Class act

Tribal schoolchildren are the beneficiaries of an education programme in Jharkhand that scores high marks for ambition and implementation

Not much studying happened here; we spent most of our time playing,” says Marsa Mundu, a fresh-faced 10-year-old at the government school in Surunda village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district. “Students often did not show up for class, teachers were irregular and the place wasn’t clean. That was then. Now our school is, and looks, a whole lot better.”

Marsa, a class VI student, is inclined to chuckle at queries that stump her but she is serious about the change that has swept over her little institution. “We have a library, a toilet and a kitchen garden,” she adds. “I can take books home to read and I have learned to play hockey.” Put it all together and it adds up to a big deal for Marsa, her village and the Munda community she hails from.

‘How it was’ and ‘how it is’ are recurrent themes in the story of what the ‘school transformation programme’ has wrought in the tribal heartland of Jharkhand. Every character in this story begins, dwells and returns — sometimes in a single sentence — to the before-and-after picture that informs an initiative which has benefitted 330 schools and their 35,000-plus pupils. (The majority of these schools are in Khunti and a few of them are in the Hazaribag and East Singhbhum districts of the state.)

What began as a pilot project in 2011, principally to advance reading among tribal schoolchildren, has evolved to become integral to a community that has come to understand the importance of a proper education. Implemented by the Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts, the programme has unfolded in full force since 2015. The objective is clear and simple: enhancing the quality of learning and teaching in the region’s tribal-dominated government schools.

Complementary blend

Complementary components feed off one another in the initiative. A vibrant school environment, continual teacher training, effective school management committees (SMCs), learning assistants to help in classrooms, career support for deserving students, and more — CInI has gone the distance with an effort that is comprehensive and path-breaking.

The need for a programme of this nature was acute. With a literacy rate of 66.41%, Jharkhand is a laggard in education and it’s worse still in Khunti, a rare district where tribal communities comprise the majority of the populace. Improving learning outcomes at the school level is vital for these communities to climb out of poverty and ignorance.

The starting point for the programme is the school itself, the premises as much as the classroom. This involves setting up libraries, toilets and kitchen gardens — useful in feeding the ubiquitous midday meals scheme — the constitution of student councils and morning assemblies conducted by the children themselves, the provision of learning aids and exposure to computers.

The teaching part is central to the initiative and the challenge here is immense. There is an endemic shortage of teachers in Jharkhand’s government schools. Those who take up the position struggle to cope with the workload and, more often than not, are ill-equipped to do so. The Surunda school has two full-time teachers for its 146 students and that’s the common equation.

The state government has tried to deal with the lack by appointing ‘para-teachers’, who have to do almost all that is expected of regular teachers but are paid a lot less. The CInI initiative tackles the problem in two ways: by training teachers and through the appointment of learning assistants, chosen from within the local community by village councils.

The training of teachers is about building their capacities and their knowledge. This happens at the government’s ‘block resource centres’ (BRCs), dedicated spaces where a variety of approaches can be tried and tested. Sharing and learning are the watchwords at the BRCs. Teachers can access relevant learning material, interact with their peers and attend pedagogy workshops undertaken by experts.

The learning assistants — there are about 150 in the programme — have been invaluable in a situation where teacher deficits have undermined education outcomes. Their salaries are taken care of by CInI and their inputs are essential. At the school in Kudapurti village, for instance, there are no government teachers for the eighth, ninth and tenth classes. The gap is being filled by these learning assistants. That’s how it has been for more than six years and it highlights the difficulties loaded into the system.

Tanuja Prasad, a 26-year-old learning assistant at the government school in Chikor, has no doubts about the contribution she and her cohorts have made to the initiative. “There has been a world of difference at the school from the time I joined about 19 months back,” she says. “There is a method now. Discipline and reading have improved, but the lack of teachers remains telling.”

Tapping tribal talent in
hockey and academics

Dutch hockey legend Floris Jan Bovelander with trainees after a hockey festival at the Birsa College ground in Khunti

Priyanka Kumari wants to play hockey for India — “That’s my big dream,” she says — and she could well do that if she keeps up the hard work she is putting in as one of those selected for coaching at the ‘regional development centre’ (RDC) set up in Khunti as part of the Tata Trusts’ education programme in Jharkhand.

Breaking through will not be easy for Priyanka, a class X student at the government school in Pellol. “I want my hockey to go hand in hand with my studies, but finding the balance is tough,” she says with a maturity beyond her 14 years. “And then there is work to be done at home as well.”

Priyanka is one of 30 girls and as many boys who have been fast-tracked for progress at the two RDCs —the other is in Simdega district — established by the Trusts to tap budding talent in a region with a rich crop in the sport. These kids are in the 13-15 age group and they were chosen after a rigorous selection process.

