The traditional gets a touch of modernity

The ‘madrasa improvement programme’ has introduced progressive methods of teaching and participatory learning to children and their tutors in previously custom-bound schools in Uttar Pradesh

It may be a coincidence but the contrast is striking. Uttar Pradesh is among the lowest-ranked states in India on key educational indicators but it has the highest number of madrasas in the country. Steeped in archaic teaching methods that place greater emphasis on deeni taleem (religious studies) than on duniyavi taleem (mainstream education), these schools lag behind on several fronts.

Madrasa — the word comes from the Arabic language — originally meant any kind of educational institution. These days it refers almost exclusively, at least in the subcontinent, to Islam-centred schools. And that is reflected in their curriculum, which is not quite in sync with modern educational methodologies. Complicating matters further is the fact that madrasas tend to function in an inhibited environment that promotes rote learning.

Madrasas cater mostly to children from poor families, who typically stay here up to class V before moving to regular schools, or dropping out. That results in these kids missing out on learning opportunities, not to mention being ill-equipped for the higher education pie. The ‘madrasa improvement programme’ (MIP) of the Tata Trusts is calibrated to change this.

MIP, part of the Trusts’ wider endeavour to provide underserved and marginalised communities with better access to education, is being implemented in Varanasi and Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh and covers a total of 50 madrasas and about 10,000 children.

Partnering the Trusts in the initiative are two local NGOs, People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) in Varanasi and Azad Shiksha Kendra (ASK) in Jaunpur. Also on board are the management committees of the chosen madrasas — 30 of which are in Jaunpur and 20 in Varanasi — the teachers and children there and local communities.

Upgrading and modernising these institutions is the priority of the programme. That means bringing in contemporary curriculum standards and learning methods and materials to help madrasa students make the transition to regular schools. Long years of experience in running the programme and gaining the trust of the participating schools have enabled the Tata Trusts to fine-tune their approach.

The first phase of MIP began in Uttar Pradesh in 2005 and it targeted madrasas as well as government schools, the prime intent being to improve access to education in rural areas. From 2008 onwards, the Trusts partnered the nonprofit Nalanda to expand the initiative while enhancing implementation, coverage and resource support.

Going far and wide

Between 2013 and 2018, the programme was extended to cover madrasas in Bihar and Jharkhand in addition to those in Uttar Pradesh. During this five-year period, the initiative reached more than 45,000 students across the three states. Thus far about 100,000 children, the majority of them girls, have benefitted from MIP.

The focus in the current phase of MIP is on capacity building for teachers and backing them in adopting the latest pedagogy practices, with visually rich textbooks and technological tools.

Staying the course in Uttar Pradesh makes sense for the Trusts. This is a state that lags behind most in modernising its madrasas. There are an estimated 35,000-40,000 of these schools in Uttar Pradesh and only 19,000 have government recognition. That ensures official support in the form of funding and the provision of teachers. The rest run mainly on voluntary contributions from community members, which puts them at a disadvantage.

Take the Madrasa Rizvia Rashid-ul-Uloom in the Bajardiha area of Varanasi. An urban slum, Bajardiha has a population of close to 250,000. There is only one government primary school here and it shows in Bajardiha’s literacy rate (around 62%). Of the 350 students at the madrasa, 245 are girls and this is typical of madrasas in Uttar Pradesh.

Low-income families look to their boys to carry on the family profession — weaving is the mainstay in Bajardiha — and 50-60 of them drop out every year after class VIII. Teacher salaries range between 2,000 and 3,000 a month and many of them work for free. As a result, learning standards have suffered.

Urdu is the medium of instruction and the approach to subjects such as science is rooted in religious beliefs (pictures are not allowed in madrasa textbooks since they are proscribed in Islam). Improving the situation is, given these circumstances, no easy task.

Everybody’s invited

An interactive learning session at the madrasa

The most gratifying — and perhaps surprising — aspect of the ‘madrasa improvement programme’ has been the unifying nature of the change it has helped bring about. The Madrasa Jamia Darul-ul-Uloom Hanfia in Jaunpur’s Tighara village provides a perfect example.

