Supporting children who struggle with learning

In this essay, we look at the work of Utthan sahayaks in supporting those children who are identified as lagging behind in learning. This is based on a short-period fieldwork in three schools in the Mundra region of Kutch district in Gujarat.

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Utthan Project, Adani Foundation, Mundra, Gujarat

Introduction

A substantial section of children in Indian schools does not achieve grade-level learning. The annual reports of ASER bring out these learning deficiencies. Such gaps in learning have widened during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a major challenge to ensure that these children achieve grade-level learning. Governments and non-governmental organisations (including philanthropic foundations) are making efforts to bridge these gaps in learning. However, the achievements in this regard are somewhat mixed.

It is in this context that we look at the Utthan project of the Adani Foundation in the Mundra region of Gujarat. The project started in 2018 in three phases and is functional in 51 schools at present. The main intervention is the appointment of a Sahayak (teacher-assistant) in each of these schools. The Gujarat government has a programme to identify children who are lagging behind in terms of learning in its schools. These students are called Priya Vidyarthis (or favourite students). The Sahayaks appointed by the Adani Foundation teach these students who, over time, catch up with the rest of the class in grade-level learning. These teacher assistants also take English sessions for grades I to III. In addition, the Utthan project:

  • Facilitates smart classrooms and makes digital learning materials available in each of these schools
  • Promotes the culture of reading by creating Reading Corners in each school
  • Enables basic computer knowledge through IT on Wheels’
  • Provides sports equipment to promote sports and music instruments to rejuvenate morning assemblies
  • Creates BaLA (Building as Learning Aids) to enable student-friendly learning ambience

In this essay, we look at the work of Utthan sahayaks in supporting those children who are identified as lagging behind in learning. This is based on a short-period fieldwork in three schools in the Mundra region. There were also discussions with head teachers and teachers in these schools, as well as mothers of children who attend the Utthan programme. In addition, we had a detailed discussion with all sahayaks who are deployed in this area, and higher-level functionaries of the project. We also visited an Adani Vidya Mandir to have exposure to the teaching and learning processes of this school which is owned and operated by the Adani Foundation.

The Context

The Mundra region is located in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Though Gujarat has been at the forefront of industrialisation, the Kutch district is traditionally backward in terms of economic development. Despite the industrial development of the state, there are some troubling indicators of education in Gujarat. Around 20 percent of children drop out in secondary grades and a majority of them are girls.[note]About 25% boys and 15% girls in the age group 15 – 16 years are not in school based on ASER report in rural Gujarat. http://img.asercentre.org/docs/ASER%202018/Release%20Material/aserreport2018.pdf [/​note] The social norms prevailing in the region may be playing an important role even though society as a whole is enterprising and participating in different economic activities.

This region attracts private investments. The Mundra Port and associated activities of the Adani Group are part of the major investments. These projects have provided income-earning opportunities to the locals. There has been an increase in the price of land, which is beneficial to people who own or cultivate land. Small businesses which cater to major industrial activities have sprung up, and that seems to have led to some trickling down of the benefits of economic growth. Our sense is that these developments have had a positive impact on poverty reduction in the region. This is evident from buildings (including houses) and other amenities in the region. There is an increase in interest in educating children as part of these developments. Though this could have changed certain social norms which might have worked against the education of girls, their persistence could be more due to social aspects and not due to the economic underdevelopment.

Learning in schools continues to be an important challenge. Nearly 70 percent of children in grade VII could not read a grade II text in rural Gujarat in 2018 (which is an appropriate benchmark considering this was before learning was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic) based on the ASER report. Nearly 35 percent of children in grade VII could not do division’ in arithmetic. Hence, a substantial section of children does not have the proficiencies which are expected in the grade that they are studying in currently. This problem might have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state government is aware of the problem and is taking various steps. Identifying children who lag in terms of learning based on a standard test, and the efforts to provide them with additional academic support are part of these governmental efforts. The government is also looking for or welcoming non-governmental partners to address this challenge. The collaboration of the Adani Foundation with a set of government schools in the area is also part of these efforts.

Sahayaks — main actors of the intervention

As noted earlier, the Adani Foundation has appointed one sahayak (or a teacher-assistant) in every school and in some cases, one sahayak works in two schools, spending three days in each. There are 35 such sahayaks. In addition, there are two project officers for the region as a whole. Most of these teacher-assistants are from the community or the area where the school is located. All of them have at least graduate education, and a section of them have post-graduate education. Though teacher training is also a preferred qualification for these sahayaks, not all have received it.

