Visit to Grade 1-10 Government School in near Bikaner, Rajasthan
The drive out of Bikaner this morning began on a paved two-way road, but at some point the cement transitioned to dirt and the two lanes turned into what felt like a one-way road with cars, carts, buses, and trucks occasionally coming at us from the other direction. One thing I haven’t gotten used to during 2.5 weeks in India is the feeling while you’re racing down the road and another car is coming straight at you that this might be the time when neither car bothers to swerve. The swerve always feels like it happens right at the last possible moment.
It was a two hour drive from downtown Bikaner. The Bikaner area has 6 blocks, each of which is responsible for the administration of schools in that block and working towards implementation of the Indian government’s Right to Education (RTE) Act requirements. Lunkaransar Block has villages which are up to 120km away from the administrative center. Due to the heavy reliance on agriculture in what is essentially a desert, villages can be quite far apart. Some families choose to live in smaller groups closer to their land & are farther yet from villages. This geography is important when you’re considering how to enact an education act which requires schools to be built in local communities. How do you build, staff, and maintain schools when the population is spread across such a large area. In Lunkaransar Block much work has been done over the last 20 years to build village primary schools, which gives most children in grades 1-5 access to a school. The current challenge is extending this access to the upper grades, and in particularly secondary and senior secondary school (grades 9-12). It isn’t feasible to build a senior secondary school in every village, nor is it realistic for a 15 year old girl to travel 20km by herself from her home to school each day via foot or bicycle. This leaves many children little choice in the matter. Once they complete the highest grade offered in their village school they are finished with their schooling.
With that background in mind today I met with the School Management Committee (SMC) for one of the village government schools. All current parents are officially part of the SMC, along with teachers and the headmaster. They choose 11 parents to function as their representatives and work alongside a teacher, the headmaster, a student, and a local official. Those 15 people are responsible for assessing the needs of the school and creating a 5 year development plan, which is submitted to the district education office for review. The SMC asked for 4 things in their plan:
- repair school boundary
- add more rooms to the school
- bring more teachers to the school
- make the school senior secondary, up to class 12
They have a good history of advocating for their school. This school was originally a primary school, but the SMC advocated to make the school at least secondary since there was no secondary school in the area. These efforts resulted in the school being upgraded and continuing through grade 10. The school at one time had only 1 teacher for grades 1-10. The SMC lobbied to the district elected official to bring more teachers, particularly specialized teachers, to the school. That was a collective effort which yielded results. The district sent a math teacher to the school. There was a previous headmaster who was very good and supportive of the school. When the SMC found out he was being transferred they went to the local elected official and made sure his transfer orders were taken back so that he could stay.
The SMC has submitted their development plan, and now they await district review. The most likely outcome is the district official will approve the various items and allocate funds in stages. To have all the items approved might take 1 year or 5 years or anything in between, but one by one the district will approve the plan and allocate funds. The SMC was confident within 5 years they will have what they requested.
All schools are required to create a School Management Committee, but the SMC is particularly important in the schools in which Plan India and Urmul Setu are supporting Financial Literacy and Life Skills training alongside improvements to the general quality of the education. The long-term plan is to turn projects over to the SMC once they are embedded in the school community. The parents and teachers I met today are 100% engaged in this project. This is a harvest season, and yet the room was packed with far more than the 15 functionary members. I asked the parents how they feel about their children learning about financial literacy, and their responses were very consistent with what the girls yesterday told me their parents think. One father and SMC member said “My child is learning good things in the FELS program, and he is sharing what he learns from his teacher with the other family members. My son is saving in Aflatoun Bank. He’s saving for school requirements such as stationary and notebooks, which he’ll buy himself from his savings. Students are saving not only money, but other things such as food, water, electricity. They’re not just talking about saving resources, but they are actually trying to do it both at school and at home. They’re bringing this learning home to their families.” One of the teachers commented that she also sees a difference in the students after the FELS curriculum was introduced: “Implementing FELS has been a very good experience for us as teachers. We are seeing good habits being ingrained in the children. Students are saving money and there is a thought process. The students used to spend money on things like chocolates, and then sometimes they didn’t have money when they needed to buy a notebook for school. Now that the students have savings they won’t be negatively impacted by not having money.”
The SMC helped me to understand the nuances of why even with the government’s Right to Education Act there are still major challenges for children to accessing the formal education system. The parents told me their children want to become doctors, nurses, teachers, police offices, administrators, members of the army, and one even a politician. Their children all have goals, and some are very vocal about their goals. In spite of this parents and teachers believe it will be very difficult for the children to become all these things. In addition to the lack of local secondary schools (high schools), there is no proper guidance for children in what they need to do to pursue a specific career path. If a boy wants to become a teacher, there is no one to tell him what classes he needs to take and where are the colleges. They asked who will help him make a plan – there is no one to guide him in the village. If a girl wants to become a doctor, she needs someone to tell her to take science classes in grades 11 and 12. Even if she and her parents know this, they must find a school which offers science to those grades and then a safe place for her to live if the school is too far away to commute.
In spite of the difficulties there are success stories. Last year one girl secured 81% marks in Grade 10 (a very strong score), and after receiving her score the parents came to school and asked the teachers for suggestions on how to help their daughter excel. She wants to become a doctor, so they advised that she take science in Grade 11. There are no schools in the area which offer science in that grade level, so they made arrangements for her to live in a girls’ hostel in the district headquarters. This hostel has bus service to a high school with science. The SMC cited this as an example of how some parents are willing to send their children far away so that they can continue their studies and reach their dreams, and how parents are taking their children’s goals seriously.
Just as interesting were the questions which the parents and teachers asked me. They wanted to know everything about education in America. How are rural schools different from urban schools in the US – do we face any of the same challenges they are facing in a lack of science teachers wanting to move to the desert? They were very interested in the US requirement that public schools provide free bus services to students so that they can access school. I also described the Teach for America model to bring top college grads into underserved communities as teachers for 2 years. They wanted to know if girls and boys in America have the same access to education, and were interested to hear that in some of my classes in college there was still a large disparity in the number of girls compared with boys in certain subjects, such as my finance classes. They wanted to know how I like India of course, and after raving about the food and the experience one father said if I like India so much I should move here. He said I could work at the school – and he’d even throw in a good match 😉