Back full circle!

By Purnima Ramanujan

Working in ASER Centre, it’s not just difficult but practically impossible to miss the fervor and fever of the ASER season. But then Muhammad Ali said “Impossible is nothing” or put another way, impossible things have a way of happening. Thus in 2012, I sat out of all ASER related work and travel because of conflicting schedules with a project that I was managing. From August to November, while I worked away at my desk, my colleagues were training in different locations every week, monitoring and rechecking the survey and along with thousands of volunteers all over the country side, clocking hundreds of miles, in buses, trains, auto-rickshaws, bullock carts and every conceivable mode of transport to reach over 16,000 villages surveyed that year!

Exactly a year later, ASER 2013 was about to start. And I had vowed that I will not sit out again. That I will get some travel under my belt. And the opportunity came my way when Mohit, a colleague asked if I could travel for 3 weeks to manage and conduct the district training in Ladakh and Kargil. Obviously I was not going to miss the chance.

After asking my boss for the required permission to travel (which basically meant that I’d be somewhat incommunicado for a good part of those 3 weeks given the erratic network connection in that part of the country), I got busy with wrapping up work, delegating to my team so that my own project work would not suffer while I was away in the field.

During the week that I spent in Ladakh, Mohit and I had a few days free, before teams returned with the survey booklets and we embarked on a recheck mission. So, what better way to spend those days than partaking in the actual survey as field investigators? For most of us at ASER, field work is an integral part of our work and is something that we participate in as often as our other commitments permit.

So, we decided to survey a village close to the city which was also a village where we were required to survey 40 instead of the usual 20 households (because it had been selected twice during the random selection of villages in the district). Mohit and I decided to split up and took a volunteer each with us. For Karthik, my partner for the survey, this was an extremely exciting opportunity since he was a lawyer by profession; visiting Ladakh on a personal trekking trip and getting involved in a survey on education was pure chance.

Out first stop was the school. We were directed to the only government (primary) school located in our part of the village by a few villagers. As I entered this school, a feeling of déjà vu hit me. I had visited this school before, two years ago in 2011, when I’d been rechecking the survey in this village. At that time, this school had a young Head Master who I’d found to be extremely enthusiastic. This time around I was there as an investigator. I was eager to see if the Head Master was the same and if the school had changed since my last visit.

This school had a big playground and the boundary wall had a lot of bright pictures painted on it. As we entered, we saw a few children sitting under the shade of a tree along with their teacher. All the students had their textbooks open and one of them seemed to be reading aloud from it. As I approached the group, the teacher got up from her chair and came towards me. I introduced Karthik and myself and asked to speak with the Head Master. She directed us to a room inside the school.

Inside the room we were received by Mr. Sonam Lundup, the new Head Master of this Government Primary School. After about five minutes of explaining the purpose of our visit, Mr. Lundup vigorously nodded his assent and told us that we were welcome to ask for any information that we required.

I opened the school survey sheet and started filling in the basic details – School name, Type of School, Name and contact of the Head Master etc. Then I came to the first question for which I asked Mr. Lundup to provide me the enrollment figures of each class from the official enrollment register of the school.

I was poised with my pen, ready to start writing when he began “LKG – 10, UKG – 5”. He looked up and noticed that I wasn’t noting these details down and by way of explanation, I told him that the survey only collected information for Grades 1 and upwards. Mr. Lundup looked at me and asked why ASER did not collect enrollment information for pre-primary classes. I told him that was because most government schools in India did not include pre-primary classes and that as per my knowledge Jammu & Kashmir and Assam were the only states in the country that offered pre-primary classes within public schools.

It is at this point where my life, actually my work that I had left behind in Delhi, came back a full circle, many miles away in Ladakh.

You see, as Senior Research Associate in ASER Centre, I am currently involved in a study on Early Childhood education and its impact on children’s learning in primary grades. We’re doing a longitudinal sample survey in 3 states of the country and this was the project that had kept me away from the ASER survey in 2012. And at that moment, as I sat before the Head Master of a small government primary school in Ladakh, I was actually involved in a discussion relevant to the work that I had left behind in Delhi, or at least I thought I had. 
I forgot about the survey booklet in my hand as I started telling him about the project I was involved in and the discussion went from education in general to early childhood education in the country. Mr. Lundup shook his head and said that was tragic that pre-primary education was being neglected because the initial years of children were the most important for building a sound grounding in learning and social skills.

Many of the issues that have come up in my study were being spoken of, one of the most important being the lack of trained pre-school teachers. He spoke about how, in the year that he’d been the HM of the current school, he had tried to systematize teaching in pre-school classes and how he’d brought up the issue of allocating separate teachers for pre-primary classes in the official meetings he’d attended.

He spoke about how the teacher’s were only allotted to Grade 1 and above and it was assumed that teaching in pre-school classes would be carried out without a problem. Most of the global and national literature on early childhood education stresses on the importance of having teachers who are not merely qualified, but trained to teach young children, through techniques which are very different from how children are taught in higher grades. Yet what we find on ground is that in most institutions, whether public or private, schools do not have teachers specifically for pre-primary classes. Teachers who are trained to teach older children are expected to also teach these young children.

As we sat speaking about these issues, I felt connected to my own research project. I was infused with new enthusiasm and knew that when I returned, this moment would always remain with me. Because, as I knew very well, life had a way of coming back a full circle!  

P.S: Most unfortunately, this was the day that I decided to leave my camera in my room. And so while I do not have any pictures from the day of the school visit, I do have pictures of the survey conducted in Ladakh and Kargil in general.