The Joy of Learning in India

Oxfam supporter David Kenningham recently visited two schools in Uttar Pradesh, India, established as the result of collaboration between Oxfam and local NGOs. Altogether in the program there are four schools providing primary education for about 500 children. Here he gives some impressions of what he saw and learned.

Driving through green countryside, not far from the Ganges, we passed a government school, identified by the horizontal green band around the building. It was deserted, sadly not an uncommon site in rural areas. There may be no teacher, or the appointed teacher doesn't turn up.

Further on in this remote area of Uttar Pradesh, the scene was very different. We had arrived at a school in an attractive building and it was buzzing with well-directed activity. Over 140 children aged from 5 to 12, in five classes, neatly dressed in a simple uniform, were enthusiastically engaged in their work.

These were some of the poorest, least privileged children in India, mostly from Dalit or 'untouchable' communities all too often denied the opportunity to receive even a basic education, despite the requirement of the state governments to provide it. Girls are deprived far more than boys, their families giving priority to their sons, keeping daughters at home to help. It was heart warming to discover that over 60 per cent of the pupils in the school were girls.

History and hygiene

Rita, the enthusiastic head teacher, showed me round the classes. The level of interest and involvement of the girls and boys would have satisfied the sternest observer of a primary school class anywhere. The curriculum has an emphasis on literacy and numeracy, includes science, history, and geography and also provides good opportunities for art, drama, dance and music. Rita explained the emphasis on ”˜joyful' education methods, with well-planned pupil activities enhancing motivation and attendance. She told me that seven former pupils, all girls now at a Junior High School, had won prizes there for poem presentations, dance, playing music and singing.

At break time there was great enthusiasm to use musical instruments, play games and enjoy recently installed swings and climbing frames. These were the simple pleasures that school children the world over should be able to share with their friends, but often denied to the under privileged. There were also cycles available at break times, helping tackle a tradition of families not allowing girls to cycle to restrict their freedom.

 David Kenningham / Oxfam

Rita drew my attention to a well that provided a supply of clean drinking water and I learned how the schools helped develop good habits of hygiene, which can be neglected in the village life of the poorest communities.

Wanted: teachers

Lakshmi, aged 12, travels eight kilometers to the school every day. There was a school in her village, but no teacher. She said how much she liked studying and how she enjoyed the story books. She knew about health problems of people in her village and said her ambition was to become a doctor. I hope she and all the others get the chance to continue their education, fulfil their potential, and break the cycle of deprivation and discrimination that has blighted the lives of so many women.

Moving on to a second school, where there was a large playground, the lessons had ended, but one class had stayed behind to show us how they were learning to multiply using match sticks. The teacher was working with small groups of pupils who were totally absorbed in their work. It was a good example of a practical 'hands on' approach and an inspiring teacher. At this school I met members of the village education committee, three mothers of pupils in the school.

In addition to the normal school activities there have been residential camps, visits to local towns and other opportunities to widen the experience of the children and help build their confidence. The effect of all of this can be seen in their faces and actions. The atmosphere was vibrant.

It is early days and everyone involved knows there will always be much to do. The 'continuous improvement' approach seems to be well established. The main objective now is to secure the future of these schools. Eventually the government may fund them fully, but at best that will not be for several years. For the immediate future new sources of funding are urgently needed to pay for the teachers and add to the buildings and equipment.