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Democratic Schooling: Can This Be The Answer To NEP And ‘Skill’ Development?

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By Praharsh Patel

It was a Sunday evening when I, along with my parents and my sister Mukti, who is pursuing her final component of PhD thesis on ‘Attrition of Teachers’, was enjoying a holiday out in our balcony. I was watching the movie The Summerhill. It is a story about the Summerhill School in England that was established by Prof AS Neil and is the first democratic education school that began with the intention to provide a way within an education system that works to develop young kids in areas of their interest, and at the same time, giving them full liberty to explore and experiment in an open field without binding them to restrictions of classrooms and books.

Mukti, while writing her thesis, suddenly paused and exclaimed,

“The current education system has made slaves out of kids. Knowledge is sidetracked by marks and grades. Learning is conquered by burden. Students’ interests are built around their parents’ will. What’s worst, everything is valued in terms of money where societal values themselves have no worth. My field research shows that none of the four pillars of the current education system — students, teachers, parents and school management — are happy with the way education is being propagated in private schools. Students are unhappy as they are taught and forced to learn things they don’t want to learn. Parents are unhappy as their kids are not “successful” even after spending almost all their earnings and savings. Managements have difficulty in managing the expectations of teachers as well as parents. Teachers are in a miserable condition as they are forced to show “results” over actual incarnating values and interests in students.”

She looked at her 3-year-old son Sattva, who was playing happily with his grandparents, and sighed away.

The day when the dream was realized. (PC: Jignesh Senghani)

Being a firm believer in burden-less education and the importance of one developing their profession out of interest, Mukti has great faith in democratic education. Her stern belief also got me to explore more about democratic education. Being an easy goer, I was watching the movie The Summerhill to explore the idea of democratic schooling. When the movie ended, I asked Mukti, “Can we try this concept here in India?” This was enough to spark the ever-enthusiastic Mukti, who decided her goal post PhD. There was a long way to make this dream of an alien and free way of education to get accepted and trusted in our society that has defined students as kids who sits in a classroom and reads books.

Mukti and Praharsh Presenting the Democratic School idea at various national & international forums.

After a long struggle of debating with experts, convincing our own parents about our idea, building a team to work with, finding a suitable place to start, and getting parents and students who trust the democratic education, we finally founded our school in Bhuj, Kutch, on 14th June, 2019. We were not just inaugurating a school, but also accepting how each child is special and has the right to make their way to success.

The school kickstarted with the first cohort in June, and have had a great journey to date. Many experts, professionals, educators etc. have contributed towards shaping the first year of curriculum and developing minds, skills and interest of kids. There are many questions about how to make the system full proof and sustainable. These questions are yet to be answered. Having reflected on our school’s one year of development and brainstormed a few questions with education experts, below are a few highlights of our discussion.

The Founding Team (PC: Dr Mohan Patel)

What is Democratic Education? 

Education is meant for us to learn about your own self — to understand our interests, disinterests, liking, disliking, expertise, drawbacks, etc. When education gives a chance not only to understand your own self but also to develop your own self, then it is democratic education. It is a realisation where everyone has the liberty to develop themselves and everyone is equal.

Detailed discussions and debates on curriculum, child psychology, activities,and many more things that defines "Prayaas: The Democratic School"
Multiple detailed discussions and debates on the curriculum of a democratic school, child psychology, activities, and many more things defined ‘Prayaas: The Democratic School’. Democratic Education is the education of one’s own choice, where students have the liberty to learn things they find of their best interest and in a way that is of best interest to them. This is a way of education where a student has the liberty to explore, and develop his path and career as per his interests.

In short, “Democratic Education is an education system where kids get their own identity, they identify their competencies, get an environment to help them flourish in their own interest, and respect the freedom of others. As a result, they develop themselves, their families and society as a whole.”

Prayaasites during one of their weekly field visit

How To Implement Democratic Education?

Democratic education cannot be implemented until all stakeholders (students, teachers, parents and management) are equally associated with the decision-making. The best way to learn is to associate one’s self with nature and the democratic school cannot stay stand-alone without nature. Students shall behave, understand and obey equality, respect and liberty. It is essential to understand that everyone has the right to fulfil their dreams. For democratic education to be effective, teachers should be facilitators, and not be authoritarian in their teaching. They shall continuously evolve and learn new things.

The involvement of all strata of society is a must in order to make students aware of righteous societal norms as well as have an understanding of what is right and what is wrong. The way to deliver knowledge shall not be bookish or have monologues. Students learn well through involvement in projects.

Incorporation of surrounding and nature and freedom to exploreare core essences for child development
Incorporating surroundings and the nature, and the freedom to explore core essences for child development.

All students shall be self-motivated to learn and shouldn’t have to force themselves into knowledge overload. Every person has different abilities and ways of learning. The democratic education is accommodative of different personalities and ways of being. There has to be a frequent exchange of thoughts in form of awareness sessions and expert collaborations to broaden our perspectives.

What Are Some Challenges To Democratic Education?

Happy faces... Strength of Prayaas
Humans are less inclined towards democracy, and autocracy has a major role to play in their decision-making. Introducing democracy in education is far more difficult than the society out there. Here, lack of morality and discipline are major factors against the success of democratic education. And contrary to the centralisation of power, schools shall be decentralised as much as possible so that they have the liberty to develop their own curriculum, activities and engagement students.

Teachers are the key to successful implementation of democratic education. Hence, utmost importance has to be given to teachers’ training and help them align themselves with their goals. Another challenge can be how to bifurcate students according to their levels of understanding.

How To Make The School Sustainable?

Finance and trust are the two main aspects of sustaining a school. Finances can be managed through innovative fundraising or fees, but the most important thing is building and maintaining trust. There shall be a continuous loop of information exchange among all four stakeholders. Openness, feedback and visibility of learning are important ways to build strong trust. To sustain anything in the long run, the start or base shall be firm. A democratic school can only be sustainable if it has a firm base and strong foundation.

‘Prayaas: The Democratic School’ is being built by keeping the above key aspects in mind as core values. The school is challenging the orthodox way of teaching and learning, and envisions creating better citizens in the future.

The author is the founder of Prayaas, The Democratic School.
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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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