How it all began

The Rural Education Centre at Rishi Valley was established in the early seventies with the primary intention of providing quality education to children of workers of Rishi Valley school and also children from nearby villages. The valley is dotted with tiny villages, many of them without a. primary school, and children have to walk several miles to attend school. Funds, however, were a problem for expanding the facilities at the Rural Education Centre. The school, with about 30 children, was for a number of years headed by visitors or teachers who taught primarily at the main school. As a result, it changed its character whenever there was a change of the head of the school, which was quite frequent. It was in the mid-eighties that we decided to have a long term plan and direction for the school. With a small grant from Action Aid, an international funding agency, we appointed full-time teachers and established facilities such as a library, lab and carpentry workshop.

At about the same time we also decided to explore the possibility of running a small one-teacher school in a hamlet 4 km away from Rishi Valley, populated mainly by scheduled tribes. We discovered that it was not easy to convince the villagers. They were not quite convinced that our only intention was to educate their children. About six months went by before they consented and gave a piece of land adjacent to the village for putting up a simple building. In about a year's time, however, their attitude changed completely; they were quite proud of the school and looked after it so that cows and goats didn't enter the school premises. A grant from the Ministry of Human Resource Development following a visit by Mr. Anil Bordia, the Secretary of Education, led to the founding of a few more one-teacher schools within a radius of about 5 km during the next five years.

Developing a viable model

It was with the arrival of Rama and Padmanabha Rao, a couple with postgraduate degrees in English, that innovation in educational materials and methodology began. When a group of people with interest in education undertakes to do something about education, especially at the primary level, they generally focus their attention on producing supplementary study materials which make learning more interesting. This is done to overcome the limitations of text books, which often tend to be rather uninspiring. These text books are also often inappropriate to rural areas. Rama and Rao, having followed the same path for some time, soon discovered that this approach 'was quite inadequate and ill-equipped to deal with the daunting problem of making the process of learning more lively, and of retaining children in school. Therefore, Rao and Rama decided to deal with the problem in its entirety rather than piecemeal. This required a very systematic and detailed examination of the process and content of every stage of learning. It required, for example, asking such questions as: Should one start with developing writing skills, the traditional way of learning a language? Which of the alphabetic letters are easier for children to learn? Can one teach arithmetic without first making the children memorise tables? Can one teach geography and environmental studies with the village and its surroundings as the focus? Answers to these and many other questions required several years of theoretical and practical work - an essentially cyclical process of designing and testing of materials and methodology. The availability of a heterogeneous group of children of varied background helped in conducting field trials and drawing meaningful conclusions.

The result of all these investigations is the development of a viable model for rural education. Unlike the government school system with a large number of schools and a strictly hierarchical administration, our model of education has a resource centre for every cluster of one-teacher schools which, apart from being a school, has facilities for periodic hands-on retraining of teachers, and additional resources for producing new materials by the teachers based on the experience they have acquired. The resource centre also acts as a place where all the teachers of that cluster gather periodically and share their insights and problems. We noticed that teachers in remote rural areas tend to get isolated and in due course lose interest in innovation and sometimes even in teaching. A resource centre helps prevent such stagnation. Another advantage of having a resource centre is the continuous feedback on and updating of teaching-learning materials so that the materials evolve over a period of time and a greater localisation of the content occurs.

School as a resource centre

Each one-teacher school, which we call a satellite school, acts in turn as a resource centre for the village in which it is located. Activities such as afforestation, prevention of soil erosion and health care are undertaken through the satellite school. Each school has a maximum of 30 children of up to 12 years of age. Classes are grouped vertically. The building itself is a rather simple structure - a hall, small store room and a round hut, a speciality of this region - located on the land given by the community. A small garden is developed around the school with a variety of plants including fruit trees. If additional land in the neighbourhood is made available, afforestation work is also undertaken.

Unlike the practice in conventional schools, there are no text books, no regular teaching of lessons in our satellite schools. The entire educational material is in the form of graded learning cards, work cards, three-dimensional aids, puzzles, puppets and so on. Each card has an animal logo by which a child can identify the cards even if she cannot read and write well; writing is taught several months after a child joins the school. Each child keeps track of her progress on a black-board and on a ladder consisting of the same animal logos found on the cards. Sometimes children at a particular level learn together or play games designed to test and improve their level of comprehension. Since each child progresses at a pace commensurate with her capacity, the teacher is more relaxed and yet is able to identify the difficulties experienced by each child. We find that with about a year's training we can induct as teachers young people who have themselves barely managed to get through school. This approach to learning helps children retain their intuitive skills, and remain alert and self-motivated. Seeing a group of children working on their own at a satellite school, a professor of education on an assessment visit remarked that we were producing not one Arjuna but several hundred Arjunas!

Any well designed education programme should involve parents in the process. Therefore, as a strategy to make parents take active interest in the education of their children, we periodically conduct at each school a programme known as 'metric mela'. Children and adults from all the nearby villages participate in the programme. The atmosphere is that of a fair. Children demonstrate to adults (and educate them in the process) their skills of measurement and familiarity with a host of units in a variety of amusing ways. These melas have been highly successful in generating interest in education among the adults.

Working with tribal schools

The first major field trial outside Rishi Valley for this approach took place when we were asked by UNICEF to help them in a programme to reinduct dropped-out girl children into school without making them repeat a year. It was a rather challenging task for us because of the requirement of having to make about 120 young volunteers familiar with our methodology in about three weeks. These volunteers would in turn teach about 4000 children for ten weeks at the end of which a test would be administered to assess the children. We achieved a success rate of over 93%, much higher than what we had expected.

This has led to a collaboration with the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) of Visakhapatnam district on a two-year programme for improving the quality of education imparted to tribal children in Araku Valley. The co-ordinators of ITDA found that though they were able to enrol a large number of tribal children in primary schools through a highly co-ordinated action plan, the dropout rate was very high in the first year itself. Investigations revealed that it was due to poor learning materials and inadequately trained teachers. Therefore, they have identified 1500 schools to try out our methodology. During the course of interaction with the local teachers, folk artists and others familiar with the region, our teachers found that the Telugu language of the region is somewhat different from the one used in our own cards. They further found that the tribal people of the region were quite unfamiliar with certain items like match sticks which have been extensively used in our work cards. Taking into account several such differences they had to redesign the entire material. In addition to developing these learning tools, the programme required training about 100 resource persons and monitoring the programme over a two-year period. The project is currently in progress.

The Kerala Experiment

In due course more organisations came to know of our approach to rural education. Rao and Rama were requested to explain and demonstrate the use of our learning materials at various fora, especially at workshops meant for directors of District Primary Education Programmes (DPEP) of various states. There is a growing awareness among the persons in charge of education that something radically different needs to be done to improve the standards of primary education in the country. As a consequence we are collaborating with the DPEP of Kerala on a World Bank funded project. Our task, a capacity building exercise, is to help them design material in Malayalam similar to ours, train their resource persons, and supervise the use of these materials in pilot schools. The first Designers' Workshop was held recently. We found the participants very enthusiastic and creative. A similar venture is in the offing with the DPEP of Karnataka. Several other states too have evinced interest in having similar projects in their states.

With a one-time grant from the Ministry of Human Resource Development we have established facilities for training about 25 persons. The facilities include dormitories for 25 people, a library, classrooms, a discussion room, and a kitchen and dining hall.

It is regrettable that until recently not much importance has been given to primary education. Even the non-governmental organisations and funding agencies have focused their attention mostly on economic development; the education component has typically been left to follow the traditional path. Through our satellite school experiment, we hope we have made a contribution to bringing about a change in attitude.