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Meet The People Who’re Trying To Fix India’s Broken Education System, And How!

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By Akshay Saxena

avantiIndia has more students in high school than Great Britain has people. India also has one of the worst performing school systems in the world. And no, it’s not just our government schools. Our private schools on average tend to be equally bad. There’s a lot of talk about how our government schools are one million teachers short. That however, is only the tip of the iceberg. If one were to start looking at teacher performance (even simply teachers that show up to class every day), that number would be orders of magnitude higher.

Our state and central governments have largely failed our over 5 Crore high-school students and there are almost no signs of this situation improving. Parents are voting with their feet and their wallets. The test-prep (coaching class) industry in India is already over $8B and growing fast. While there continues to be plenty of bluster against coaching and “rote-based” methods from the government, elite government institutions and policy makers – all of them conveniently omit the fact that the true problem lies with their curriculum, policies and quality of service delivery. The board exams across the country have gotten easier to “crack” by rote over time and curriculum (especially in Math and Science) remains rooted in the proverbial Stone Age.

We Need To Re-Imagine The Classroom, Not Prop Up A Failed System

The lecture-centric, talk-and-chalk classroom has failed. You will be hard-pressed to find academics, teachers or policy makers of note who are proponents of classrooms centered around a teacher delivering a 35-minute monologue with notes written on a board that students copy. Yet, this is the reality of most classrooms and all of India’s school regulations, government funding and teacher training centers around producing teachers who do precisely this.

Teachers Are The Answer But They Need Help

Each time we’ve sat down with teachers, principals and school leaders, all of them – unequivocally and unanimously – have acknowledged the problem with lecture-based teaching methods and expressed a desire to do something different. The stereotypical image of a teacher who doesn’t care is the farthest from the truth. Like most professionals, teachers care; they want to get better and they need help.

There are several tools they can use – pedagogical, technological and behavioural. But fitting these around the constraints of syllabus, regulations and parental expectations is incredibly challenging. There is also a lack of evidence that any of these work in their specific context.

So the challenge is not that there’s an absence of tools and widgets but really that there’s no clear way to integrate all of these in the classroom in a meaningful and effective way. This is what Avanti aims to change through a blend of curriculum, technology and teaching practices.

465914_10151363751501537_2074873323_oThe Classroom Reimagined

Most research in Science and Math teaching triangulates to the same basic principles. Allow students to discuss and debate important concepts; let them struggle with material; allow them to learn by doing and prioritize student-driven work. When we first started working with students in Pondicherry, we couldn’t afford expensive teachers. So, we got to see what students could do when they were allowed to study in this way without conventional lecturing. Over 50% of our first class cleared the IIT JEE Advanced. The question for us became:

If students can do so spectacularly well without teachers – how amazing could they be when their teachers helped reinforce this process instead of opposing it by using all that time lecturing?

In other words – if teachers in class started to coach students in a student-driven learning process, we would start to get a lot closer to a better and more scalable model for education. This is the fundamental thesis of our work. Here’s a YouTube video that talks more about this.

Why It’s Important To Be In Small Towns

Over 90% of all students qualifying the IITs come from 23 towns in India. You are 7 times more likely to go to a top college if you come from urban India. Much of our solution design and rollout focuses on bridging this divide. If it can’t be done in every tehsil, if children can’t access it close to their homes, if a rural teacher can’t be trained to deliver it – it won’t solve the problem.
800 students showed up at our orientation in Karauli, Rajasthan. There are no English medium Sr. Secondary schools that offer science. Most kids don’t even know what the IITs are. And yet, some students in learning our English materials translated to Hindi are acing our nationwide tests.

540609_10151345046776537_1868088203_nIt is remarkable to see what our teachers have already achieved. From Kupwara to Bellary to Raghogarh to Chhapra, young teachers often in their first jobs are transforming the education ecosystem of these towns. A lot of our students are girls – many of whom would not have taken coaching otherwise. Many had no clue that they could take the JEE. All at once they have positive role models, high-achieving graduates who are excited to work with them and teach them. Our teachers are creating their own ecosystem, their own places to stay, to go out. These communities are growing as more like-minded young people join them. From teachers using their spare hours to help the local MLA to volunteering in other local schools – this integration of smart, ambitious young people into the ecosystem of these towns is to this day our most remarkable accomplishment.

Why A Coaching Class – Why Not Schools?

We are committed to creating a market-based solution to this problem. It is impossible to do so running schools (since they are all required to be charitable trusts as per Indian law). Also the regulations schools need to comply with (land, buildings, minimum teacher qualifications) make it impossible to innovate starting from a clean slate.

Most parents of high-school students (even low-income families) spend as much (if not more) on 12 hours a week of tuition than they spend on 30+ hours of school education. Coaching is where they demand results and coaching is where they are willing to pay.

It clearly makes sense for everything we develop to eventually be delivered within schools and we’re working with some incredible school leaders to develop a modality to make this happen. This said, until something changes with school regulation, innovation will likely happen outside schools.

Images posted by Avanti Learning Centres on Facebook.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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