It’s a beautiful village

– By Soibam Nepola

I recently visited Rural Kamrup district in Assam to observe activities of a community engagement programme that is being run by ASER Centre. The objective of the programme is to minimize the gap between school and community and to check its impact on children’s learning outcomes. My visit happened on the last week of September to oversee a parents-teachers meeting which had been called by the school and community jointly.

The program ‘School and learning to Community’ is a long-term program that runs into eight phases for over a year. The processes and structures of the program are based on the findings of a needs assessment study, and goals set by the school and community together to reduce the existing gaps and fulfill requirements. The programme allows for a platform at the community level where stakeholders can come, discuss and act upon the issues in an informed manner.

In this village, the programme had passed the stages of identifying and defining community, community mobilization, assessment of children’s learning levels, community organization, need assessment and setting of some doable goals by community members to improve the functioning of school and learning outcomes. So, in the current phase, the community and its schools were working together to achieve the goals they had together set earlier. Some of these goals included – a parent-teacher meeting on a fixed date of every month, regular visits to the local school by parents and SMC members during class hours, regular attendance of teachers, classroom transaction and homework, parents assisting their children with homework regularly and ensuring regular school attendance.

It was the first meeting that was scheduled after the goal setting. So I was really interested to see how the community had organized the meeting, and what they would discuss to address the vacuums. It happened to be a big village with 18 hamlets and three government schools – a primary school (class I-V), a middle school (nursery-class VIII) and a high school (class IX & X only). Twenty five per cent of the children attended a private school situated in the neighboring village, as there is no private English school in this village.

Parents and teachers gather for a meeting
I reached the primary school to find only three parents present at the meeting. We waited for some time till a total of 14 parents were sitting in one of the classrooms for the meeting. 
“Should we wait for some more time?” I asked.

“No,” replied a parent, who was a volunteer of the community engagement programme. The discussion began with members discussing certain changes in the community since the inception of the programme. Around lunch time, we arrived at the middle school which had 214 students in nine classes (including pre-kindergarten) but only seven teachers. This meeting was attended by 27 parents and five teachers. Before the meeting could begin, the head master of the school said, “so many parents have never turned up for any of the earlier parent-teacher meetings.”

The meeting started and it felt like the teachers were taking the lead in the discussion and were sharing many problems that the school was facing, such as insufficient number of teachers for each class, irregular disbursement of funds and problems with the mid-day meal scheme. They also highlighted the challenges of additional responsibilities during the elections, board exams, etc when one parent interrupted and said, “The issue of insufficient teachers is prevalent throughout Assam, but at least let’s make the most of the available teachers”. The room fell silent for a few seconds.

Breaking the silence, the HM suggested forming a new school committee and invited every parent to participate in its upcoming discussion, processes, and become members. Then the discussion shifted towards regular monitoring of homework given to students, School Management Committee and extracurricular activities. The discussion was interrupted by a member of the Mothers Group Committee who said, “This is the first time that we are having a meeting to discuss children’s learning, attendance and homework in a big way between parents and teachers. From the next month onwards, we will send a letter to every parent through their children.”

“I had forgotten about the meeting, as it had never happened before,” added another mother. Another parent chimed in with, “why can’t we allot one day to discuss the progress our children are making when the remaining 29 days in a month is spent earning a livelihood?” Later, when the discussion becomes less intense, I took the opportunity to ask, “What can be possible topics for discussion if parent-teacher meeting becomes regular?” Together, they came up with topics such as the RTE rules, changes that are happening in the education system today, exemplary stories in the district, state and the country, besides having students recite or tell stories as it would developed their extracurricular abilities. I was elated as this meant that the parents and teachers were now able to think of constructive ways of holding such a meeting.

After the general meeting got over, I organized a small group discussion with some of the parents and asked if they could sense some visible changes after the program. A woman who also happens to be a member of the Mothers Group Committee said that a lot had changed since the program started. She said, “We didn’t know about the RTE and did not have a platform to discuss and share the problems we are facing or the school is facing”. Another parent added, “Two teachers who were not regular at school have mended their ways, and have started coming to school regularly.”

Also, it came-up during the discussion that student attendance was slowly improving, and homework was being given and checked regularly at school, which was the biggest visible change. The parents invited me to visit the next month’s meeting and promised least 90 per cent turnout.

“It’s a beautiful village”
The head master then praised the recently-concluded Science fair organized by Pratham as part of the ‘School and Learning to Commmunity’ program, and requested more such activities be conducted. He showed me the painting that had won a competition at the Science Fair. And I meant it when I told him, “It’s a beautiful village.”