Education is one of the primary requisites that contribute to the holistic development process of self and society. Article 21A of the Constitution considers “free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of six to fourteen years as a Fundamental Right.” In India, the majority of the population lives in villages, and the most viable option for accessing education for marginalized sections of society in rural areas is in government schools.
As per the RTE Act, 2009, a school building has to be an all-weather building comprising of
- at least one classroom for every teacher,
- barrier-free access and separate toilets for boys and girls, and
- a safe and adequate drinking water facility for all children.
Despite the government’s focus on infrastructure development in schools, the majority of government schools in rural India do not have adequate resources or facilities to provide a safe and conducive learning environment to schoolchildren. These schools are often found without provision of drinking water for children, sanitary facilities are defunct and, even if functional, there is no access to water. In addition, the campus is poorly maintained. The result is that children are not inspired to attend school, nor are their parents motivated to send them. Even when children do go to school, the school environment is dull, learning is often interrupted, and there may be a risk to the safety of schoolchildren. Without drinking water and toilet facilities, schoolchildren, especially girls, are forced to leave school premises in the middle of the school day, and they often do not return.
This lack of continuity and discipline demotivates teachers as well, which affects the quality of education and reaffirms parents’ doubts about the school—a vicious cycle. The number of students in these government schools is really low compared to the total number of children in the village, and numbers further decrease due to the lack of essential facilities and the unfavorable environment for quality education. On top of these issues, though the RTE Act calls for a School Management Committee (SMC), comprised of parents of students and members of the school administration, its existence is often only on paper with members mostly unaware of their roles and responsibilities and lacking the skills for the SMC to function effectively.
A place of study has a profound and direct effect on students’ lives, and it is even more vital for to providing an atmosphere that fosters mental growth and appropriate academic orientation. The conditions of school infrastructure have a bearing on students’ enrollment, retention, and learning outcomes, as quality infrastructure and facilities positively impact academic and social performance. Keeping this connection in mind, S M Sehgal Foundation created a programme, ‘Transform Lives, One School at a Time’, in partnership with local communities to improve the infrastructure of government schools in rural India and thereby positively impact the lives of schoolchildren in selected states of India with low literacy rates. These include Telangana (72.8%), Andhra Pradesh (66.4%), Bihar (70.9%), and Rajasthan (69.7%).
Creating a positive learning environment
India’s New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 states that adequate and safe infrastructure, including working toilets, clean drinking water, clean and attractive spaces, electricity, computing devices, internet access, libraries, and sports and recreational resources will be provided to all schools to ensure that teachers and students, including children of all genders and children with disabilities receive a safe, inclusive, and effective learning environment and are comfortable and inspired to teach and learn in their schools. The goal of the ‘Transform Lives’ (TL) programme aligns well with this provision. TL creates secure, healthy, and stimulating learning environments in government schools by improving infrastructural facilities, and also providing digital learning and life skills training so that every student, especially girl children who often suffer lack of access to resources in rural India, have opportunities for a new beginning and a brighter future.
The TL programme focuses on transforming government schools into safe and healthy spaces for children by recreating the school campus in a student-friendly manner. This includes refurbishment of classrooms and roof, extension and repair of boundary walls, restoration of toilets, installation of gates, leveling of school grounds, new and repaired structural work wherever necessary, beautification of the campus and plantation, among others, as required and based on needs assessment. Innovative and interactive smart classrooms in the transportation vehicle shapes, such as airplane, ship, or train, help schoolchildren enjoy classes in an attractive space and in a positive and inspiring learning environment.
The TL programme emphasises the provision of essential ‘water sanitation and health’ (WASH) facilities in government schools, such as drinking water and toilet-related infrastructure. To this end, a rooftop rainwater harvesting system is incorporated as an integral part of the school transformation design. These structures are installed in the schools to provide potable water to students for drinking and sanitation purposes. In addition, safe designated spaces with separate toilet facilities for boys and girls cater to the hygiene and sanitation needs of schoolchildren and are created in the shape of a bus, which is named Swachhta Vahini. Sanitary pad vending machines are installed on the school campus, which benefits adolescent girls and helps to enhance their attendance.
Educational wall paintings in bright colors convey different types of themes per class requirements and are based on the concept of using building as learning aids (BaLA), which attract children and help them develop a sense of belonging in school.
Students of every transformed government school under the TL programme are involved in digital learning and life skills awareness training sessions in order to develop social and emotional skills; increase students’ knowledge about local governance, hygiene and sanitation, among others, and bridge the digital divide between urban and rural schoolchildren. These sessions provide six-month structured training programmes to schoolchildren, using modules, videos, digital devices, and the internet, and gives them added exposure beyond the scheduled school curriculum. By attending this course, students have opportunities to learn basic life skills, including self-confidence, decision-making, and the use of digital devices and the internet in daily life.
These transformational changes in the government school campuses under the TL programme encourage parents, teachers, and children to increase school retention and reduce dropouts in rural government schools, especially girl children, and helps students to attain knowledge in a lively and interactive learning environment.
