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Swajan Siksha Samiti, an alternative education school perched on a hill in Ghati village in Uttarakhand, revives local culture and encourages creative learning. It has a zero dropout rate

alternative education

Swajan Siksha Samiti is perched atop a hill in Ghati village, off the tourist track in Uttarakhand. This unusual alternative school was set up by Sanjay Rawat (30) and Vikram Singh (32) in 2002. Explains Rawat: “Although Ghati is just two hours from Mussouri, basic development -- education, health and infrastructure -- have made slow progress here. Since I hail from this district (Jaunpur), I wanted to work for the children here. Our aim is good education incorporating rich local cultural practices within the curriculum.”

The context

Prior to the establishment of Swajan Siksha Samiti, there was no school in Ghati, a hamlet consisting of just 10 houses. Ghati is surrounded by five villages -- Thapla, Chamasari, Gaid, Bichu and Garkhet. Each has its own government primary school (Garkhet even has a high school). Still, Swajan Siksha Samiti sees an influx of students from these villages.

The average village size is 40-50 houses, comprising 300-400 members, most of them Rajputs (Panwars/Rawats/Singhs), with agriculture as their main occupation. Each village has around three to four scheduled caste families engaged in artisanal occupations such as making musical instruments or working as daily wage labourers. Unlike in the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, land-owning Rajputs here have three to four acres of land, at best. Even though some families belong to the higher castes, approximately 70% of households live below the poverty line. Agriculture barely meets their basic food requirements, with only a few farmers able to sell grain or vegetables annually. Members from most households migrate to work in the informal sector, seeking jobs in shops/hotels/tourism, or joining the army.

Government education schemes have a poor track record in the region, and the few adult education schemes that have been attempted have failed completely. Government primary schools have just one or two teachers coming in, no proper teaching methods, and poor infrastructure with one room allotted to the cooking of midday meals. In one village, Class V girls were seen preparing meals during class hours!

Considering that a majority of children enrolled in schools here are first-generation learners, there is an urgent need to convince parents of the value of formal schooling. This is possible only if quality of education is ensured. Otherwise, parents hold back their children preferring to have them do agricultural chores at home.

And so, setting up Swajan Siksha Samiti proved to be a huge challenge for Rawat and Singh. Both had trained in alternative educational practices at the Society for Integrated Development of the Himalayas (SIDH), an NGO, and were motivated to introducing such a method of education where none existed.

Small beginnings

Sanjay recalls the early years as being difficult: “We didn't have money for food, lodging or travel. It was a big test for us. We organised a meeting with parents from the community, and they decided to support our accommodation, a room for the school, food and transport until we found other sources. People realised that we weren’t there for business but were passionate about teaching, so they became part of the process. We got overwhelming help -- they even arranged mats, a blackboard, stationery and other essentials.”

Within a week of starting up the education centre, 30 students enrolled. With the number increasing every day, the two teachers and parents reached out to other villages for support. They organised cultural events complete with songs and dances by the students, whilst visiting different villages.

Swajan Siksha Samiti is as committed to reviving and retaining local culture as it is to teaching its students formal subjects. This has made it popular, and today, students are invited to take part in functions across the state. In 2012, a school in Hyderabad invited Swajan Siksha Samiti to perform Jaunpuri folk dances at an annual function. The school charges a small fee for performances within and outside the state.  

Impressed by their efforts, in 2004, Zindagi India, a UK-based youth organisation, supported Swajan Siksha Samiti in the construction of a school building -- a beautiful five-room structure with a large courtyard around a spreading dengan tree. Most classes -- whether cultural or academic -- are held out in the open. Pravah, a Delhi-based NGO, supported the school under its community outreach support programme through 2010-11.

Zero dropout rate

By 2012-13, the number of students at Swajan Siksha Samiti had increased to 97. Despite being illiterate themselves, parents want their children to learn well and are extremely satisfied with the school. Mamta Panwar from Takarna village says: “I’ve sent all my three children to Swajan Siksha Samiti. There, they actually learn and return home with a smile on their faces! We never had that from a government school!” While children often drop out of the nearby government schools, a major achievement of Swajan Siksha Samiti has been its zero dropout rate.

