It’s been forever we’ve started concluding solution to arguments about any behavioral problem of society with ‘Indian education system needs to be fixed’. 90 KMs from Lucknow, in a small village of Sitapur, is an after-school that’s bringing a silver lining in the dark cloud of the dismal education section of India.
Swatantra Talim – As the name suggests, focuses on bridging the gap between development and education through a hands-on learning experience. This after-school is a rather ambitious initiative by Rahul Aggarwal & Ridhi Aggarwal. It’s innovative, unusual, progressive and inclusive. Sure, that’s a whole lot of adjectives to describe a learning institution located in the otherwise not-so-privileged village in Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh.
“We believe in putting faith in children and letting them have their ownership in the learning process, not because we are driven by our own fears of adulthood. A child should be given chances to fail and make efforts many times. And then see how wonderfully they progress”, says Ridhi, co-founder of Swatantra Talim and an alumnus of Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi.
It was a chance experience by Rahul with girls of Sitapur that sparked the idea.
“I saw a bunch of girls standing under a tree with a notebook and a pencil in their hand. They were being taught by girls who were not of more age than 13 to 14 years and hardly had any resources. Those girls were looking inquisitively at us and wanted to talk to us. Ridhi had spoken to them earlier but this was my first time. I realized that they were as talented as an urban kid, but had no access to quality resources. These children, are beyond the availability of resources. They are bright, sharp and eager to learn “, says Rahul.
Drive back was full of questions about his purpose.
“I was working at Bharti Airtel, with an aspiration to become a CFO of a big company someday. While driving back, Ridhi and I kept asking ourselves if we wanted to be a part of the rat race or bring an impact by contributing all that we have. For something that can bring us satisfaction, and assurance to have done something.”
There were a few apprehensions since Rahul particularly didn’t come with specific experience in education sector.
“To fix the system, we had to be in the system, and figure what was wrong.”
So Ridhi and Rahul joined Sahyadri School in Pune, by J. Krishnamurthi Foundation. The school served to those who could afford a good amount of fees, but with a different teaching philosophy that Ridhi and Rahul wanted to understand and experience.
After one and half year of working at Sahyadri, Ridhi says,
“We realized there was a need of such a system for the marginalized section where we feel is urgent to intervene. Nalanda Foundation meanwhile had begun to shut their program for girls in Sitapur. We decided to replicate a similar model in the same village where had already worked earlier.”
“At Swatantra Talim, we are making a strategic shift in the teaching method – we want children to develop a scientific temperament thereby- the art of questioning anything and everything is encouraged. Like the societal norm or a concept from books, or something new they have come across. If the kids are conceptually clear, it is easy for them to learn on their own, hence making the system sustainable.”
How does the model work?
Swatantra Talim has an extended after-school learning center called “Swaangan”, where children develop their own concepts. There is no blackboard. This is based on Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of ‘hands-on learning’.
Following some best case practices from J. Krishnamurthi, the after-
school gives children the freedom to choose their own learning process. They are allowed and encouraged to make mistakes and make their way out.
Practical learning is an integral concept of Swatantra Talim. For example, fractions are taught through activities.
Khojalay is a library where children can access English and bilingual books. Here, they are encouraged to ask questions, find their answers and come up with discussion topics.
Swatantra Talim doesn’t have grades or classes. Instead, the students are divided into groups:
1) Neev (Base)– For children between 6 to 11 years of age. The focus here is to team them basic literacy, numeracy, and social interaction skills through Khoj Dabba.
2) Seekh group (Learning) is for 12 to 14 years. Students in this group are given exposure to the outer world through videos, study trips and workshops by experts.
3) Srijan is the group of Explorers who are 14 years of age and above. They try to address and design solution and grassroots innovation for the immediate community problems of the village where they belong.
“We are trying to inculcate small yet significant habits so that they can solve their own issues and don’t have to migrate to other cities to find jobs. We want to develop an entrepreneurial spirit in them, making them start up on their own.. There are many children who want to become teachers. One should be conceptually strong even to teach other children, hence our focus is on conceptual clarity.”
In Swaekta (Unity in Diversity) program children from different backgrounds come together, and share their culture and thoughts on different aspects they observe in their surrounding. There is a mobile classrooms program where volunteers from different areas of our country teach children different concepts in the village through the cell phone on speaker mode. Here, Swatantra Talim staff works as a mediator.
The pen-pal program is about writing letters to the people who have visited the centers or their resource person who did few workshops with children.
Swatantra Talim observes Daanutsav (donation festival) every year 2nd October to 8th October where people donate according to their capacity.
For revenue, the after-school follows a grant model. Since they cater to a low-income group which is unwilling to spend on education in the first place, the after-school doesn’t charge fees.
Revenue generation streams – Crowdfunding, grants and CSR Funds.
Swatantra Talim has earlier received grants from Deshpande Foundation, Changeloom fellowship and by Pratham for setting up the library. This is used to sustain a staff of 8 working at 2 Swatantra Talim centers.
Speaking of government’s support for grants, Rahul says that they have been very conservative in their approach and need to be explained how this model is beneficial for children.
“We have to make a lot of effort when it comes to selling the idea even when we are doing and making that effort for free. It is really hard to get through into and into the government body.”
Swantatra Talim has brought about a significant impact, especially at bringing down the drop out rate and acing at innovation.
– No one had studied beyond 5th standard in Ramdwari village, this year we have 4 girls who gave grade 10 examinations.
-100 children who had dropped out from Madarsa and conventional schools have been showing 85% attendance since they enrolled themselves at Swantra Talim centre.
-On providing the relevant materials- children were able to develop low-cost Air conditioner and solar mobile chargers. Currentl, they are working on how to attach lights and umbrella to bicycle as people ride cycles while moving to and fro in village.
With this, the village community has begun to find children’s education relevant and useful for them and hence, have been sending more children to Swatantra Talim.
On Scaling it Up
Ridhi says that although she wants to see this initiative reaching far and wide, in every village of India, she is strictly against scaling up at the cost of compromising quality of education.
“We’d be super happy if any other NGO or initiative wants to replicate this model. Currently we have 2 centre as model of excellence. We are focusing on streamlining our processes for next 3 years. Meanwhile, Khoj Dabba for grade 1 to 5 will be running as a pilot in 20-25 government schools near Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh next year. If the pilot turns out successful, we will be replicating this to more schools.”
Even with a spiral down in their monthly salaries, moving from well-paying corporate jobs to anything that hardly supports their basic necessities, Rahul and Ridhi are pumped and enthusiastic to take this initiative forward.
“Everybody wants a Bhagatsingh, but in the house next door. I believe that if there has to be someone to take the initiative then why not us? Even though the earlier job gave us luxury, this job gives us happiness even at a low income.”
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