‘Education for all’ works its magic in classrooms across India

June 28th, 2008 - 6:39 am ICT by IANS  

By Prashant K. Nanda
In a corner of eastern India’s Kolkata city is a school that is waving the wand of education to work its magic not just in terms of reading and writing skills but giving its students the confidence to face the future. More than half of the 68 students at the Swamiji Vidyapeeth Primary School in the working-class Bowbazaar area are children of commercial sex workers, and it was not until the government launched its Universal Education Campaign that it really took off.

The school was established four decades ago. But it took the government’s flagship education programme, evocatively named Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), or education for all, to get children from the brothels nearby to come there.

The social stigma and the fear of ostracism kept mothers from enrolling their children - till the SSA intervened with regular counselling, interaction and awareness drives.

“Children are never made to feel that their mothers are from this disreputable place where I live. Ten years ago, schools would not have even looked at us, let alone admitted our children to study. So much has changed over the last few years,” said Banita, a sex worker, whose daughter Sona studies at the Swamiji Vidyapeeth Primary School.

Just like education is more than just the three Rs, India’s ambitious education for all campaign is a success story that goes beyond mere statistics - giving millions of children not just the chance to read and write but a stab at a new life.

From opening new schools to encouraging private institutions to join in and bringing together internationals aid agencies, the programme has given more than 180 million children a chance at an educated life, a good career and confidence to face the odds.

The statistics are impressive. According to one estimate:

* 181 million of 194 million children in the ages of six to 13 have been enrolled in schools;

* there has been an increase in enrolment of over 27 million children between 2003 and 2006;

* access to primary schooling has increased to the extent that nearly 98 percent of the country’s children (of school-going age) have a primary school within a kilometre of their home;

* the number of out of school children has fallen significantly to 7.5 million in 2007, from 32 million in 2001-02.

Much of this can be attributed to the SSA which, since its launch in 2001-02, has been not only trying to deliver its objective of universal elementary education but also bridging the socio-cultural and gender gaps in the country of over one billion people.

This it does by including in its ambit specific focus on the girl child and skills like computer education, so necessary in the rapidly evolving tech world of today.

According to experts, the government’s flagship education programme has been a huge success in providing elementary education to millions of children who are either out of school or those who have dropped out due to socio-economic reasons.

“The aim of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is to provide useful and relevant elementary education for all children in the 6-14 age group by 2010,” said Arun Kumar Rath, secretary in the ministry of human resource development (HRD).

“There is also another goal which aims to bridge social, regional and gender gaps with the active participation of the community in the management of schools,” Rath said.

The SSA is getting implemented in partnership with state governments to cover the entire country and address the needs of its children in 1.1 million habitations.

In the Indian reality, related programmes like the midday meals schemes have also contributed in a big way to attracting children to schools. Equally significant have been moves to improve the quality of life.

Keeping an eye on sanitation and the girl child, the government has built under the programme nearly 222,000 toilets at primary schools. Similarly, nearly 187,000 new schools have been opened in the last seven years - courtesy the SSA.

The SSA has also facilitated construction of over 656,000 additional classrooms and provided drinking water facilities at 175,413 schools.

“The programme seeks to open new schools in habitations which do not have schooling facilities and strengthen existing school infrastructure through provision of additional classrooms, toilets, drinking water, maintenance grant and school improvement grants,” says its mission statement.

In the budget of the last two years (2007-08, 2008-09), the government has allocated over Rs.262 billion ($6 billion) for universalising elementary education to achieve the millennium development goal (MDG) of universal primary education.

The MDG by the United Nations calls for universalisation of primary education by 2015, a target that the Indian government wants to achieve five years in advance.

“The universalisation of elementary education effort in India is really making impressive progress. It has been successful in helping millions of children to get into school,” said Nemat Shafik, permanent secretary (to India) of Britain’s Department of International Development (DFID), which this year gave Rs.12 billion ($280 million) for better implementation of SSA in India.

The challenge has been a considerable one but the rewards have been many.

The success stories range from children in remote villages to slum clusters in India’s many sprawling cities.

And, as always, it is manifested most effectively not in figures but in real life stories.

Like that of 12-year-old Debraj Gahir from eastern India’s Orissa state who can hardly believe he can go to school again.

Gahir, who belongs to Orissa’s drought-hit Bolangir district, has to move whenever his parents move in search of livelihood.

“My dream of pursuing education was shattered when my parents started migrating. I lost hope that I would be able to go to school again,” he said.

His parents migrate to southern Andhra Pradseh for nearly seven months a year to work in brick kilns. But under the SSA, both Orissa and Andhra Pradesh as well as Action Aid India, a non-profit organisation, started collaborative projects to fulfil the need of students like Gahir.

They have set up residential and non-residential bridge course camps around the brick kilns. The primary aim of the project is to ensure that children forced to move with their parents don’t lose any part of the academic year.

Teachers were brought from Orissa to teach these students in bridge camps. So Gahir went to one such camp and was admitted in Class 5; and when he returned to his native village in Bolangir he made a smooth transition to Class 6.

And from hereon, to a better tomorrow.

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