By Stuti Pachisia:
Our education system has been fragmented by various socio-economic and cultural factor and policies. As Firstpost reported, “India enrols about 59% of its students in government schools at primary level and retains 35% of them by the time they reach secondary level… With such a large population being dependent on the state for providing education to its children, and given such poor standards, it is difficult to fathom as to what would happen to this great dividend of a young population of a country of 1.3 billion people.”
The gap between the quality of private and public education is profound, with various intersecting factors: class, caste, capital and culture preventing the mitigation of this gap. Take for insistence on spoken English. It is almost considered as a marker of literacy, which stems from its correlation to job prospects (the better your spoken English, the better your chances in the job market).
This perception is deeply classist, but what is ironic is that the very structure that harps on its importance, fails to provide an effective framework for English learning. If one is deprived of the cultural dividend that enables English speaking films, books, an academic culture, and teacher absenteeism, how does this social gap get bridged? It is not merely enough to be formally educated if the quality of one’s education has been severely compromised.
Nothing stands as testimony to how transformative meaningful education can be as the way children talk about its role in their lives. Suraj, who I teach in a student run-NGO, Chehel, says that in his local government school, “Teacher bachchon se 200 maang rahe hain. Bol rahe hain 200-200 dene se pass kara denge. Phir jo exam mein likhna hai, likhlo (The teacher is asking the children to pay up 200 rupees. He will pass us in our exams, no matter what we write.”) Suraj is not alone. When I asked some of his other schoolmates -most of whom are younger than 12-year-old Suraj – their precociousness and disillusionment with school administration were unnerving.
This is where institutes such as the Katha Lab School provide an intervention. The Katha Lab School began in 1990, as part of the larger literacy enhancement work that Katha was involved in. Beginning with five students, the school has evolved into a full-blown centre in Govindpuri. One merely has to go to Govindpuri fish market and ask any passerby where the building is. Everyone knows. Painted a bright yellow and white, the building stands out. Once you enter the building itself, the various facilities the school offers beyond classroom education is massive. The school has baking classes, a robotics lab, an entrepreneurial school for women, a film studies center and one only has to interact with the students to know how impactful the school is.
Take, for example, Vandana’s story. Vandana Singh is a class 11 student of the school. Originally from UP, her father came to Sangam Vihar in Delhi as an auto dealer, but was tragically arrested over a misunderstanding in 2014. As the oldest child, Vandana was caught in a fix: on one hand, she wanted to work and help her mother, and on the other, she wanted to continue her education. As their financial condition deteriorated, they moved to Bhumiheen Camp in 2015 and her mother began working in Govindpuri.
One day while she was doing some household chores, a teacher from Katha Lab School reached her during a survey. The teacher motivated her to join Katha School. Although she really wanted to resume her education, yet she said, “I have a lot of work to do, I cannot study”. The next day, the highly motivated teacher visited her house again and tried convincing Vandana and her mother to let her study. Her mother said that she could not pay the fee. Soon, however, with some coaxing, Vandana agreed to join the school and was given a full scholarship.
Initially, she was a very shy and a quiet girl. She was deeply disturbed by the trauma in her family, but that is what has willed her to become a lawyer. Her willingness, dedication and her teachers’ continuous motivation and guidance helped her to pass the class 10 board examination in 2017 with 62%. Vandana writes prose and poetry now. She speaks well on different ideas, and even represents the school on different forums.
Vandana is not alone. Another student, Kanchan, who studies in class 7 has an interesting story to tell. Even though she is all of 12, Kanchan has to take charge of her family. Her father is unemployed and is abusive towards her mother, who works as a domestic worker. Kanchan, who is extremely precocious, says that her father’s alcoholism means that her mother has to hide her hard-earned money. This often results in him beating her mother and the children.
Now her parents are separating as her mother has filed for divorce. In this very tumultuous environment at home, Kanchan has to take over her younger siblings’ upbringing. She walks 6 km every day with them, to come to school, where she is always punctual. Kanchan, who is very good with languages, teaches her younger brothers and dreams of being a teacher. She wants to teach those children who have had to leave their education due to difficult family problems.
However, perhaps the most interesting story is that of Anchal. Anchal’s mother left their hometown in Uttar Pradesh because of her alcoholic husband and unsupportive in-laws. After moving to Delhi, Anchal’s mother started working as a sweeper in Kalka Public School. Her mother was very cognizant of the need to educate her children, even when circumstances were unconducive. Anchal could never go to school in Uttar Pradesh. It was her mother who tried to instil the value of education in her by borrowing books from neighbours in order to teach her.
By the time they came to Delhi, Anchal was already so fluent in reading and writing, that she gained admission in class 6. Here, she found an education beyond school books. Anchal’s teacher motivated her to take part school activities, which she began to enjoy fervently. Anchal likes robotics the most and has participated in robotics competitions as well. She dreams of being a robotics engineer in the future.
Anchal enjoys school so much that she says she sometimes comes to school despite having a fever. She says, “In school, I feel better, and by the end of the day it will go away.”
The stories of Vandana, Kanchan and Anchal stand as a testimony to how much better lives become when quality education is imparted.
Stuti Pachisia is a volunteer at Katha and a student of Lady Shri Ram College for Women.