“Earlier, the condition of our school was deplorable. The roof would leak and the toilets were dysfunctional. There was no drinking water also,” says Radha Yadav, student, Kasba Dehra School in Alwar district of Rajasthan. “Now, we have a great school. Our rooms are fixed, our toilets are functioning, and we have safe drinking water. We also now have a place to play safely. Our school also looks beautiful because of all the wall paintings. I love looking at all the different kinds of wall paintings. My favourite is the one that depicts India in one picture. It looks like a selfie point. I love coming to school now. Everybody in the village also now feels proud of the school.”
Community engagement ensures sustainability
The TL programme does not simply reflect efforts to transform government school campuses, it also focuses simultaneously on the capacity building of rural communities for maintaining the infrastructure and assets created under the programme. Strong emphasis is placed on enhancing the capacities of the members of village development committees (VDCs) comprised of key persons of the village and school management committees (SMCs) comprised of teachers and selected parents/guardians of schoolchildren to better manage the functioning and optimum utilization of resources of the transformed government schools. Members of these committees are trained about their roles and responsibilities at regular intervals so that they are motivated to take ownership of the operations and maintenance regarding the newly created school infrastructure and assets.
A maintenance fund (monetary contribution raised from the community) deposited in the bank is managed by VDC members for the maintenance of newly developed school infrastructure under the programme, enhancing community ownership and leading to sustainability of the assets over the long term.
Transformation of government schools without engaging the members of village councils and school management committees can result in limiting the overall success. A collaborative model having the school administration, civil society organisations, and members of village council and school management committees is a recipe for optimal success.
In Talab village of Umrain block, Alwar district, Rajasthan, the Government Senior Secondary School transformed under the TL programme has an active VDC formed with key persons of the village. The newly formed VDC collected Rs. 100,000 as community contribution from villagers as maintenance funds and opened a bank account catering to operations and maintenance needs. In addition, the VDC members contributed and donated one wooden almirah and a notice board for the school. After completion of the transformation work of the school campus in 2018, VDC members undertook a plantation drive inside the school with support from teachers and students. Officials of the district administration also proactively provided equipment that can be used by school authorities to maintain the cleanliness of the campus. Two years later, VDC members are still conducting regular meetings and taking ownership of the maintenance and repair of the school premises.
Impact and the way forward
More than thirty government schools have been transformed in Haryana, Rajasthan, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh under the TL programme, which has been supported by people around the world. A total of 10,799 schoolchildren (5,621 girls, 4,697 boys, and 481 teachers) have benefited from the interventions. It is encouraging to see that enrollment and retention of students has significantly increased in all the schools that have been transformed so far. A total capacity of 2,617,000 liters of RWH tanks were created to provide clean water in schools. After the completion of the digital learning and life skills awareness sessions, the knowledge base of students has improved significantly in the use of the computer and the internet. Overall awareness about government program entitlements and digital access to those programmes have increased. In Ravalkolle village, Medchal Malkajgiri district, Telangana, Mamtha, who had dropped out of school, found herself drawn to the digital learning and life skills awareness programme of Sehgal Foundation. Struggling with low confidence and self-esteem, she joined the programme in the hope of learning something new. Today she feels empowered and is extremely comfortable using digital devices and the internet. She now has an email ID and can do online banking, internet shopping, and learn more about various government schemes available for her and her family.
The physical environment of renovated schools under the TL programme is more student-friendly in contrast to non-renovated schools. Installation of RWH in renovated schools puts rainwater to effective usage, also conserving resources. Conducive and positive learning environments for students in renovated schools generates greater interest among students and leveled playgrounds engage students in outdoor games and extracurricular activities.
The contributions of the Foundation have been acknowledged with annual Bhamashah Awards for the last four years by the Education Department of Rajasthan. The TL model emphasises infrastructure development in schools for enhancing academic growth and improving all-round development of children. Teachers are also engaged in the cause and serve in the school longer, which results in improved academic performance of students and an increasing happiness quotient. Value-added infrastructure development has the potential to influence parents’ perception and satisfaction with school administration and help them in retention and enrollment in school. In addition, this plays a pivotal role in developing children to grow and interact easily with each other, resulting in enhanced confidence, happiness, and continuous progress. In government schools, this motivates students toward collaboration and peer-to-peer learning, resulting in their positive all-round development.
Moving forward, to further integrate the TL model with the revised National Education Policy 2020, more attempts will be made for the creation of infrastructure for greater digital empowerment of government schools with the intention of bridging the digital divide more and more between rural and urban students. The pandemic experience has made this imperative; digitisation is the need of the hour not only to cater to the educational needs of the rural youth, but also for overall career and professional development, and to ensure that they are not left out from mainstream development discourse. The success of the TL model lies in the fact that it not only develops higher quality physical infrastructure in rural schools, but also attempts to bridge the existing digital learning gap by providing digital infrastructure as well as digitally empowering students and youth, which is crucial for integrating students into mainstream professional and personal development.
Navneet Narwal is Associate Lead- Transform Lives at S M Sehgal Foundation.
Anjali Godyal is a Chief Development Officer at S M Sehgal Foundation.