Of its 97 students, 60 come from BPL families. A small monthly fee is charged -- Rs 50 per girl, and Rs 100 per boy.

Many families send their sons to Swajan Siksha Samiti and their daughters to government schools. This is a major challenge for Swajan Siksha Samiti that has to consistently reach out to parents to counter the prejudice against educating girls.

The school has seven teachers at present. Five of them, all in their early-20s, are pursuing a post-graduate degree alongside. What makes the teachers at Swajan Siksha Samiti stand out is the fact that all of them are convinced about staying back in their village and working to improve the education scenario there. Kamala Panwar, 23, who has been teaching at Swajan Siksha Samiti for over two years, says excitedly: “There is no better school to work in at the villages here! Even we learn so many new games, dances and ways of teaching while we work.” The teachers have been exposed to teacher-training sessions with Pravah, Delhi, and Vriksh, a local NGO. They employ interactive methods to make learning fun.

Curriculum and creativity

The students arrive early at school, most walking 1-2 km from their home. The first session of the day is ‘culture’, where children practise dance, including rotating thalis (plates) on their fingertips and balancing pots on their heads whilst swinging to the beat. They also engage in craft, drawing, painting, and singing songs about rivers, mountains and the strength of people.

Agriculture and horticulture constitute a major part of the curriculum. Students are encouraged to plant fruit trees on the campus, including apricot, guava, pomegranate, chulu (a local fruit), and other smaller plants. Some trees like hinsar (which has sweet yellow berries), amelda (a sour flower added to vegetables), bichhu buti (scorpion plant, used to make curry) grow wild. An annual tree-planting day is organised to mark the martyrdom of Sridev Suman, a well-known Garhwali freedom fighter.

Since all the students come from agricultural families and are expected to graze cattle, milk cows, cut fodder, sow or weed the fields, fetch water and do other household chores, they have tremendous first-hand knowledge about their environment and ecology. This is used within the formal learning space in interactive ways to build on the experiential information they possess. “We use methods that encourage learning with creativity,” says Arun Panwar who teaches mathematics at Swajan Siksha Samiti. “Educational materials developed by Jodo Gyan and Eklavya work very well on our children.”

Mukesh Rawat, who has been with the school since 2006, explains: “Our effort here is to encourage children to find their own aptitude. If a child is not keen on academics but is interested in the performing arts, we do all we can to promote her interest and provide a platform for growth.”

For the children, it makes a world of a difference to have someone who invests energy in supporting their diverse interests. Savita Rawat is good at music, so she takes regular singing sessions. Kamla Panwar, who trains the girls in games ranging from cricket to kabaddi says: “Swajan Siksha Samiti girls and boys win regional kabaddi matches. In our daily cricket sessions, the girls often outrun the boys. This in itself is a victory of sorts!”

At the end of each day, an intensive session of review, discussion and presentations is held in the assembly hall which is lined with large display boards filled with stories, photographs and colourful drawings.

The way ahead

Although cultural programmes help achieve a level of self-sustainability, Sanjay Rawat says: “It is still not possible to meet recurring expenses without financial support. Moreover, with the new RTE (Right to Education) regulations, we may have to hire teachers with normative degrees and pay higher salaries.”

Because of such constraints, the staff cannot even think of expanding the school from a primary school to a middle or higher-education one. As of now, the students are tutored in Class V for admission into navodaya vidyalayas and other government schools where Swajan Siksha Samiti students fare extremely well and are considered assets because of their extra-curricular talent.

The ultimate testimony comes, of course, from the children themselves. Says Naveen, 19, a student from the first batch at Swajan Siksha Samiti: “I studied at a government school in Gaid for two years, and then joined Swajan Siksha Samiti. I loved the teachers from day one. We even made the new building together! Because of my base here, I could do well later too. Whenever I’m home, I come back to visit!”

(Sunandita Mehrotra is an artist currently working on an art and ecology Khoj project as part of which she is exploring different sites of social change through education/environment in Tehri Garhwal, Uttarakhand)

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