Helping kids get to school


A new organisation Schoolgoers is creating high-quality learning opportunities for children in rural India. 

Education in India is free and compulsory for all children, and yet, according to the latest statewide Annual State of Education report, in rural areas only 41 per cent of students in Year 5 can read a Year-2 level textbook.

The implications of this have led Daksha Sridhar and Ash Nugent to conceive of an almost entirely new model of delivering education in disadvantaged areas of India. The result is Schoolgoers, a non-profit organisation that plans to establish learning centres in India that offer flexible yet high-quality education programs.

“You can’t simply build a school and hope for that educational access to happen,” says Melbourne-raised Sridhar, 27. She and Nugent discovered this first-hand whilst on a self-funded study tour of India in early 2014, when they and a group of likeminded friends spent around two weeks on an intensive tour of NGOs and schools across India.

Schoolgoers.Indian Link

Interested in investigating how they could help in the current educational space, they instead found that conventional school programs, no matter how supportive, weren’t able to address the specific obstacles faced by disadvantaged children and their parents.

“Many [parents] expressed a strong desire for their child to get an education…when we dug deeper however, some acknowledged that their children play a large role in supporting their households,” Sridhar says. In fact, according to the latest Indian government census, there are 4.4 million child labourers in India.

Schoolgoers.Indian Link
Daksha Sridhar

Another deep-seated issue is that of child marriage. The group found that, despite the efforts of school directors, there was a mixed response from parents of girls to letting them finish their education instead of getting them married.

“There was a high drop-out rate from age 14,” says Sridhar. “You hear about it statistically, but it was confronting to know just how many girls were dropping out who wanted to continue.”

Schoolgoers.Indian Link

The final issue that struck home with Sridhar and Nugent was the lack of access to quality education in rural areas. While observing classes in schools, they found that children who could read a page in English didn’t necessarily understand what it was they were reading.

“There’s a strong focus on rote learning and not necessarily quality education,” Sridhar explains. She also couldn’t help noticing that, when questioned about their ambitions, only a few children named things outside their own experiences. One child said he wanted to be Prime Minister.

“One mentioned Donald Trump! I have no idea how he heard about Donald Trump – that was just amazing,” Sridhar laughs.

For Sridhar and Nugent, the trip to India was an eye-opener. Eventually, it was the two of them that came together to start Schoolgoers.

“We have complementary skill sets,” says Sridhar, who has been volunteering for non-profit projects in Australia and overseas since she finished high school. Nugent brings experience working with asylum seekers and refugees in social enterprise projects.

Schoolgoers.Indian Link
Ash Nugent with locals

The first Schoolgoers Learning Centre will be in the village of Ghogharia in southern Bihar. To establish the Centre, Sridhar and Nugent are working closely with Naresh Kumar and Pankaj Kumar, who run Gautam Buddh Free Education Centre near Bodh Gaya, and whose pragmatic approach to running their own school inspired the model Sridhar and Nugent have embarked on.

The Schoolgoers Learning Centre in Ghogharia will offer a formal high-quality school program, but with flexible hours for children who are not able to attend school during normal hours. It will also offer a supplementary program for children who already attend school, but have gaps in their education. Sridhar and Nugent also hope that the Centre will engage with the broader village community and, in future, be able to provide adult education programs.

The journey to getting the organisation up and running hasn’t been smooth. Besides having to contend with doubt over the project from friends, family and stakeholders both in Australia and India, it took time (and around fifty emails) to find an Indian law firm willing to work pro bono with them to get them through the many regulations required for NGOs in India. What’s more, both Sridhar and Nugent work full-time while jointly working on Schoolgoers.

Schoolgoers.Indian Link

“Since it’s just the two of us, we both do everything,” says Sridhar. But she’s unreserved about how she feels about working on something so big while also working full-time.

“I love it. This is an opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”

The Learning Centre will open in the second half of this year. Sridhar and Nugent hope that, if their new approach works, they can establish Learning Centres across Bihar, India, and, eventually, even in other countries.

“I’m not saying it will happen overnight,” says Sridhar. “But you have to have a big vision.”

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