The main task of the sahayaks is to bridge the gap in learning for those who have not performed adequately in the standard test. These children are divided into four categories based on their laggardness in the expected proficiency.
Level 1 – Students who are unable to read and identify letter/​number
Level 2 – Students who find difficulty in reading simple words, do addition and subtraction
Level 3 – Students who are not able to read a paragraph, do multiplication and division
Level 4 – Students, who can read but are unable to understand the paragraph and solve problem sums

Ensuring that these children learn these basics and become part of regular classes is the main responsibility of sahayaks. They spend time with these children during specific hours. (These children may not attend normal classes during these hours. Given that they have not acquired the expected competencies, and that they may not learn much even if they attend regular classes, the absence from these classes may not have a notable negative impact). In addition, these sahayaks, as mentioned earlier, also teach English in grades I to III (since the state of Gujarat has started teaching English in these grades only recently and there are not many teachers for this purpose).

Learning English
Hands-on learning

We could see that all these sahayaks were sincere and committed to their responsibilities. We saw them in their work settings, and they are motivated by the social need to improve the learning of these children. They have developed a good connect with the communities as evident from the organisation of the mothers’ meetings. They were also aware of the complex challenges that these children face in terms of education. The way they reflect on these challenges demonstrates their sensitivity as well as empathy towards the children they work with.

There could be certain variations in the subject proficiencies of these sahayaks. Though they are expected to teach English in grades I to III, the majority of them (like the teachers in government schools in the area) are not so proficient in the language. Hence, they teach English in the conventional way by starting with the alphabet, then simple words and sentences. Neither they nor the permanent teachers in the schools in this area are exposed adequately to ideas about how to teach English to those children whose home language is different.

Most of these sahayaks are in their twenties. The time that they spend on the Utthan project can be beneficial for their future careers. Since the foundation may take up newer schools for similar intervention, some of them may move to such schools. According to the coordinator of the programme, only a few of these sahayaks have left the organisation to take up other jobs or due to marriage. Since the foundation runs its own schools, some of these sahayaks may have employment opportunities there. Hence, there are future career opportunities for these youngsters.

Utthan project – perceptions of government school teachers

In all the schools which we visited, we tried to get the perception of head teachers and teachers on the Utthan project. Not surprisingly, all of them welcome the project and the support provided by sahayaks. This is to be expected since these teacher-assistants reduce the workload of school teachers. In the absence of these assistants, these teachers would be expected to provide additional learning support to those students who lag behind in learning and that may not be easy with their regular teaching and other responsibilities.

Though the number of teachers has gone up (and this is a desirable situation when we compare it with that in Jharkhand where another educational intervention of the Adani Foundation is implemented), there are not enough teachers in many government schools in the area, and in Gujarat, in general. This is especially so when we consider the learning gaps that a sizeable section of children has in these schools. In that sense, the presence of Utthan sahayaks helps to mitigate the shortage of teachers to some extent. However, this is not a sustainable solution, and the state government needs to appoint an adequate number of teachers in its schools.

It seems that some head-teachers2 would like the Utthan project to continue in their schools for a few more years. One of them expressed concern about the situation when the Utthan project would end in his school at the end of this year. The team from the Adani Foundation also noted the demand for extending the Utthan project to other schools in the region. The Foundation may work in a school for a fixed number of years, and then take up newer schools. This may create problems for those schools where the project is currently operational if an exit strategy is not planned. It may also require the schools to view the Utthan project as a complementary input for a fixed number of years. Some of these issues that are connected to the exit strategy are discussed in the final section of the report.

Our discussion with other teachers also notes that they are happy to have the intervention of the Adani Foundation and the presence of a teacher-assistant in the school. Though the sahayaks carry out the main responsibility that is expected from them, that is, to improve the learning of children who lag behind, there are occasions when the head teacher may allocate other responsibilities to these teacher-assistants, such as taking a class when the teacher is absent or visiting the community or families. Sahayaks also note a generally cordial relationship with the permanent teachers at the school.

We could see a general improvement or adequacy of infrastructure in some schools in terms of the number of classrooms, playground, electricity, water and toilets. However, this improvement in infrastructure is not matched by the availability of teachers. Though the Utthan project could be a partial solution for a short-term period, the non-availability of an adequate number of teachers may pose challenges in the medium and long term for improving the learning achievements of children in these schools.

Connect with parents and community

The people behind the Utthan project understand the importance of connecting with the parents of those children who are behind in learning in school. The inadequate learning can be a reflection of inadequate academic support at home (which can be due to the inabilities and/​or lack of interest on the part of parents). Hence, the Utthan sahayak in each school organises a mothers’ meeting monthly to discuss the learning issues of the children. We attended one such meeting.

A mothers' meet in progress

It seems like the demand for education has gone up among parents in the region. Though the dropping out of children and the lack of interest in the education of children on the part of a section of parents were common in the past (and these may be persisting in parts of Gujarat as noted by experienced observers3), the interest to educate children has gone up among the parents in this region. This is evident from the comments and observations of mothers, especially younger ones, who have acquired a certain level of education. However, their interest alone may not be adequate to ensure that all children learn adequately by being in schools. The absence of effective learning during the COVID-19 pandemic may have had a serious negative impact on the education of these children.

