Ninety-six government primary schools in Andhra Pradesh’s Nalgonda district are transformed into hubs of activity after 3.30 pm, thanks to a quality learning programme initiated by MV Foundation
At 3.30 in the afternoon every working day, 96 government primary schools in Nalgonda district are transformed into hubs of activity, thanks to the quality learning programme initiated by the Hyderabad-headquartered Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF). MVF works with child labour issues, and, supported by Axis Bank Foundation, has begun a voluntary movement in Andhra Pradesh’s central Nalgonda district to introduce quality learning materials and methods at government schools. Teachers, parents, panchayat members, students and local activists are participating in this quiet revolution, the likes of which has never been seen in these parts before.
At exactly 3.30 in the afternoon, students embark on a series of activities quite unlike the routine they follow at school. Storytelling is an important and popular aspect of the programme, with children narrating stories they have made up, improvised or heard. Over 10,000 children are involved. “I want to be a teacher and teach many more such stories to children like me,” says one participant.
Another project dedicated to improving handwriting has caught on in class after class, school after school, building the children’s desire to do better, to excel. Apart from celebrating birthdays and exchanging greeting cards, news-reading is another standard activity: Class 1 students read the headlines while children in Class 5 discuss news stories.
Project work involves teachers, students, parents and the community. The task of collecting seeds, given to a Class 2 child, set one parent off to Hyderabad: he wanted to collect 20 different kinds of seeds so that his child would have the best display. A trip to Hyderabad was a day’s wage for him; it was something this father of a first-generation student had never done before, not even in his youth.
Having been deprived of their own childhood and an education, parents of first-generation students want their children to enjoy every moment of the learning process; the quality learning programme is setting a benchmark for both parents and students.
The most important part of the MVF initiative is its library programme. Children are encouraged to borrow and read from a vast variety of books. A ledger is maintained for each child; parents and teachers jointly monitor the book-lending programme. A committee of children is responsible for the return of books in good condition. Children discuss the books they read every week. Stories are morphed and changed, and some are reproduced in the programme’s quarterly publication Nemlika (‘peacock feather’). There is considerable competition amongst the children to get their stories published.
The hidden facilitator
The MV Foundation volunteer is the programme’s ‘hidden facilitator’. Although his task appears simple, it is actually pretty complex. He mobilises communities, teachers, parents and government authorities. He monitors the children’s attendance on a daily basis; and the school plans its post-3.30 pm activities in consultation with him. He works with the government teacher on the programme’s content, thereby improving both quality of work and levels of confidence of the teacher. The volunteer stays informed about stories the children write, and while only some are published, all are reviewed. He also structures sports activities using quality equipment and focusing on training, in consultation with the teachers. The volunteer liaises closely with parents too: he prepares both parent and student to work on the homework he gives, and ensures that it is completed, sets the agenda for parent-teacher meetings, and tracks every child, every day. He is the caregiver that the system needs. Thanks to his passionate and relentless work, children have come to be viewed as important entities in the village, and everybody discusses their future.
Revolutions need not be loud, but they are always ground-breaking!
A silent change: Impact on teachers, parents, children
At the MVF special programme for government schools, the teacher is an important constituent of the revolution, and is proud to be part of it. Teachers are happy that civil society no longer looks upon them with cynicism. Already, teachers at schools under the programme are breaking out of the mould of the stereotypical government teacher who is seen as a chronic absentee and who, even if he does attend school, does not teach. A visit to the schools easily dispels this impression.
Parents also gain from the programme. Books travel home and they need to be read and discussed before they are returned. Parents have to make adjustments in order to be able to play their redefined role. The rhythm of daily chores at home has had to change to make it possible for children to stay back at 3.30 pm: the drinking water that had to be fetched at 4 pm is now postponed to after 6.
Illiterate parents discuss their children’s performance with the teacher. This is new territory for them and the MVF volunteer makes sure he is always available to guide them through the process.
Attendance has risen to 90%. Today it is rare to see a child working in the fields, something that was widely prevalent only five years ago.
Government schools need support
The true winners of the MVF programme are government schools. Last year alone, 600 students moved back from private to government schools in order to be able to participate in the 3.30 programme. Schools are finding new donors locally and have become the focus of activity in their villages. Some are actually investing in beautifying their campuses and developing gardens to make them more attractive. And thanks to the involvement of MVF volunteers, parents and teachers, implementation of the midday meals scheme has become more orderly.
But there is still a long way to go. The MVF programme has been sanctioned funds through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) project of the government, for improving the quality of schools. The SSA envisages buying teaching materials with the active participation of teachers. In practice, however, money is spent with no proper planning. The will to use funds effectively is also absent.
Spending money is not enough. It is important to train the community to use the materials. It is also vital that the district authorities realise the significance of what the MVF volunteers have managed to achieve at schools.
The tempo that has been built up in these 96 schools needs to be acknowledged and supported by the district education department. The programme could become part of the many schemes that are supported, encouraged and monitored by the district collector. While it is easy to recognise the obvious benefits of improved attendance, absence of child labour, and low drop-out rates, the system must evolve performance measures that go beyond evaluating children on the basis of examinations and tests.
There are many new challenges too. Implementation of the Right to Education Act requires a large outlay of resources, both in terms of human resources and materials. Gram panchayats must be trained and organised to take the agenda forward. The Act mandates the provisioning of libraries at every school. The programme in Nalgonda clearly shows that a library for schoolchildren is not about buying books through tenders. It is a movement for learning that involves all stakeholders: children, parents, schoolteachers and volunteers.
M V Foundation
201, Narayan Apartments
Secunderabad 500 026
Infochange News & Features, May 2010