We have a right to education, don’t we? Or is it still a privilege?
Srishti Sharma meets some of those who are trying to broadbase quality education. 

Artwork by Divya Saibabu 

“Education has always been a luxury,” says Swati Agarwal, a children’s health and education activist. “Society works hard to maintain a division between the educated and the uneducated, the privileged and the unprivileged. It’s a vicious circle. The educated public keeps a tight grip on education, making sure it remains their privilege. The uneducated become onlookers.”

Most schools ask the parents of a child who have applied for a seat about their educational qualifications. In other words, they are not interested in expanding the circle of education; first-generation learners need not apply.

Elite schools prefer the children of professionals, those who have already achieved a post-graduate education. “Parents’ qualifications help us to know about the background of the students, also it adds to their advantage as they come with some basic knowledge and understanding,” stated Mrs. Nirmala Borgohain, a private school principal, in Guwahati. 

In other words, everyone else—especially first-generation learners—must make do with government schools. “The government schools have it all,” says Mrs. Agarwal. “They have buildings, they have classrooms, they have teachers, they have syllabi. The only thing they lack is education.” These schools are filled to capacity because of the Midday-Meal Scheme introduced by the United Progressive Alliance government. Now the children are in the classrooms but there is no sign that they are learning anything. 

The Akshar Foundation in Guwahati, Assam has set up a school for the underprivileged which, by all reports, is trying to change this sorry state of affairs. In 2013, Mazin Mukhtar, an African American, who by the age of 16 had a paid position as the Undergraduate Paid Assistant at the University of Maryland’s Space Systems Laboratory, came to India from New York to work on a school project. Mukhtar had previously done a fair amount of work to reform the education system in California and New York. During his stay in India, Mazin, through a common friend, was introduced to Parmita Sarma, a graduate of Tata Institute of Social Science, Guwahati. Parmita had been actively involved in social causes, like disaster relief, and education of the underprivileged since her teens and had plans to start her own school. In 2016, Mazin and Parmita came together and founded the Akshar Foundation, when they were just 26 and 25 years old respectively. “‘Akshar’, is the Hindi word for ‘letter’ or ‘alphabet’, which reflects the need for basic education, and meeting the basic needs for students in poverty,” said Sarma. 

The school runs on solar power and has classes from the primary to the higher secondary level. Currently, it has five teachers with a strength of 110 students studying from primary to Matriculation level, and awaits for its first batch of students to pass their matriculation and move to the higher secondary level. Students at the primary level have subjects like English, Maths, and Science, and as they will reach the higher secondary level they will have a range of subjects including Psychology and Home Science. The school is funded by charitable donations; Corporate Social Responsibility has brought some money into education with Oil India Limited being the highest contributor.

 “Students drop out of school early...they have to earn money and contribute to the family,” said Mukhtar. “Underprivileged children are seen working at a really young age as laborers, waiters, house help, etc. They seem to have no interest in education and just want to earn money, even if some do have interest in education they are forced to quit studies and contribute. They become child laborers. Since they are often barely literate and in many cases, almost innumerate, they are easy to exploit.

“Here, in Akshar Foundation, the education is specifically catered to children in poverty,” Mukhtar continues. “The school has a segment of teachers, who are given money to provide education”.

This has been tried before but what is new is their unique segment of teachers. “In Akshar, we follow the principle of ‘Learn more to earn more’, the older students provide training to the younger ones under the guidance of an expert teacher, and in return earn a note which we call the currency note.”

With this system in place the younger students end up having a really strong base, as they directly come under the supervision of the older students, and the currency note received by the older students can be used by them for purchasing real products in their school canteen, nearby ration shops, and even on Amazon.

Mukhtar explains further, “We understand the pressure that these children have from their families to earn a living, our goal was to provide education, and in order to do so we had to understand their problems and come up with a solution”. Not only this the school accepts plastic bags as its fee, and after school, the students have the opportunity to earn additional income as a part of their co-curriculum activities by working in the school’s plastic recycling center, animal shelters, and carpentry workshops.

The school has a system of weekly tests and every few months it conducts the practical examination. The Higher Secondary Leaving Certificate examination (10th) is conducted at the government training centres and is recognized by the National Institution of Open Schooling (NIOS). “We organize for one local university to provide free education to any of our students who pass the examination, and therefore have a path open for all college students,” said Mukhtar, “However the career aspirations vary, as some of them will require college, while the rest will go for some kind of practical trade, and so we are planning on partnering with a solar panel company, and will be developing a solar technician program.” 

Talking about the lack of skilled workers in India, Mukhtar cited the example of Germany and said “There you will find half of the schools are conventional academics, and half of them are focused on vocational training.  So you can have high-skilled workers, who are educated and are responsible citizens, voters, being aware of everything.” The Indian education system, he says, is basically designed to prepare students for college admission. He calls it, “a very long college admission process”. 

Mukhtar continued, “The percentage of college-educated Indians is very low.  So, the system needs to shift to enable everyone to go to college, but also lay out a path to a good high school career, for the vast majority of children.” 

Mukhtar and Sarma started the school with the concept that children are capable of doing a lot more and decided to move away from the traditional banking model of education, the one which in Mukhtar’s words “Sees children as empty vessels to be just filled with knowledge”. They decide to see students with the core idea that they can be social workers, gardeners, take care of animals, do plastic recycling, and all other kinds of activity that will enhance their skills and will also provide them with the opportunity to learn and earn. Today, Sarma oversees the daily operation of the foundation and serves as the Principal of the School whereas Mukhtar apart from being the co-founder, serves as the Chief Technology Officer.

This school can only serve a small segment of a huge underserved population but perhaps the idea can catch on. The underprivileged do not have to remain the under-educated.