Day 1: Monday
On our first day in Delhi we travelled to an urban slum settlement called Trilockpuri. What hit us was the sheer bustle of the area; we saw many children working on the streets and building sites who really should have been in school.
Meeting pupils in the slums of Delhi
We talked to lots of students to about their feelings and impressions of school life. The students at the Minority Resource Centre (MRC) wanted better teachers and more of them; they explained that sometimes there can be up to 80 students per teacher, even though the Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 clearly states that there should be a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:35. And sometimes there can be one teacher covering two classes, which meant they could be in charge of up to 160 students.
They told us about the lack of resources and facilities. Rukxsar said there could be four children to one desk, and classrooms were very small, Gulashan was one of the many children who said he had never used the toilets in school because they were either utterly disgusting or that the only one was locked for teacher use.
The RTE is very specific about school hygiene and sanitation, but in many places these criteria are not being met. We found all this shocking and completely unacceptable.
All the students had lots of ideas for improving the education system in India. Julista wanted access to newer subjects like dance and music. Although they wanted changes, they all really valued the opportunity to go to school and were desperate for a good education. Many even wanted to go on and become a teacher themselves despite their own poor education.
Day 2: Tuesday
We travelled through the bustling traffic to Mandanpur Khadar, an urban resettlement colony, where the road became very uneven and muddy. The colony is divided up into housing plots and we were shocked that some families with five children were only given a 12-metre plot; 95 per cent of these homes have no toilet.
Alok, from EPRAH – a project funded by Oxfam – told us about the astonishing drop-out rates for girls here; up to 70 per cent by year 10.
We arrived at Mandanpur Khadar Primary School and joined a year 5 class where the children were learning mathematics. The topic was complex – they were calculating areas of rectangles and triangles. Although the pupils were highly engaged some were unable to complete the questions because they got no teacher attention. Millie was amazed when she sat next to a girl who had to bring her two-year-old brother with her, as her mother was working.
Listening to the girls
After lunch we met with the adolescent girls awareness group. The group was set up to help girls dropping out of school because of family problems including poverty, and also sexual harassment. The group clearly empowered the girls who spoke with great confidence.
One tragic story concerned a girl called Meena. From year 6 onwards, boys taunted her and made her life a misery on her way home from school. However, her parents blamed her and would not let her attend school, as they did not want the family reputation tainted. At 16 she is to have an arranged marriage and it is unlikely she will return to education. This story hit us hard; unfortunately this situation is a reality for many Indian girls.
Making teacher puppets
While Millie chatted with the girls, others made “Send My Friend” puppets with Sam. They were asked to write what they thought made an ideal teacher on the puppets. They said teachers needed to talk to children as part of their lessons and should ensure that the students understood the work before moving on. They all wished teachers would turn up on time and they complained about the huge class sizes.
Day 3: Wednesday
Today we had the chance to speak to senior officials from the All India Primary Teachers’ Federation (AIPTF) and the co-ordinator of the Global Campaign for Education in India.
They told us that there are many unqualified and semi-qualified parent-teachers and part-time teachers who only work for around 11 months before their contract is stopped. They also said that anybody could become a teacher instantly as there are few standards or training requirements. This is especially the case in private schools.
Learning about teachers
We also discussed the problem of teacher absences. Teachers are frequently assigned non-teaching roles by the government, like counting trees, animals or doing the census, which they have to accept as part of their contracts. Using teachers for such jobs deprives the future of the country of many days of valuable education every year.
We got an overwhelming sense that the AIPTF and the Global Campaign for Education in India had the same view as us; that teaching in India is in some areas very poor, but at the same time there are many teachers who are very committed and enthusiastic.
We visited another local authority school, which had much better facilities. Cheerful displays, friendly teachers, more classrooms, and set in pleasant gardens. This was an eye-opener and revealed the lack of equality between schools covered by the same government programme. This deficit occurs because of the location of schools; the resettlement colonies suffer inadequate public services.
In the afternoon we met with the YP Foundation, a youth activism organisation. They work with peer educators between the ages of 18 and 21 to teach children from urban slum settlements life-skills that help increase their memory, concentration and health awareness. The project also helps people to gain documents and identification so that they can register for school, and for the 25 per cent of reserved places for children from economically worse settlements.
We talked to two of the peer educators, Niharika, and Raghav, both 18, who were doing a brilliant job with the children of poor urban communities. They were inspirational – intelligent, politically aware, and gaining sponsorship and grants wherever possible.
Day 4: Thursday
We revisited Mandanpur Khadar and had a meeting with Mr Vidyarthi, a member of the Delhi Committee on Protection of Child Rights. We raised questions about the issue of failing schools, and in particular private schools where there are no policies to manage and monitor the standard of teaching. We ask about sanitation and class sizes. Mr Vidyarthi said that class sizes improved in schools with increasing age. But when Sam asked him directly whether class sizes drop only because girls drop-out increasingly after grade 5, he admitted this was probably so. This fascinating meeting taught us a great deal.
Giving evidence at a public hearing
We were invited to an annual public hearing, where the community put forward their grievances and the improvements they want to see. Among them, 16-year-old Anita complained about problems with class sizes, and dreadful insanitary conditions in school.
We both felt privileged to be called as witnesses and asked to give evidence on what we had seen in schools over the last few days. It was truly motivating for us to hear these passionate and articulate people and to mount some form of plea on their behalf. The day concluded with meeting Anita and having the opportunity to learn even more of her experience and develop a strong friendship.
Day 5: Friday
Today we had the opportunity to take time out, do a little sightseeing and reflect on our experiences of the past week. This week has been extraordinary. We have gained so much knowledge and understanding. The extreme poverty was a shock to us and really showed that where you are born or live dictates the chances you have in life.
If the Indian government spent the targeted amount of GDP on schooling then the level of education would most definitely improve. All the country needs is the political will to drive forward better education for all and to fairly distribute the money for all children. A similar observation applies across the world – every child can receive a good education if the political will is there and the needs of the poorest are not overlooked.
We now understand more clearly the part that we as the younger generation can play in campaigning for the right to education.
Further informationSam and Millie won this year’s Steve Sinnott Award (funded by National Union of Teachers and the Global Campaign for Education UK) to be the Young Ambassadors for the Send My Friend campaign. They will now work to spread word in the UK and encourage pupils to remind world leaders of their millennium promise to make sure that every child worldwide realises their right to an education. There are still 67 million children that do not go to school. This year’s theme is Every Child Needs A Teacher and there are free school packs available at www.sendmyfriend.org CAPTIONS: Barriers to school: (from top) An Indian settlement; Millie talks to girls at Minority Resource Centre; Millie and Sam by the school gates at Mandanpur Khadar; the public hearing on education (Photos: David Levene/GCE UK).
Sam Whittingham and Millie Wells are from Ringwood School in Hampshire.