“Community engagement is key to ensuring underserved children stay in school”


Access to education for disadvantaged children has been a concern in India for a long time, despite a literacy rate almost six times higher since independence. But the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic has disrupted the education sector on an unprecedented scale as millions of children have found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. While children with adequate resources have managed to continue their education through virtual classrooms, disadvantaged children – without cellphones or computers – have been cut off from formal education. Civil society in general, and many individuals and non-governmental organizations in particular, have played – and still play – a major role in providing access to education for disadvantaged children. However, ensuring access and keeping children in school are two different things.

Smile Foundation is one such organization that has spearheaded its “Shiksha Na Ruke” campaign aimed at bringing dropout children back to school and also enabling uninterrupted learning for children through access to resources necessary for their education. .

We spoke to Mr. Santanu Mishra, Co-Founder and Executive Trustee, Smile Foundation, to understand the role of NGOs in providing access to education for disadvantaged children, especially in the post-pandemic era, the work needed to ensure that students complete their secondary education and the challenges they regularly face in a country as diverse as India. Here are some of the edited excerpts from the interview.

When the States have the obligation to send children to school within the framework of RTE, where does an NGO like the Smile Foundation intervene?

Smile Foundation, present in 25 states across India, is playing its part as a catalyst to enable underserved children to benefit from the Right to Education Act 2009. In accordance with the provisions, every child between the ages of six and fourteen must have the right to free and compulsory education in a neighborhood school, until the end of elementary education.

A significant participation of civil society is imperative to ensure the effectiveness of RTE. If RTE aims to educate children, the act itself is not enough. Multiple efforts should be made to sensitize the community and help them benefit from education. Knowing that education is the key to development, communities must be sensitized. From identifying out-of-school children, preparing them with an age-appropriate program through bridging programs admitting them to mainstream schools, and supporting them through remedial education to prevent them from dropping out, all these initiatives fulfill RTE’s objective.

What needs to be done to ensure that children are not just brought back to school but stay there to complete their schooling?

A child’s interest in going to school is also essential for school completion. The conducive environment for learning with basic facilities of potable water and functional toilets, well-equipped classrooms and properly trained teachers will certainly make the environment meaningful.

The general well-being of the child is as necessary as a holistic approach to education. If a child is healthy and happy, he will go to school regularly. Engagement and learning retention will also be effective. Our interventions play a crucial role, especially for children in underserved communities, as there are multiple gaps and challenges in their lives. Supporting children with remedial lessons, ensuring accessibility to education through standardized digital aids, providing experiential learning and training teachers for effective teaching go a long way.

The Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) 2019-2020 indicates that schools across India taught 265 million children, 4.2 million more than the previous year.

Is it enough to bring children back to school when there are serious questions about the quality of education provided in public schools? How is the Smile Foundation working on this front?

It would be inappropriate to generalize about the quality of education whether in non-governmental, governmental or private institutions. When it comes to organizations like ours, we complement global efforts.

India is home to one of the largest school education systems in the world with over 1.5 million schools. Almost two-thirds of them are run by the government. Between 2012 and 2020, the student-teacher ratio increased by 7.5 percentage points. The gender parity index has also improved.

When we are invited to work with certain public schools, we again play the role of catalyst in the pursuit of its holistic mission. Emphasis is placed on the creation of a favorable environment for the student and the effectiveness of teaching-learning.

The Smile Foundation has a 4-pronged approach focusing on children, teachers, infrastructure and giving the community a sense of belonging. It definitely improves teaching-learning in the classroom, makes children curious learners with experiential learning, and interventions related to nutrition, health, etc. take care of the well-being of the children, which promotes the regularity of the children. This involves working towards a child-centred, teacher-centred approach, enabling a learning environment and community connection.

What is the most effective way to make disadvantaged children aware of the importance of education, especially when the parents’ income is insufficient to meet the family’s needs?

We communicate with children and families through community engagement activities to raise awareness of the importance of education. Community engagement activities include focus group discussions, street games, awareness campaigns, as well as orientation of local stakeholders and influencers.

We also make individual contacts with the parents and make them aware of the need for education for the progress of the family. Emphasis is also placed on “girls’ education” to enable their daughters to go to school. The creation of mother/parent teacher associations, school management committees, other equally important community actors and raising awareness of the importance of education also help the mission a lot.

We sensitize communities not only to the importance of education but also to its availability and accessibility. It is important to make the community aware of the different government programs to provide free and quality education, free ships and scholarships available for different categories etc. and also help them to take advantage of them.

This assures parents that education is important and can be utilized easily without creating an unwanted burden in their lives.

What kinds of challenges do organizations face in implementing interventions in a large and diverse country like India?

The major challenges in implementing grassroots development interventions in a vast and diverse India come in the form of geography, language and culture. At Smile Foundation, we also partner with community-based organizations (CBOs) and support them to implement development projects. From the program implementation plan to the execution of activities on the ground, CBO partners are trained to work under our supervision and support. With empowered CBO partners, this ensures the sustainability of quality interventions even when the project period is over. In addition, these organizations have extensive experience regarding a specific community or locality. Effective community connection and trust are key to making these projects effective.

When designing the project, regional specificities and local dynamics are taken into account, including local language, locally available nutritional ingredients, service providers available for infrastructure upgrades, teacher training in the locally spoken language , etc.


    Kunal Gaurav is a multimedia journalist at the Hindustan Times, New Delhi. He manages day-to-day editorial operations for the digital news desk, including news tracking, news prioritization, writing and editing.
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