As it started becoming abundantly clear by July 2020 that the magic pill to cure India of the lockdown, sorry the Coronavirus, was failing, panic started to set in across Government, educators, wider sections of society and intellectuals (including those who had said, “What’s the big deal if kids miss a few months of school? They are happy to not have to go to school!”)

Close your eyes and imagine these scenes being played at Ramagondanahalli (RG Halli) Government School in the heart of India’s Silicon Valley – Whitefield, Bangalore. This school was adopted by Whitefield Ready (community of volunteers working on enhancing access to quality education in Whitefield) and the local Rotary Club-Rotary Bangalore IT Corridor (RBITC) 10 years ago, and Inventure Academy (one of India’s leading International schools) 18 months ago.

LEARNINGS FROM THE PANDEMIC

 Scene 1: Flashback to Pre Covid -19

A girl aged 11 comes to school. She’s very happy. Turns out she had an unusually good night. She narrates the story of how her father woke up that morning complaining about back pain. Reportedly, he was so incapacitated from his night out with the boys that he was unaware that his family, tired at being at the receiving end of the regular beatings, had paid him back in the wee hours of the night, while he slept on in a drunken stupor!

Scene 2: We are now in the eye of the COVID-19 storm which has seen millions of people rendered jobless, homeless, schooless… anchorless. Along with their daily wages, mid-day meals and schooling, they have also lost the sense of purpose, identity and community that we all crave for in our lives.

Scene 3: Lockdown is in force and school campuses are closed

Despite the lockdown, a student comes with his parents to school to collect basic rations being provided by Whitefield Rising / Ready.  RG Halli Government school teachers – Teach for India (TFI) fellows and teachers recruited by Inventure Academy, assist in this effort by providing hard copy worksheets, to help students keep in touch with the concepts and skills that they had learnt in the previous academic year. The child, desperate to build on his learning and connect with his safe haven and  teachers,  has happily accompanied his parents to school.

Scene 4: Campuses are closed, but school is open

One evening, I received a voice recording on WhatsApp from Sumedha Rao (Head of Whitefield Ready). Contents of which were voices of excited RG Halli grade 7 students setting up a Google chat room … “If we have any doubts, we should clear them here in this chat room, and then check with the teacher…,” said the voices! To say that we were elated by this exchange is to put it mildly. These kids had only just got access to their shiny new Lenovo tablets, and they were already using it to connect with each other and continue their social, emotional and cognitive learning! This is what education for the 21st Century is meant to be – learning anytime, anywhere and from anyone!

Scene 5: Reading buddy student volunteer program during lockdown

“Hello … kaise ho aap… How are you? Mein thik hoon, ma’am! English mein kaisae bologae? I am fine, ma’am! Aap ka din kysa tha? How was your day?  I played with my brother, ma’am! Aaj padhnae ke liya thayaar ho? Are you ready to read?  YES MA’AM!!!”  Three times a week 120 RG Halli students get calls from 78 volunteers (students and parents from Inventure Academy and Whitefield Ready) who help them read. Students have access to 1000 books provided by Pratham both in print and digital format. The program was established with the objective to improve reading fluency, increase exposure to spoken English and  strengthen reading comprehension of students at RG Halli.

ARE WE LIVING IN A DARWINIAN WORLD?!

Scenes like these are truly wow moments, and ones which keep educators like me going. Confronted by the pandemic and Government policies which continue to threaten the very existence of schools (government and private) we could be forgiven for thinking we are living in a Darwinian world, with each school, parent, educator and student for themselves!  The Government fearing the ever-increasing digital divide actually banned (fee collection and) online education, after closing school campuses down. Of course, the Government had good reasons for their actions–the lockdown had failed and they were concerned that many private schools (primarily Central Board and International) had worked through the summer vacation to create distance learning solutions for their children, while the Government hadn’t! Government school teachers were unfortunately pushed into COVID duty including manning checkposts! As per a United Nations report which was quoted in the New York Times (‘As COVID-19 closes schools, the world’s children go to work’) at least 24 million children will drop out of school, and that millions will be sucked into work. We do stand to lose our children to child labour, the streets, child marriage, or worse.

EVEN IN THIS BLEAK LANDSCAPE CHANGE IS POSSIBLE

 Amidst all of this uncertainty, Whitefield Ready, TFI Fellows and Inventure Academy team members (both at RG Halli and Inventure) worked in collaboration to ensure that we got our children back to formal learning and the safety net provided by the Whitefield learning community ASAP. Thanks to these efforts we were able to transition to online school for children equipped with devices–either their parents’ smartphones or tablets procured at a deeply discounted rate by partner NGO RBITC from Byjus. Failing this the hard-fought gains we had made the previous academic year would come to nought. Enrolments (yes, in a Government school), shot up from 190 to 430 students in the last 18 months. Several of these students, who had never been to schools before, have caught up nearly 2.5 years of learning in less than a year.

