Lessons for all

The education programme in the coastal Gujarat initiative aims to lessen the toll taken by salinity ingress on learning outcomes

Our children had difficulties with reading and writing and with maths as well. There were no separate classrooms for students. Interactions with parents were irregular and the school’s management committee members rarely showed up for meetings.”

Varsakiya Dhanabhai, a resident of Mojap village in Gujarat’s Devbhumi Dwarka district, had a bunch of complaints about the state of affairs at the government school her child attends. That was before an education programme designed and implemented by the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC) began making a difference.

The first phase of the programme unfolded in 2015 in the Okhamandal subdistrict, which was chosen for the initiative because its literacy levels were worse than the state average. The reasons were the usual: a generally low literacy rate, even lower female literacy, unsuitable learning processes for first-generation students, and a poor connect between schools and communities.

Ms Dhanabhai would have, like most parents in Gujarat and elsewhere in India, sent her kid to a private school if she could afford it. That by itself is no guarantee of a quality education — a 2019 survey of the state’s schools by the NGO Pratham, stated that 23% of class VIII students could not correctly read a paragraph in Gujarati, 65% could not do simple division and 62% could not read an English sentence — but it surely would have been better than what Ms Dhanabhai and her child were saddled with.

Given the context and the circumstances, providing a learning leg up for disadvantaged parents like Ms Dhanabhai made good sense. There were two parts in CSPC’s initial thrust: early childhood care and education, and primary education. Government-run anganwadis (rural childcare centres) were the setting for the first segment, which has reached some 1,400 children in the three-to-six years age bracket.

Model centres

CSPC partnered the Aga Khan Foundation to build the capacity of anganwadi workers and set up a network of village-level volunteers. The programme aims to cover a total of 50 anganwadis and 10 ‘model centres’ were developed. Each was equipped with learning aids, and the workers here were trained to plan and conduct learning sessions for the children.

In the primary school component, remedial classes were organised for children with learning shortfalls, libraries were set up and a resource centre was developed at the state government’s District Institute of Education and Training in Jamnagar. More than 3,200 children in the 7-14 age group have benefitted as a result.

The first phase of the programme, which was completed in 2018, has achieved tangible outcomes. Children in the selected anganwadis have recorded all-round improvements on school-readiness indicators. In the primary education slice, over 70% of students in the intervention schools now have foundational learning skills and about 50% of them are better in maths and science.

Bringing education into the salinity ingress framework had everything to do with who it was targeted at. “We considered every aspect related to the issue and it was clear that children are critical stakeholders in the larger initiative,” says Divyang Waghela, a director with CSPC.

The education programme got off the ground following a 2014 survey that assessed learning standards in Junagadh, Amreli and Devbhumi Dwarka, three districts where CSPC had deep roots through its livelihood and water initiatives. Rural clusters were the focus of the survey and it involved interactions with school and government authorities and members of the community.

CSPC is building on the success it has achieved with a second phase of the programme. This commenced in 2019 and the bar for it is set higher: enhancing the learning capabilities of students in 97 government primary schools in Okhamandal. Capacity building of teachers and headmasters and engaging the community top the agenda here; the goal being to provide students with an enabling educational environment that prepares them well and proper for high school.

A group reading session at the primary school in Shamlasar village in Devbhumi Dwarka
A group reading session at the primary school in Shamlasar village in Devbhumi Dwarka

Enrolment processes, age-appropriate children’s literature, learning aids, teacher training, school management committees and their functioning — the second phase has incorporated a host of elements to ensure that the programme realises its objectives, primarily to create a sustainable impact where it matters most: in the classroom.

The programme has modules that facilitate academic support for teachers, strengthens the leadership abilities of headmasters and, importantly, fosters continuous community engagement through multiple channels. Additionally, local volunteers have been taken on board and provided with training and learning material so that they can, when and where necessary, take classes for batches of students in their villages.

The logic behind the education effort is straightforward, even though it may not seem to be linked directly to the salinity ingress emergency. “Coastal salinity leads to a loss of livelihoods and that fuels outward migration,” explains CSPC chairman Apoorva Oza. “Scarcity of drinking water means schools suffer and education suffers. Children run back home during every recess since drinking water is so scarce, and adolescent girls have to spend time collecting water.

“That’s one fallout of the salinity crisis and that’s what we are trying to mitigate.”