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The rural education system desperately needs a shake-up, and qualified, comfortable urban dwellers like us need to pitch in.
By Sabbah Haji
Aisha Tabassum, age 4, had just started Lower Kindergarten. Like all the new students in her class, Aisha was still a little shy. Her elder brother Nazir would accompany her, sitting with her through the day in all classes. Nazir was already a student of Grade 8 in the local Government High School. Except, Nazir couldn’t read. He was unable to recognise even the alphabet, yet he had never been failed in all his years at the school. Like all his peers, he was just on an enroll-and-pass system, with no connect to actual learning. This had been the case in the village for a couple of generations when we decided to try and change things.
Haji Public School [HPS] started off as a very simple idea within the family: “Let’s get our people educated. Let’s start from home.” Home in this case was our ancestral village Breswana, sitting high up in the mountains of Doda in Jammu and Kashmir. ‘Our people’ were generations of students whose school life had flitted by without them gaining so much as an elementary level of learning, judged by any decent academic standard.
Government schools: a shoddy state of affairs
Like most villages, the only school in Breswana used to be a government school. A typical government school in our area has two or three teachers, while the students number in the hundreds. The teachers are not necessarily well-qualified, especially for higher classes. Add to this the absence of official checks (given the remoteness of the area) and you have a comfortable, uninterested teaching staff, with high absenteeism and proxy stand-ins. The additional scourge of militancy in the past, and an absence of Panchayats at the local level, made the school system plumb even lower depths. A similar malaise possibly affects all rural government schools across the subcontinent, but I can only speak of our experiences in the mountains of J&K.
The additional scourge of militancy in the past, and an absence of Panchayats at the local level, really made the school system plumb even lower depths.
The Haji family decided in late 2008 that the only way to break away from the status quo was to start its own school in the village. From two rooms in the Haji cottage in 2009, with two trained teachers and thirty odd students, Haji Public School now functions out of its own building and grounds, having sixteen home-grown teachers and about a hundred and fifty students in classes Kindergarten through to Grade Four. With each year we increment a class, eventually aiming to take the school up to college level.
Proper schooling: immediate positives
The positives of good schooling on children is immediately obvious and we witnessed these changes firsthand. The kids picked up very quickly on hygiene, discipline, manners and confidence, apart from actually learning well. Family members were asked to involve themselves in their children’s activities and siblings began to take more interest in their studies out of a sense of competition. Cleanliness and awareness in the community as a whole picked up. A few years ago, a young child of the village speaking confidently to any adult stranger would have been an unimaginable scenario. Today, the kids at HPS are as comfortable with their teachers as with a volunteer from Canada or Singapore visiting for a few days.
A healthy learning environment without the traditional fear tactics so embedded in conventional teaching, along with enough time for games and fun so essential to young children, is really all that is needed for a good village school [good teaching is, of course, a given].
Running a rural school – challenges
The biggest challenge one faces with running a growing school in a remote rural area such as ours is staffing. Everything else falls by the wayside. There is a serious dearth of qualified teachers from among the local population. Unfortunately, because of the difficult location and it being a village, better-qualified teachers from elsewhere are not willing to move there for a permanent or long-term stint.
The biggest challenge one faces with running a growing school in a remote rural area such as ours is staffing. Everything else falls by the wayside.
Other practical challenges are, primarily, funding of a school that doesn’t run on profits. The remoteness of the village from the nearest town and the absence of motorable roads all the way is another physical challenge. For any purchase or transport of stationery and materials, administration work, permissions etc., the physical distance that has to be covered is daunting. Also, the absence of Internet anywhere in the area is a negative, especially in this day and age.
Go teach in the villages
My experience with our school in the mountains has been extremely rewarding; I have seen directly how proper education affects a village. I feel strongly that anyone willing and able to take time off ought to head to a village [someone you know must have ties to a village] and help in schools there for as long as they are able. It is the rural education system that desperately needs a shake-up, and it has to be us, the better-qualified, comfortable urban dwellers who have to pitch in to lend a hand. Governments and ‘the system’ have done nothing all these years. We need not wait around and expect them to suddenly wake up. Let’s get in there ourselves.
PS: Haji Public School is accepting applications for long-term teaching volunteers from its spring session, March 2012 onwards. Volunteers will be required to commit to a period of three to six months at the least. Contact details are available off the school website.
Pic credit: Sabbah Haji