‘I can’t let children wander off’ – selfless Bhopal women teach slum children during lockdowns

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Bhopal: Every weekday morning, 21-year-old Nirmala Uike waits for her father to leave for work, not because she wants him to leave, but because she needs her room to attend free lessons for the children. neighborhood.

Uike lives in the Gautam Nagar area of ​​Bhopal, where nearly a thousand people, mostly day laborers or nagar nigam (municipal company) employees, live in slums. When schools closed due to the pandemic, many children in the slum found themselves wandering aimlessly. Nirmala, a 12and-standard passout who is married and has a child of her own, has decided to do something about it.

“Many families simply gave in to fate and let their children wander off when schools closed. For the people here, food and shelter are most important, and education has never been a priority. But it was hard to accept and (taking lessons at home) seemed like the most logical solution,” Uike said.

She’s not the only one feeling this. Neighborhood initiatives aimed at improving the learning outcomes of disadvantaged children have sprung up not only in Gautam Nagar but also in other pockets of Bhopal.

In Gautam Nagar alone, at least four women from Basti took it upon themselves to teach children between the ages of 3 and 14, without any type of payment. The women have been attending informal classes for about seven months, either at home or in other makeshift spaces. Attendance is not compulsory and sometimes reluctant pupils must be tempted into the “classrooms” with chocolates and biscuits, but the women do whatever is necessary to at least get the youngest children on board.

(R to L) Nirmala Uike, Simran Uike, Archana Purbiya, Sheetal Uike teach children for free in Gautam Nagar basti, Bhopal | Photo: Anupriya Chatterjee/ThePrint

Sheetal Uike, 19, recently joined the initiative. She teaches children under a tree just outside a government building in the Basti because there is no room in his house. “I have seen children unable to recognize even simple shapes, sizes, numbers and alphabets. Even though education in public schools is not world class, we could at least do that at their age We’re trying to catch up on the basic learning that the little kids missed out on,” she said.

The 2021-22 economic study noted that it is difficult to fully assess the impact of repeated lockdowns on children’s education, but it pointed to last year’s edition of the annual report on the State of Education (ASER) conducted by the NGO Pratham, which indicated that schooling and learning have suffered over the past two years.

The observations of women like Nirmala and Sheetal mirrored what the survey found: children of primary school age aged 6 to 14 who are not enrolled in school have doubled from 2.5% in 2018 to 4.6% in 2021. The report also expressed concern about the learning outcomes of preschool and primary-aged children since they “have already missed many months of engagement during the critical period of maximum brain development”.

The report further pointed out that without remedial action, “the opportunity to help them build strong foundations during the vital early years will be lost.”

This Monday, the Madhya Pradesh government announced the reopening of schools at 50% capacity across the state and online classes will also continue. However, closing the learning gaps caused by school closures will likely be difficult.


Read also : 1 year of lost learning will take years to recover, says Indian study calling for schools to reopen


A little boost for local educational initiatives

In Shyamnagar, Bhopal, more than 1,500 people live in slums. Before the pandemic, most children here went to a nearby two-room public school. After schools closed, many dropped out of any kind of education, either because they didn’t have resources for online learning or simply didn’t get any value from those courses.

An improvised sign on the door of an informal classroom in Gautam Nagar, Bhopal | Photo: Anupriya Chatterjee/ThePrint

Due to concerns about toddlers playing unsupervised in unsafe conditions, Mamta Yadav, who is in her 30s and lives near the slum, opened an informal mini-school. “It was hard to see toddlers wandering around drinking men in the locality during the day,” she said, adding that she, too, tried to bring in children by offering them sweets.

“Children needed to be encouraged to participate. We not only gave lessons, but also played games so that they did not walk around freely and do nothing. We had to explain what Covid-19 was and how they had to keep their mask on at all times. It was disheartening to see things go the way they were, at least around me. I had to do it,” Yadav said.

Similarly, 19-year-old Kausar Ali, who is currently taking a paramedic course at Rajiv Gandhi Medical College, started classes for toddlers last July in Rishinagar, a congested locality about 15 minutes from Shyamnagar.

“I taught my (4-year-old) niece during lockdown. Her friends, who are around the same age, also got interested, so I started taking these classes on a larger scale outside of my room. I knew they couldn’t understand anything from online classes,” Ali said.

Fortunately, the work of women like Mamta Yadav, Nirmala Uike and Kausar Ali is recognized and supported.

Shivraj Kushwaha of Sahara Saksharta, an NGO working on children’s rights in Bhopal, said his organization tries to help these informal teachers, however modestly, through the nonprofit Child Rights and You (CRY). .

“They could at least get Rs 1,000-5,000 if this was put under CRY, and it would be more sustainable if we could introduce structure,” Kushwaha said.

Shivraj Kushwaha seeks CRY aid for informal teachers in Bhopal | Photo: Anupriya Chatteree/ThePrint

According to him, these women render a valuable service. “Teachers like Mamta have tried to bridge this gap caused by the lockdowns. I am not too optimistic about online lessons for known reasons – the digital divide has pushed public school children far behind,” he said, adding that the government should explore a more flexible curriculum and lessons. basic learning once schools resume operations.

Fighting the digital divide

In Bhopal, children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who attend public schools are at the forefront of the offline-online debate.

Parents of older children have often made valiant efforts to facilitate online classes, but the costs have been heavy and the learning gains unclear.

Suganti Gond, a 38-year-old resident of Shyamnagar, has four children. She took out a loan to buy a smartphone so that her children could attend at least one hour of lessons a day.

“There are WhatsApp groups created by teachers. They continue to send out videos that explain the concepts and worksheets are distributed every two or three weeks. I did everything I could to ensure that (my children) had access to these courses. I even mortgaged my jewelry,” Gond said.

However, even children who have access to a smartphone often struggle to learn online, and many are forced to take classes.

According to Mahendra Yadav, coordinator of the ASER Madhya Pradesh program, the percentage of children attending classes in the state increased to almost 28% in 2021 from around 15% in 2018.

He added that around 30% of MP families do not own smartphones, leading to even greater learning loss. “Although 90% of families in the state have received textbooks and school materials, the online education gap has continued to widen during the pandemic,” Yadav said.

Like Shivraj Kushwaha, Yadav believes the government will need to adopt corrective measures when schools reopen. “We have made some suggestions to the state government – ​​there should be basic or transition courses for all sections. We also mentioned in our document that even if the schools reopen, the program should be flexible since the students will not be at the same level. Previous structures, unfortunately, will not work,” Yadav said.

Speaking to print media, AK Vijayvargiya, additional district curriculum coordinator from the district education office, said there are currently bridging classes starting in grade 9. “The current structure allows us to ensure that students who have fallen behind have support to succeed in all subjects. This is happening at the district level,” he said.

Asked about remedial and transitional lessons for the primary sections, Rakesh Dewan, academic program coordinator at the Zilla Education Centre, said there is currently a program to identify pupils. [who need additional academic assistance] in 8th grade. “Once we have a plan for primary sections, we will follow it and implement it,” he added.

(Editing by Asavari Singh)


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