All aboard the Education Express!
This one train goes nowhere but has scores of children and adults alike looking forward to board it every day. Yes, you heard it right. This Education Express at the Government Upper Primary School (GUPS) in Sempliphatak, Shahbad is hard to miss as it stands out against the verdant green fields of Baran.
Baran, a small district in the south- eastern part of Rajasthan shares its borders with Madhya Pradesh with a population of about 15.5 lakhs. Far from the popular tourist postcards of Rajasthan with endless sand dunes as far as the eyes can see, Baran has three rivers flowing through it- Kalisindh, Parvati and Parban and is a collage of lush green fields against the backdrop of clear blue skies.
Carved out of Kota in 1991, Baran encompasses 8 administrative blocks with 1221 villages with nearly 80% of its population residing in rural areas. The district is a part of the Hadoti region and is mainly dependent on agriculture as over 70% of workers in the district are either cultivators or agricultural labourers.
While India has made great strides in improving the literacy rates across the country, with Baran also clocking in at a literacy rate of 66.7%, higher than the state average of 66.1%. (As per Census 2011) However, the quality of education on the ground leaves a lot to be desired. As per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2018, less than 30% of the students in Grade 3-5 could read a Grade 2 level text and solve 2-digit subtraction in 25 aspirational districts identified by NITI Aayog. One of the core problems identified which resulted in this low-level learning was the irregularity of the students and the high dropout rate among government schools. While the long-term impact of COVID- 19 is still unknown, it is important that we build pandemic resistant interventions which can support improved learning outcomes; as the pandemic’s economic shocks are only likely to increase school drop-out rates.
During my visit to this Aspirational District, I got an opportunity to visit the GUPS at Sempliphatak Shahbad; which is one of the 8 model schools developed with the support of Piramal Foundation to include BaLA Design elements in order to transform the learning environment of schools to enhance student learning outcomes. It was a welcoming sight, as the officials had managed to facelift a whole section of the school into a train! They called it the Education Express and had all the elements of a real-life train painted on it. (Images attached below)
With each door opening into a classroom; this train has helped students learn about their own country; even as most of them have never stepped out of their villages, let alone the district. The train has fostered their understanding of various socio-political concepts such as how different states come together to form a nation as well as geographical concepts; thereby piquing their curiosity about the environment. This corridor is also a platform for learning (pun intended) for the little ones who often sit here to recite the alphabet and build their basic numeric skills as they count the number of bars on the painted window or the total number of doors on the train!
So, what is BaLA? Building as a Learning Aid, or BaLA as it is popularly known, is all about developing the entire school’s physical environment as a learning aid. It helps in maximizing the educational ‘value’ of the built space while exploring the uniqueness of the three-dimensional space as a ‘child friendly resource’ for all. Thus, building elements of the school is innovatively modified to involve children in a creative manner. The different elements of BaLA can be located in both interior and exterior spaces like classrooms, corridors and even the backyard to create a variety of learning situations across the school space. This resource can be an effective complement to the teaching process and goes much beyond the old- school use of walls and surfaces in schools for posters and decoration. The structure itself can provide shelter during educational activities and be a start to engaging conversations to promote peer learning.
Shahbad also has a sizable Sehariya population, which is the only particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) in Rajasthan, as per Census 2011. As seen in Baran, it has helped in increase in enrolment and retention of children in the school as an aesthetic environment helps reduce boredom and ensure that school is perceived to be a fun –filled space for learning. Post the facelift of the school, children not only look forward to coming to school, but it has also made the process of learning more interesting for both the children and the teachers. It was heartening to see the headmaster talk about the efforts taken by them to make children attend school. They had even set up a garden within the school premises, jointly being taken care of by the teachers and the students. The produce of which was used to make nutritious mid-day meals before COVID-19 induced lockdown. This not only helped them build trust with the teachers but also resulted in a greater number of children being enrolled in government schools, as confirmed by ASER, 2021.
BaLA as a concept is open to constant innovation and has the potential to develop spaces that are conducive to learning while mediating the digital divide. With Baran set to expand the adoption of BaLA elements being introduced in more government schools across the district, it will help ensure that children from families with limited resources have access to spaces which promote inclusive and equitable education. This will contribute towards holistic development of children and matter of course to nation building.
India’s recently launched New Education Policy,2020 (NEP 2020) acknowledges the urgent need to strengthen foundational learning skills in India. The policy aims to reduce school dropout rates through infrastructure support and constant learning evaluation while engaging with parents to promote children’s development. As schools slowly begin to open after months of lockdown, it is important to ensure that the government schools and teachers need to be equipped to deal with this influx.
For we all know that, a train is only as strong as its weakest link.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.