Putting education first

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Pratham is working to ensure every child in India is educated and working to their fullest potential

Every child in school and learning well. The simplicity of the mission statement of non-government organisation Pratham belies the scope of their work in changing the face of education across India.

Initially established to target pre-schoolers and primary students in the slums of Mumbai, Pratham has grown to create a network of programs across 21 states and territories of India.

Pratham.Indian Link

With Pratham’s flagship program ‘Read India’, as well as vocational training, early childhood educator training, English basics, ‘Pratham Books’, the Council for Vulnerable Children, and the InfoTech Foundation, it is not hard to see why Pratham’s low-cost, replicable models have spread far and wide.

Working in the field of social development since 1992, Renu Seth joined Pratham in 2005. “All other programs seemed so small compared to an organisation like Pratham,” Seth says. “The difference lies in the structure of the organisation, the simplicity. It showed me how a country like India needs work with a quality, large scale impact.”

She has worked across various verticals within the Pratham Education Foundation and is now the head of the Second Chance program.

“Every day, every program is a learning experience,” Seth says. “We began a pilot program in Mumbai looking into the needs of young women who had stopped schooling. We wanted to know how we could bring them back to the books. It was a learning experience for us too, and helped us to develop the Pratham Open School of Education.”

An important aspect of this is the Second Chance Program which offers an opportunity for women who were forced to abandon their education, due to various socio-economic issues or poor learning outcomes, to go back and finish high school.

“We are going to 33 centres around the country, covering more than 3000 students who are taking part,” Seth says. “We’re hoping that because of what these girls will be able to do with their lives, it will show others they can do it too. We’re tracking them, trying to give them some additional support in terms of vocational guidance, financial literary, counselling. This will make their lives more meaningful.”

Estimates suggest 40 per cent of India’s 1.21 billion people are below the age of 18. To secure the country’s future, Pratham believes it is imperative to provide better education, going beyond rote learning to greater comprehension and understanding of skills.

“Whether it is the child of farmer or the child of businessman, whether it is in Australia or in India, every parent has a desire to see their child grow up and do well, be better than they are,” Seth says.

Pratham.Indian Link

She details how although education has become a right for children in India, many do not have the necessary basic, pre-schooling skills needed to begin learning. For too long children were able to move on to the next grade without basic alphabet, reading, language development and numerical skills, she says.

With Pratham, thousands of volunteers work to implement learning ‘interventions’ at the grassroots level, integrating a holistic approach with the family and community.

“In the Pratham system, materials are reorganised. Children are grouped according to what they know and need to know, rather than by age bracket,” Seth explains. “We’re teaching a basic standard of operations in maths; an ability to read a text and talk about it.”

“There is a window where you can catch a child and engage with them in grades 3, 4 or 5. The child is still a learner. She goes to the market for milk and brings back exactly the amount of change required. She is living in a world and transacting, but she can’t write it down. It’s reorganising what the child does so it is more relevant to their world and their skills. Teaching them that next step.”

In 2005, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) was initiated by Pratham to measure learning outcomes and focus on issues of children’s schooling in India. Similar assessments are now implemented across at least eight other countries. ASER has become an important tool in the education field with governments at the State and Central level using the reports to formulate their education policies.

“Knowing there is a problem is often the first step to a solution,” says Seth. “Parents often think sending their child to school is enough, but this is about creating an awareness and responsibility for children’s learning at a community level.”

Pratham.Indian Link

Pratham’s results speak for themselves. According to the most recent ASER findings, out of the 10,562 schools that Pratham worked with over the past two years, in 67 per cent of the schools, over 75 per cent or more children could read at the end of their program up from 20 per cent in the initial stages.

“The basic criteria is that if a child needs help with their studies, Pratham will be there,” Seth says. “It is not about replacing government teaching, it supplements what is already being done. It’s about providing time for children to get up to their grade level. India is a diverse country with so many dialects so there is also sometimes a need to act as a bridge to help the child from the home language to the school language.”

Many children and students who went through the Pratham remedial classes are now teachers in the current Pratham centres. “They feel this is their own little school,” Seth says. “They come to give back to the program. They feel a sense of pride being associated with Pratham.”

Access to schools across India has improved immensely over the past twenty years, now the same collective action is needed for access to learning outcomes, argues Seth.

“Not everyone has to be an engineer or doctor, but they should have the ability that, if they work in a factory on a machine, they have the skills to read the instructions on that machine. If they’re serving in a café, they should know how to do sums and communicate well. It’s about learning the foundational skills to understand the world around you.”

Some have criticised Pratham saying it doesn’t move beyond a basic standard, but as Seth says, “If we just moved on to other realms of education, this lot would be left behind. It’s about finding different ways to give them the best foundations, developing a sense of independent learning.”

Pratham.Indian Link

In late 2015, Dr Madhav Chavan, co-founder of Pratham, and Dr Rukmini Banerji, former Director of ASER and current CEO of Pratham, joined a public talk organised by the School of Education in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

They spoke about Pratham and its processes including the idea of being creative while focusing on practical everyday solutions, for example using the floor as writing boards in rural classrooms. They also detailed the reorganisation of teaching and learning materials in the age of technology, educating women and children who can’t read but know how to work a mobile phone.

“There has been an organic expansion of Pratham,” Seth says. “We began with children, moving on to women, and now we also have vocational training programs. The hope is to make intergenerational progress.”

UTS is now looking at how to connect their expertise with the needs of Pratham. Several staff from the university will be taking the opportunity this year to visit Pratham’s offices in Mumbai and across India to best understand ways of developing future partnerships

“We’re always thinking about how to improve Pratham,” Renu Seth says. “Once someone has been a part of the Pratham journey it stays with them.”

To find out more visit Pratham.org