“When we started we asked parents from poor families to send their children,” says Abdul Hai, the madrasa’s manager. “Some of the Hindu families were sceptical in the beginning but they have come around to understanding what the school has to offer.”

Today, 36 children studying at the madrasa hail from the Hindu community, and they are not there to make up the numbers. Vishnu Prajapati, the 14-year-old son of a farmer, recently won the honour of being the best student of Urdu at the school.

Vishnu used to study at the Adarsh Prathamik Vidyalaya, a nearby government school. “The teaching there was terrible,” says his father, Mukhu Prajapati. “Since coming to the madrasa there has been a marked improvement in Vishnu’s behaviour and overall development.”

Umesh Kumar Chaudhary, a teacher at the madrasa, is a vocal proponent of the new teaching methods that the Trusts and their partners have ushered in. “I didn’t know about these techniques till the Trusts demonstrated how to engage the children.”

Mr Chaudhary, a Hindu, adds that teaching at the madrasa has improved his knowledge of Islam and his social standing too. “Very few people knew me earlier. But now, as a madrasa teacher, I get a lot of respect in the village.”

The Trusts have deployed ‘madrasa facilitators’ who engage with teachers on a weekly basis, sharing new techniques and learning methods. “The objectives are many,” says Vivek Singh, a programme officer with the Trusts. “We want to encourage dialogue and discourse in the classroom, have subjects like maths and science be taught in an engaging way and ensure that children are treated better.”

The younger lot of teachers in the madrasas are the staunchest allies of the project. Several of them have had a more liberal education and that reflects in their outlook. Shabnam Shaheen, a 22-year-old Urdu teacher is one of them. “Four years ago, when I started teaching here, our children were weak in studies; hardly any of them were fit for high schools,” she says. “But the children have improved a lot now.”

Concentrating on children

The stressing of child-centric pedagogy and activity-based learning has been instrumental in changing the attitudes of students, and teachers too. “Earlier, the children were afraid to ask questions but the new methods are helping break down barriers between teacher and student,” says Rajeev Kumar Singh, project manager, PVCHR. “The freedom to ask questions, in turn, inculcates a reading habit among the students.”

In Jaunpur, which is in rural Uttar Pradesh, the programme is creating an even greater impact and the need for it is patent. The Madrasa Jamia Darul-ul-Uloom Hanfia in Tighara village operates out of a nondescript red-brick structure that opened two years ago with funds and land donations from the community. The improvements effected here through the MIP project have been a boon all around.

There are 119 students in the school and their parents have enrolled them there out of choice. “There is a government primary school here but its quality of education isn’t good, so people — both Muslims and Hindus — have been sending their children to this madrasa,” says Nisar Ahmed Khan, the founder of ASK.

Rehana Nisa, who moved her eight-year-old son Asif from the PNGY convent school in Tighara to the madrasa, backs up Mr Khan. “The convent school had too many books and too little studies,” she says. “Here my son is doing well, especially in maths and English as the teachers put in a lot of effort.”

Opening up new avenues for the students is part of the MIP programme. The Jamia Darul-ul-Uloom Hanfia organises summer camps — previously unheard of — and they are open to everyone, not just students. No surprise, then, that parents are more than keen now to have their kids study at the school. “The demand is so high that we have had to turn students away due to lack of space,” says Abdul Hai, the manager of the school.

The transformation of the schools has been welcomed by the community at large. “The programme has certainly helped improve the overall education standards in the madrasas and their look and feel as well,” says Syed Tariq, the ‘chief custodian’ of the Jamia Darul-ul-Uloom Hanfia.

Libraries, teacher training, a project-based approach, varied learning activities and, not least, technology have made the transformation of the madrasas in the programme a reality. Less obvious but just as potent is the programme’s potential to liberate this traditional educational system from its past, and connect students to emerging opportunities in education and beyond.

Girls outnumber boys at the Madrasa Ejaz-ul-Uloom in Kheta Sarai in Uttar Pradesh's Jaunpur district, and that's the norm