By Moin Qazi*
The present-day education reformers believe that schools are broken and market solutions are the only remedy. Many of them embrace disruptive innovations, primarily through online learning. There is a strong belief that real breakthroughs can come only through the transformative power of technology or the invisible hand of the market.
However, findings suggest that this strategy has not lived up to its hype and with valid reason. The youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth struggling for if they are going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and this is where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches are those that foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.
Gejha is like any other village in Noida, but only till one sets foot in it. Once the hour-long ride from the capital ends, an unlikely educational hub for the underprivileged emerges, being presided over by a former corporate honcho. Protsahan: Ek Pathshala has been set up by Abhay Singh, a retired Chief General Manager of the State Bank of India (SBI), in Sector 93 of Noida. He set up Protsahan when he found children in this dusty nondescript settlement spending their day directionless and with no hope of any future.
The people who live here are largely working class, mostly semi-skilled or unskilled, engaged in a variety of occupations. While few have some schooling behind them, others have none. Gejha is a witness and a willing participant in a quiet revolution led by Singh that has the potential to turn around the lives of its residents, especially of its children.That revolution has many elements, but awareness of cleanliness and hygiene are seen as critical and is being inculcated through education.
“In Gejha village, a majority of the residents are either daily wagers or unskilled workers who were not in a position to provide their children education. I spoke to the parents of children who did not go to school or had dropped out due to some reason. I started teaching them in the evening, preparing them for school life so that they can compete with other students,” says Singh.
The centre has three teachers and four volunteers to help Singh with the children. Along with tuitions, Protsahan centre also has a library with more than 500 books on literature, science, mathematics and other subjects. “A majority of these books have been donated by charitable institutions and individuals. We also bought books in bulk from various trusts,” says Singh.
The impetus for this initiative came to Singh in his professional career itself. He said, “When I was in an interview committee to choose candidates for my bank, I met many meritorious and ambitious applicants who were talented but lack of good schooling had affected their confidence. It was then that I decided to train underprivileged children after I retired so that they too could get equal opportunities.”
Singh was known for his commitment to community causes in his organisation also. His institution had a glorious tradition of social service. Through the ages, the bank has been using a portion of its profits in order to reach out and help the underprivileged in many ways. Singh was one of those in SBI who strove to ensure that the underprivileged are enabled to live up to the potential that they all possess through the bank’s community services.
Protsahan provides free basic education to the children of Gejha and surrounding villages. Basic education meaning teaching children the three Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic. The idea is that armed with this base knowledge, the children would be able to get admission into government schools.
With lots of activities going on and off the court, these kids forget their everyday problems of abusive households. Almost all of them come from a modest background where families rely on their daily labour to put food on the table. Singh and his team zero in on teenagers who are on the verge of dropping out. Left to their devices, odds are that they will wind up on the streets or in jail. These programmes and many others with a similar philosophy have realised that often kids just need extra time or more flexibility to re-engage with education.
Many children studying in Protsahan attest to the fact that it has a fun-filled, interactive and encouraging atmosphere and that the teachers there are extremely supportive. Currently, the school has 300 local children in attendance and works in two shifts: 9:30 AM to 12.30 PM and 3 PM to 6 PM. The school is flexible allowing children from the morning session to also attend the evening session to get their doubts cleared or simply to practice what they learnt in the morning.
Children in Protsahan are also engaged in other creative activities like sports events, quiz competitions, picnics and recreational programmes in the local parks. Yoga classes are organised every week and a lady from the nearby apartments visits the centre to teach them. Regular cleaning campaigns in Gejha village are organised in which students, teachers and other volunteers take an active part. Every year on 2nd of October, a quiz and an essay writing competition are held on Mahatma Gandhi’s life and values. Students from five different schools are invited to take part, bringing in a level of competition.
Hope Rappa is a volunteer from England and finds the attitude of the Protsahan children positive and encouraging. She said, “The school gives them the space and environment to know that they can become something and each one of them will become something. I help them in English lessons and if possible, will try to raise funds for this school. I would also like to inform others about this school.”
Abhay Singh’s former employers—SBI–and IFCI help the school run smoothly by providing funds. Some of the teachers are paid and most are volunteers. The future plans for the school include a van carrying books, study materials, and stationery that will visit construction sites where children of labourers while away their time. The hope is to gradually bring them into the education stream and motivate their parents to allow their children to have a future.
Singh says that the process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can hope to replicate. Small wonder then that the business model has not worked in reforming the schools as there is simply no substitute for the personal element. A lot of good programmes got their start when one individual looked at a familiar landscape in a fresh way. What they did was to simply change the fundamental approach to solving problems, and the outcomes have been truly revolutionary. Thus, people only need to summon their will-power the way game-changers like Singh are doing to bring about change.