May 212015
 

The problem is well known: Pakistan has seven million out-of-school children on our treacherous streets, hundreds of overpaid and under-qualified teachers hired in return for political favours, and scores of schools without desks, toilets or drinking water. The nation ranks 113th in a United Nations Education for All index of 120 countries. What’s the solution? How can we take our children out of drug and gambling dens and bring them into the safety of comfortable and productive classrooms under the guidance of wise and compassionate teachers?

In a village called Khairo Dero, we at the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust, a group of community workers dedicated to developing a model of rural development, tried an experiment. Here’s what we did. First, our volunteers went from house to house, developing a database of all the children between the ages of three and 16 in the village, which is home to about 4,500 people. Then, we held neighbourhood meetings with mothers to talk about the importance of schooling. Next, we helped show them how girls could attend school for half a day and still have time to produce traditional embroidery to supplement the household income and take care of tasks such as cooking and washing clothes. We worked with farmers and assured them that boys could take a two-week break for farm labour whenever it was planting or harvesting season; and that we would make sure teachers were on hand to help them catch up. These measures helped remove major reasons parents weren’t sending their kids to school.

On the other side, we worked with schools. First, we built a primary school with The Citizens Foundation and when it opened for its first admission in 2010, our awareness drive showed results: they had several times more candidates than spots. They soon introduced an afternoon shift and later expanded to double the capacity. Then, we started looking at the existing government schools. The two primary schools in the village were functional; performance was not exciting but at least classes were being held every day. In comparison, middle and high schools were abandoned. Buildings stood half-finished or crumbling and government teachers were absent. First, we adopted a girls’ middle school, worked with the local education department to get the building finished and then motivated local government teachers to attend regularly. Girls were lining up. We did small things like putting up a national flag and holding a daily assembly: rarities at government schools. Soon, girls graduating from middle school insisted high school classes be organised otherwise their fathers would pull them out of school and wouldn’t give permission to travel out of the village to attend. We started holding classes unofficially and then worked with the government to upgrade the school from middle to high. Then, we adopted a non-functional boys school, added a basketball hoop, cricket gear and prizes for punctuality. When we noticed classrooms were not fully populated, we went lane by lane rounding up boys from shops and tea stalls.

We found that government teachers are not all goners. Many showed great results with some motivation, recognition and appreciation. To supplement, we hired local graduates desperately seeking employment, provided teacher training and posted them at government and community schools. A few years on we carried out a fresh survey and found a population of children from a religious minority that was shunned by mainstream society. They were too scared to enroll in school so we started a community school for them in one room and later expanded to four classes. We scoured the streets for these children playing cards for money in back alleys and used loving persuasion and the promise of Friday afternoon cartoons to lure them in.

To capture the last lot, we opened an early learning centre where we littered workstations with crayons, paper, scissors, glue, jigsaw puzzles, construction blocks, beads and string and let children choose what naturally attracted them. To make school-going a habit, we didn’t force books and pencils on them. We held cooking classes, brought in musical instruments and put in swings, slides, skipping ropes and footballs. All these tools helped increase mental faculties and motor skills. Soon enough, kids didn’t want to be anywhere else.

Today, we are currently enrolling the last three dozen or so kids at our community school and have reached a position where every child in the village will be in school. Grand policies and big money haven’t brought success in getting every child in school. Our simple experiment is testimony to the fact that a very grassroots, community-oriented approach gets the job done. It’s worth a try.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd,  2015.

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