NEP–NEW OPPORTUNITIES TO CREATE CRADLE TO CAREER PATHWAYS

Meanwhile, the much-awaited New Education Policy (NEP) aimed at transforming Indian education was suddenly launched with much fanfare despite education institutions across India being closed. What better time to embrace the NEP with its promise for education for life, rather than just memorising text aimed at spitting it out in a test with pre known questions? The pandemic is proof that our education system has failed us. We can and should consolidate on this recognition. After all half the answer to life’s many wicked challenges lies is recognising that we have a problem! The other half?  We have success stories and aha moments like the one I shared at RG Halli. Schools like Parikrma Humanity Foundation, Christel House, Shishumandir and Akanksha Foundation have also shown us that it is possible to create a cradle to career pathways of success for children from less privileged backgrounds too. All you need is an enabling regulatory environment (which we hope the NEP will provide), teachers that care for their children’s overall well-being, and access to digital devices.

RIGHT TO EDUCATION–BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

As the Delhi High Court has rightly mandated in its judgement and order of 18 September 2020 in Justice for All v. Govt of NCT Delhi and Ors the government has a responsibility and legal obligation to enable online education for EWS students. The order was passed on a writ seeking direction to the Delhi government to ensure free laptop/I-pad/mobile phone and high speed internet or any other equipment that is required for online classes through video conference to be provided free of cost to children defined under 2(c) of the RTE Act. This is the first judgement that calls out the responsibility of the government to directly address the digital divide facing children during this pandemic.

Both the Center and every State Government should invest at least some of the USD 260+ Billion Coronavirus bail out package to equip every child with a device and internet access, in the same way that the Government has worked on providing water, clean toilets and power across the length and breadth of India. We need a digital highway to complement the National brick and mortar highways in order to bridge the gap between India and Bharat.

RECRUIT AND BUILD TALENT THROUGH SUSTAINED PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

It’s also a great time to recruit an NEP future ready cadre of teachers across the country. Many young graduates are unemployed. Hiring them as fellows for a stipend, sensitising and training them to “volunteer” to provide Micro Schooling Pods to children within their neighbourhood communities, will provide a much-needed stimulus for the teaching community. Good performers can be recruited as full-time teachers and potential teacher leaders.  Professional Development is key for both the fellows and for existing teachers who are willing to learn and teach a child friendly curriculum. Inservice teacher training should be designed after recognising  development needs, which should be through regular and systematic class observations, review of written curriculum and teacher, parent and student feedback. The areas of in-service training should focus on pedagogical needs, pastoral care, teaching of specific subjects, personalisation of learning, student connect and child psychology.  Training should be focussed on the age group the educator is focussed on. “One size fits all” education does not work for either students or teachers.

LET US BE THE CHANGE–BRIDGE BHARAT WITH INDIA, AND INDIA WITH THE WORLD

We have to seize this opportunity, not just to lay the digital and human capital infrastructure but to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in PPP, and scale successful experiments. This should be done in partnership with #RightToLearn groups comprising successful private school leaders / educators  (already providing the progressive kind of education the NEP talks about), parents / students, child psychologists, technologists and representatives from NGOs and the Education Department. In order to be in this group all one needs is a  passion for education  with a demonstrated track record in any field(s) of interest. It’s critical for this group to work with the school to facilitate the co-creation of an enabling culture,  Purpose (reason the school exists), Vision (measure of success) and Values (that will guide the communities  thoughts, words and actions) for each school along with a Balanced Scorecard.  Members of the learning community should be held accountable across three critical key result areas  – academic, co-curricular and wider world life skills. In the words of Sumedha Rao, Head of Whitefield Ready, “Teachers are being put on Covid duty and monitored closely, but are neither monitored nor motivated to do their regular jobs in normal times!”

The majority of the jobs of the future for our current preschoolers haven’t even been created yet. It’s critical therefore that we equip our children to succeed in an ever changing globalised world with a future that none of us, including the NEP drafting committee, Education Minister Pokhriyal or Prime Minister Modi, can predict. The future requires us to educate children for a tri-literate world (print, digital and other yet to be invented media), not just the three-language formula and the “nation-centric education” that the NEP focuses on. All of this would not be possible without empowering our best and brightest to choose education as a vocation!

As we celebrate 151 years of Mahatma Gandhi, this is a good time to reflect on his famous quote, “Be the change you want to see.”

So here’s to change, here’s to a “new normal” with all of us working together to build much needed learning highways and bridges between Bharat and India, and India and the World.

 

Nooraine Fazal is Managing Trustee, CEO and Co-Founder, Inventure Academy.