-ships and scholarships available for different categories, etc. and also handhold them in availing the same.
This assures the parents that education is important and it can be availed easily without creating any unwanted burden in their life.
What kind of challenges do organisations find in implementing interventions in a large and diverse country like India?
The major challenges in implementing grassroots development interventions in large and diverse India are in the form of geography, language and culture. At Smile Foundation we also partner with grassroots, Community Based Organisations (CBO) and handhold them to implement development projects. Right from the programme implementation plan to executing on-ground activities, the CBO partners are trained to work under our supervision and support. With the empowered CBO partners, this ensures the sustainability of the quality interventions even when the project period is over. Moreover, such organisations possess a wealth of experience with respect to a specific community or locality. Effective community-connect and trust are crucial in making such projects effective.
While designing the project, regional specifics and local dynamics are factored in, which include local language, locally available nutritional ingredients, available service providers for infrastructure upgradation, teacher training in the locally spoken language, etc.