The Trusts also have a grassroots hockey initiative in the state that involves about 5,300 children from 79 tribal-dominated schools in Jharkhand, they organise interschool events and hockey festivals, and there’s a ‘training the trainer’ component, too, where coaches are picked after trials involving experts from Bovelander & Bovelander BV, set up by Dutch hockey legend Floris Jan Bovelander.

Hockey aside, the education programme in Jharkhand is triggering academic aspirations through an initiative for deserving tribal children from poor backgrounds. The ‘super 30’ scheme, as it is called, has 30 girls and 30 boys and they have been selected after a screening process. Class XI and class XII students, they are preparing — with expert help from the Avanti coaching centre in Khunti — to crack India’s ultra competitive national engineering entrance examinations.

Mary Shreya, a 16-year-old from Bazzar Tanr village in Khunti, is among the chosen ones and she is relishing the opportunity. “I want to be a mechanical engineer and I want to make it to the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay,” she says. Why Bombay? “I’ve heard so much about the city; it would be perfect.”

Parental supervision

The part played by the SMCs is even more crucial. Made up mostly of parents, these statutory bodies are the link between the community and school. They measure — and pressurise — the schools to live up to their promise by tracking the punctuality of students and teachers, the cleanliness of the institution, the quality of midday meals and, not least, the amount and efficacy of the learning that takes place.

The programme has brought the SMCs up to scratch and it could not have happened sooner. “Everything here has improved from how it used to be earlier,” says Raja Daud Mundu, the president of the Surunda SMC. “The committee ensures that the teachers come to school, that classes are conducted properly and regularly, that our kids are getting the education they deserve.”

Mr Mundu talks about the time when kids in Surunda went to school as a matter of routine rather than to study. Those days are gone but much remains to be accomplished. “Earlier, the teaching was erratic; that has changed. We want to make the school better. We need more teachers, one for each class, and we need better infrastructure. We are tired, frankly, of asking the government. We keep at it, though.”

“We did not know much about how a school is run or about government schemes for education, but we do now,” says Sabina Mundu, a SMC member who is also from Surunda. “The community is more aware. We work to convince parents that their children should attend classes. But some villagers are poor and they need their kids to do the work at home or in the fields. There’s no getting around that.”

Phagua Pahan, president of the SMC in Kujrang village, is keen to emphasise the positives for the community. “Time was when this village did not think education was important, but today every child in Kujrang attends school,” he says. “That’s transformative and it has been brought about by the community through this programme. You see a child get ahead in studies and the motivation to have your own child do the same comes naturally.”

A morning assembly, conducted by the children themselves, in progress at the Bhoktatoli government school in Khunti
Students get hands on during a class at the Ulidih government school in Khunti

Out of the ordinary

Neeraj Pathak, the government teacher at the Kujrang school, puts what Mr Pahan is saying in context. “This is hilly country, a forest area, and the people here are backward, but the school itself is quite good given the circumstances. That’s not the norm for outback places like this. The learning assistant here is a big help. He’s a local and he knows the Mundari language, which means he can communicate with the children and get them on the way to learning Hindi.”

The Jharkhand state government’s education department is a willing and active partner in the programme, and its officials are keen to acknowledge what CInI has pulled off in Jharkhand. “The support we are getting has been commendable, as is the innovative nature of the work being done and the community mobilisation that is happening,” says Suresh Chandra Ghosh, the superintendent of education for Khunti district. “The main contributions have been in mitigating the teacher shortage, focusing on the quality of education delivered and in easing the language issue that teachers from outside the tribal belt face when coping with children who know only the Mundari language.”

“Enough cannot be said about this effort of the Tata Trusts,” says Vijay Kumar, the education extension officer for Murhu sub-district. “The standout feature of this programme is the focus on quality education. The intent is to match the child’s learning with the class he or she is in. It’s sterling work and their people on the ground are evidence of this. They believe that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”

The proof of the pudding for the programme is in quantifiable outcomes and Khunti has scored high on the count. A recent central government survey of 117 ‘aspirational districts’ in India placed Khunti in second place on educational parameters. The Trusts and CInI, though, are not about to rest on such laurels. They are now advocating with Jharkhand’s education department to plug into the good practices generated by the programme and have them adopted across the state, by the state.

That could well mean giving children such as Supriya Mundu the opportunity to blossom. “I like coming to school, I like learning Hindi, especially the poems, and I like the computer classes,” says the 12-year-old student from Surunda. “I want to be a teacher when I grow up. I’ll get to read more then and I’ll read to the kids in class. That would be nice.”