The connection between parents and school teachers also seems to have improved. All the mothers whom we met come to school and meet the teachers regularly to communicate the educational status of their children. It is true that a small section of parents may not be in a position to go to schools for parent-teacher meetings or respond to the suggestions of school teachers. Utthan sahayaks also play an important role in connecting with parents. They make community visits regularly and understand the importance of generating the interest of parents and communities in the education of their children. Since most of these sahayaks come from the community that the school serves, they have access to and certain influence over the parents.

There may be a need for developing community-based efforts to see that those children who lag behind in learning get some academic support in addition to that which is provided by the sahayaks. The boys and girls who have completed schooling in these communities may be in a position to provide such support. There may be challenges in organising such voluntary forums of teaching and support, and communities need to play an important role. To what extent the Adani Foundation or government schools can encourage such community action is not clear. There could be expectations of monetary compensation and that may work against such community forums.

Suggestions

  1. The Gujarat government has decided to introduce English as an additional subject in grades I‑III in primary schools. This could be part of a strategy to arrest the movement of children towards private schools since the demand for English education plays an important role in this movement. However, the preparedness of teachers in government schools (or for that matter, teachers in most private schools) in this regard is not adequate. The sahayaks of Utthan project are teaching English in grades I‑III. They and the school teachers follow the conventional approach starting with the alphabet, followed by words, and then, sentences. It is not clear whether such an approach is the most suitable one for children to develop functional proficiency in the English language. Whatever the merits and demerits of the conventional approach, there is a need to improve the capacity of sahayaks and government school teachers in this regard. Adani Foundation may be in a position to find adequate resources for this purpose. This is especially so since there are schools which are fully owned and operated by the Foundation and the teaching there seems to be much better than that in government schools.
  2. There is a need to make learning and other classroom processes more joyful in government schools. The classes continue to be teacher-centred, and there is an excessive focus on disciplining students, which is evident from the way student assemblies are organised in these schools. This is a reflection of traditional education and the local social context. However, there is a need to change this situation. This cannot be attempted by the sahayaks There may be a need for exposing both the sahayaks and teachers in government schools to the teaching-learning processes which give importance to the nurturing of creativity in students. The schools which are controlled by the Adani Foundation (like the Adani Vidya Mandir) follow better teaching-learning processes. These schools can be used as the hub for the informal training of teachers and Utthan sahayaks. They can spend time in these schools as interns or fellows, and that may give them exposure to more effective teaching-learning processes. In this way, the social impact of the model schools run by the Adani Foundation can be enhanced.
  3. The Utthan project or the sahayaks appointed by it may not continue in the same school for more than a few years. The Foundation would like to run the project in a school only for three years and then, move to other schools. This necessitates an appropriate exit strategy. What if the problem of a section of children not learning adequately continues even after the end of the Utthan project in a school? Will the government school teachers be in a position to address this challenge on their own? How can it be ensured that the intervention leads to a sustainable improvement in the learning of children? The leaders of Utthan project may think about appropriate strategies to meet this challenge. One possibility is to ensure that all children in grades I‑III acquire foundational literacy and numeracy with the help of government school teachers and the sahayaks. If all (or most) students have this foundational literacy and numeracy, then one can presume that their learning in higher grades would be less challenging. This may require a small change in the focus of the Utthan In addition to helping students who are lagging in learning, the sahayaks and teachers together should have a plan to ensure foundational literacy and numeracy in all children in grades I‑III. Such an action can be designed in collaboration with the education functionaries of the block/​district. It may be noted that the National Education Policy of India 2020 (NEP 2020) also lays stress on the acquisition of foundational literacy and numeracy by all children.
  4. If the foundation plans to scale up the Utthan project in Gujarat or in other states, it may be better to have visioning and strategy planning. These processes should consider the real gap in the public education system that the interventions aim to address, the role of specific interventions, impacts and exit strategy. The measurement of impact may also require a strategy to identify and collect relevant data from the beginning of (or even before) the intervention. Such a measurement of impact may be useful for internal assessment of the effectiveness of interventions and also for public advocacy and communication.

Notes:

  1. About 25% boys and 15% girls in the age group 15 – 16 years are not in school based on ASER report in rural Gujarat. http://img.asercentre.org/docs/ASER%202018/Release%20Material/aserreport2018.pdf
  2. One head teacher put forth this request in the discussions with us.
  3. The Executive Director of the Adani Foundation who was formerly a civil servant in Gujarat has confirmed (what is known from large-scale data) that a section of children, especially girls, drop out after grade VIII.

AUTHORS


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University
Subrat Kumar Mishra, Placements, Azim Premji University