In India, village-level private schools offer new opportunities
A pilot project seeks to train and support educated rural youth in the processes and profession of primary education, with the goal of starting small, sustainable and effective private rural schools.
"Our whole reason for starting these schools was not just to provide better quality of the same thing that is available everywhere but also to give something new and much-needed in the form of moral education."
- Brajesh Kumar, school principal
"We visit the homes of parents in the village and talk to them about the importance of sending their daughters and not just their sons to school. And after a period of patient counseling, they understand,"
- Ram Vilas Pal, Principal, Nine Star School
Like many revolutions, the spark is coming from the school ground. Only instead of a university campus, the venue for action here is the village school. And the agents of change are a group of young and dedicated teachers with a fresh vision of education and its transformative role.
The school in Dasdoi has about 80 students. Named the Nine Star School, it is run by Ram Vilas Pal. It is one of eight village-level private schools that have been started since 2001 by a group of young Bahá'ís working under the guidance of Foundation for the Advancement of Science (FAS), a Bahá'í-inspired NGO located in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.
The schools are an integral part of a pilot project to train and support educated rural youth in the processes and profession of primary education, with the goal of starting small, sustainable, and effective private rural schools.
The owners of these schools, who are also their principals, come from unlikely backgrounds. Mr. Pal was trained in television repair. Another school founder dispensed medicine in his village as a local "doctor." Another was a farmer.
And it is not always easy to guess - at first sight anyway - that what they are running are schools. For example, Mr. Pal's school in Dasdoi operates in a mud-brick building with a thatched roof. A wall down the middle divides the school from a cowshed. Many of the schools began as a gathering under a tree or a simple thatched roof shelter.
What is common among all eight principals is their passion for social transformation and their conviction that school is the place for this to happen. Indeed, as the soft-spoken Mr. Pal says, "The community and the family depend on the school to create a responsible citizen out of the child. When a child is found misbehaving, people ask him, ‘Is this what your teacher teaches you in school?'"
The growth of private schools
Once the preserve of the elite, private schools in India have undergone rapid growth in recent years, primarily to satisfy the educational aspirations of middle-class children and their parents. Although reliable statistics are difficult to come by, The New York Times recently said that "tens of thousands" of private schools have been started up across India in recent decades.
The trend extends to villages in rural areas, and poor families have increasingly expressed a willingness to pay at least a small percentage of their income to bolster the educational prospects for their children.
The schools operated by the Bahá'ís in the FAS pilot project are spread out in villages in the Kakori, Banthra, and Kharagpur blocks of Uttar Pradesh, a state in north India. All are within 60 kilometers of Lucknow, a city of some five million that is the state capital.
Highlight on values
What makes these Bahá'í-inspired schools distinctive is the relatively high quality of their instruction - compared to typical village schools - and their much welcomed stress on moral education, which is emphasized in the Bahá'í writings.
"These Bahá'í-inspired schools instill a strong sense of moral values," said Sohayl Mohajer, co-director of FAS, noting that they accomplish this without the harsh discipline methods that are common in many schools in India. "So even though there are many other schools, parents prefer to send their children to these ones."
Brajesh Kumar, whose education is in public administration, started his Covenant Public School about three years ago in Banthra block. (Following British terminology, many private schools are called "public" schools in India.)
"Our whole reason for starting these schools was not just to provide better quality of the same thing that is available everywhere, but also to give something new and much-needed in the form of moral education," said Mr. Kumar, whose school currently has about 60 students.
In addition to teaching basic subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic, all the schools use a curriculum of moral education for children and young adults that was developed by the international Bahá'í community.
This curriculum uses a series of workbooks that, through stories and interactive questions, guides students towards moral principles like trustworthiness, honesty, courtesy, and service.
The schools also stress equality, and the need for mutual respect is instilled from the earliest stages using various techniques, including incorporating the arts into the curriculum.
"We have found that the most effective way to teach these values to students is through the use of skits and songs," said Vinod Kumar Yadav, who operates the Glory Public School in the village of Tutikhera in Banthra block.
The emphasis on equality is important in a region where discrimination against women and between castes remain challenging concerns.
C. Bhagwandin, a member of the village governing council of Dasdoi, said that caste differences initially posed a barrier to his sending his daughter to Mr. Pal's school.
"Since he was of a different caste, I was initially reluctant," Mr. Bhagwandin said. "However, seeing that his students could really read and write, that they behaved well and since the only other option was to send her to a school in another village, I decided to overlook this fact. And I haven't regretted my decision."
High ratio of girls
"We visit the homes of parents in the village and talk to them about the importance of sending their daughters and not just their sons to school. And after a period of patient counseling, they understand," said Mr. Pal, whose school in Dasdoi has a 50-50 ratio of girls to boys, which is unusually high in the region.
Most of the school principals could likely have found a job in the city. But they have consciously chosen to stay back and help mold the next generation.
"I could have done many other things that would give me more money and involved less effort," said Mr. Kumar. "But here I am doing something not for myself but for the village as a whole by bringing about moral, social, economic, and intellectual change."
Most of the principals set up their community schools by seeking the help of the villagers for land and basic furniture and by employing educated but unemployed rural youth as teachers. In return, they promise to provide good overall education for a very modest fee. For a high school student, for example, the average fee might be 50 rupees, about US$1 a month.
Right now, perhaps the most important challenge before these young innovators is to keep their schools profitable - which is the key to long-term sustainability. Problems include spiraling costs, regular defaulting in fee payment, and children being pulled out of school to be used for agricultural labor.
But the FAS is not a funding agency and, in fact, has adopted a policy of providing most of its support in the form of training and encouragement, although the foundation does occasionally provide salaries for one or two teachers when the going gets tough.
"Based on our experience, when participants in a development program are made to work hard and encouraged to invest their own time and money, they would continue the program no matter what the odds against them," said Dr. Mohajer. "Hence, we felt that in order to make the rural school project sustainable, dependence on external help must be minimized.
"Basically, the Foundation acts as a catalyst. We are just helping people use their potential to find a useful area of work - and to help them satisfy an important need in society," he said.
– By Arash Vafa Fazli