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Taking ownership – demanding quality Education comes of age

A strong movement demanding quality of education is being seeded in government schools in several villages across rural Karnataka, Southern India. Jawalgere, Raichur District is one such village. It lies at a distance of around 45 km from Raichur town in Northern Karnataka, and is inhabited by communities engaged primarily in farming. Literacy levels amongst them are low and several families have children who are first-generation learners.
On a warm afternoon, the Government Higher Primary School (GHPS) in Jawalgere is abuzz with activity despite it being a Saturday when the school gets over early. There are large cauldrons of food cooking in the school kitchen. A dais has been readied and speakers, mike-sets, festoons and other arrangements are visible. Gram Panchayat members are bustling around supervising arrangements for a math contest being organized with a view to assess levels of performance among children studying from levels III to VI.Contestants have been drawn from six schools of five villages of the panchayat. Around 250 children sit in orderly lines under a colourfulshamiana pitched on the sprawling ground of theschoolwaiting for the contest to begin.
The contest has been initiated with assistance from Akshara Foundation, which has helped to set the question papers and ensured processes for evaluation and assessments of the results by volunteers (educated youth) from the village.The questions for the contest are basic, e.g. a child from Grade VI is asked questions that a child of Grade V is supposed to know answers to. This is done with an intention to assess how well a child has learnt basic math concepts. Additionally, there is a consolidation of the performance of each school, which shows starkly that learning levels are distressingly low among children from most schools – a particularly alarming result is that of a boy from Grade VI who has scored 0/20. Others are only marginally better.As a follow-up to the contest, each gram panchayat gets a report card which clearly points to areas for improvement so as to sustain the movement.
By the end of the day, five prizes out of nine have been won by children from one school, while the other four have been won by children across four schools. The winners will get small cash prizes donated by the community, and a medal. This motivates them to keep performing well. A gram panchayat member, while handing over the prizes demands answers from the teachers, “We send our children to school to learn and trust that the teachers are doing their jobs. These results show that there are some problems. We cannot accept this situation and need to discuss solutions because if our children don’t study well they have no future.” His voice is but one of many from across the districts where the math contests have been held.
The contest however, is not just a one-off event.It is a part of Akshara’s overall programme – GanithaKalikaAndolana (GKA) , designed to enhance math skills in the children, which is gaining momentum in four districts of Karnataka. The contest at Jawalgere is one of many that have already been conducted successfully. It is in fact the first step in a process initiated by the Gram Panchayat to ensure that children don’t merely go to school, but also learn and assimilate what they have learnt. Their demand is for quality of education – a first in many ways. Across the four districts, over 550 math contests have already been conducted by gram panchayats, and the results are being followed up by corrective action, where required. A look at how GKA works…
GKA – a birds-eye view
Behind GKA is AksharaGanitha, a programmedesigned by Akshara Foundation to improve numeracy skills and facilitate classroom teaching of math in government primary schools. The Government of Karnataka has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Akshara Foundation to implement GKA in all schools in the six districts of the Hyderabad Karnataka Region over twoyears (2015-2017). This includes an intervention that imparts special math learning techniques and skills through the use of specially designed aids and a learning kit. Training is given to teachers on the use of the math kits and the principles on which they are designed.They are also provided with guidelines for evaluating the effectiveness of the kit. A research team from AksharaFoundation carries out assessments regularly to understand the impact of the programme, thus completing the loop of comprehensive learning, assessment and assimilation.
GKA is housed within AksharaGanitha and seeks to involve communities in the process of learning, by motivating them to demand quality education for their children. It is a coming together of several stakeholders – gram panchayats, school staff, School Development and Monitoring Committees (SDMC), parents, local elected representatives, village elders and other interested stakeholders. The involvement of a large range of stakeholders ensures that there is strong ownership for children’s education. Ashok Kamath, Chairman, Akshara Foundation says, “For every development practitioner seeking to bring change, it is a challenge to shift priorities from supply to demand. The GP contests have done just that. They have demonstrated that the cause of children resonate with communities and that they can and do demand the best for them. This movement is gaining momentum and the demand for quality in education is only bound to grow hereon.”
The GP-owned math contest is an example, which involved planning at several levels, all of which was undertaken by the community itself. Beginning with the gram panchayat members agreeing to bear the costs involved, right up to selecting the venue and planning the course of the contest, the process was owned by the communities of the five villages, and led by the Jawalgere Panchayat.
“While Akshara Foundation works closely with teachers and cluster resource persons (CRPs) to ensure teachers use the math kits to ensure that children learn math concepts thoroughly, that by itself is not enough,” says Shankar Narayan, Head, Operations & Community Initiatives,Akshara Foundation. “It is important for parents and the larger community to get involved in sustaining demand for quality education, an element that has been missing from our education system for long. We at Akshara are trying to enable this process through GKA.”
There is evidence that it is working. “The first GP contest was held in 2016. It had minimal response and buy-in but as the results became evident, there was a sense of awakening in the community. They realized that their children deserved more, and we began to get requests for GP contests to be held in more villages. Soon it was becoming difficult to keep up with the demand and now, we request that they block dates well in advance for conducting the event. This encourages us to think that quality of education is finally becoming a priority among communities,” says Shankar. What is even more significant is that gram panchayats take an active role to raise funds from the community to conduct the contests, each of which can cost up to Rs 25000/-, including Rs 6000/- which is cumulatively given out as prize money to the nine prize winners (three per grade),thereby demonstrating the strong motivation they have towards bringing change in the education system, as well as to the lives of their children.
GKA has seen spontaneous response from communities. “Being unlettered themselves, they often feel hesitant to hold school authorities accountable. But when they see the results, they feel compelled to do something and demand action. This is a very encouraging trend and we hope that the demand for quality of education becomes stronger,” says Shankar.
By facilitating this movement, Akshara Foundation wants to ‘wake up the village’ thereby giving credence to the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.”

BharathiGhanashyam is a freelance journalist.
Journalist in Residence Scholarship – 2015, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, Belgium
WHO – STOP TB Award for Excellence in Writing on TB – 2011
EU India – Thomson Foundation Award for Excellence in Writing on HIV – 2006″

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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