From the eighth grade classroom of the upper primary school in Gotha, the building of RD Model Public School is still visible. Until about three years ago, it was a thriving private school with Classes 1 through 8. It drew many students from Gotha and neighbouring villages in Budaun district of Uttar Pradesh, who associated, as many Indians do, a private education with quality. But in 2016, it shut down.

Over three years, RD Model Public School lost so many of its upper primary students, Classes 6 to 8, to the government-run upper primary school in the village, it went out of business. Student rolls have similarly depleted at the Ramdevi Saraswati Shishu Mandir, which is run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. At least 17 of the state-run school’s 39 eighth graders and 19 of its 41 seventh graders have moved from private schools.

“RD Model did not have anything – no computers, no science laboratory,” said Anshi Sankhdar, in Class 8. Until she moved last year, she was entirely privately educated.

Just a few years ago, it was the government school that was buckling under competition from private schools in this relatively-prosperous village. Then, in 2013, science teacher Manoj Kumar Varshney joined, rallied the villagers and launched an effort to transform the school.

By 2015, villagers had raised funds for the science laboratory, furniture and even belts to smarten up the uniform. They paid for material used in the crafting classes – conducted, voluntarily, by a resident – and prizes for the many competitions. In 2016, they tiled the floor of the computer lab paid for the machines.

Such improvements dramatically enhanced the school’s appeal to parents. While more state funds would be welcome, this level of community engagement in public education is precisely what the Right to Education Act, 2009, had envisioned.

Anshi Shankhdar, one of the 17 eighth-graders, who moved from private schools to the upper primary school in Gotha. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

The law requires every school to form a school management committee, comprising of and led mainly by parents of the students. As a way of transferring the responsibility of governance from the officialdom to the community which the school serves, the committee has been granted considerable powers. But most government schools cater to children from poor families and have a parent community that is too unaware or enervated by hardship to take charge.

In some schools of Uttar Pradesh’s educationally backward districts, however, things are changing. Unicef, the United Nations children’s fund, has financed Project Muskaan, designed by the international child-rights organisation ActionAid, to train these committees. The Gotha school is one of 152 upper primaries in Budaun district covered under the project. Another 152 primary schools teaching Classes 1 to 5 and 18 Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya – residential schools for girls – are included as well. In total, the project, launched in June 2016 in collaboration with the state government, covers 1,464 elementary schools across six districts – Badaun, Lucknow, Shrawasti, Balrampur, Mirzapur and Sonebhadra.

Project Muskaan

First, local organisations were found in each district and trained in Lucknow, the state capital, in June 2016. The same month, they reached out to villagers and made members of school management committees aware of their powers – they can report a teacher to the district education office and play a significant role in creating a school’s development plan, for instance. In July, the committees conducted a survey, gathering data on enrolment, absenteeism, staff strength and availability of facilities such as toilets and electricity in schools. Subsequently, the local organisations helped link the committees with the administration – the panchayats – and trained them to approach district officials with complaints, demands for facilities and funds. At the same time, they were encouraged to help the schools themselves – by providing money, time and, sometimes, space in their homes for the schools and their activities. Although the first rounds of training are over, help and advice is still at hand from block coordinators of the local organisations. In Badaun, the organisation entrusted with the job is Sramik Samaj Shiksha Sansthan.

So far, Badaun has shown the best results of the six districts, said Khalid Chaudhary of ActionAid. Enrolment, attendance, retention (students staying on in a school) and transition (to secondary schools) have all increased remarkably in its schools. Even in Gotha, which was already ahead, parents were further enthused. “Earlier we reached out to them for help,” said Varshney, the science teacher. “Now they come to us asking if they can do anything.” Shrawasti and Balrampur districts are doing well too.

Manoj Kumar Varshney, science teacher at Gotha upper primary school is relieved that uniforms for government schools are changing because parents were put-off by the earlier Khaki ones. In rural Uttar Pradesh, he says, a smart uniform matters. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Making a difference

Uttar Pradesh’s public school system needs all the help it can get. Thousands of children still study without furniture or electricity. In 2014, staff shortage was addressed with the controversial step of regularising the services of 1.72 lakh untrained para-teachers, or Shiksha Mitras. As one education officer of a Western Uttar Pradesh block put it, they are “a burden”. They claim full salaries but do not possess the skills required. That issue is now pending in the Supreme Court.

Statistics from the District Information System for Education, the only central database on schooling, show that although the number of free government schools, at 1.61 lakh, is twice that of fee-charging private ones – 80,385 – enrolment in private schools is higher. The 2016 report says that over 1.88 crore children were enrolled in private schools while a little over 1.66 crore were in public ones.

The designers of Project Muskaan hope to stem this exodus – if not reverse it – by encouraging a community’s sense of ownership and commitment to the public system and guiding its efforts through training. “The programme has definitely improved attendance and retention,” said Budaun’s Basic Shiksha Adhikari Premchand Yadav. “Even villagers want their children to have desks and chairs, proper uniform and neck-ties.”

Ultimately, Project Muskaan is aimed at creating institutions that communities can take pride in.

Gotha's upper primary school has passed the ultimate quality check: principal Netrapal Singh Chauhan's grandson Pankaj attends the same school as do the children of the village's two other government school teachers. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

In it together

But the Rs 7,000 that a school receives from the government for maintenance annually is good only for a coat of paint, if that. Until recently, many were chronically short staffed. From 2007 to 2010, Satyapal Singh was the principal and only teacher at the upper primary school in Harraipur village in Badaun’s Bisauli block. “Enrolment in Classes 6 to 8 was about 65,” he recalled. Now it has five teachers and 132 students, having drawn some, like Gotha’s upper primary, from private schools.

This was possible because Harraipur’s villagers made their money, time and sometimes, their homes, available for the school and its activities. Computers, furniture, and ties and belts for students were procured with their donations.

With the help of Harraipur’s residents, the school started extra classes for weak students during summer vacations. Anuradha (she does not use a last name) and Vikas Yadav, who both moved from private schools in neighbouring villages to Harraipur in Class 7, attended the extra classes. “I joined mainly for these classes,” said Yadav.

Harraipur also has a band. A bank employee donated the instruments and on July 1, it was inaugurated. It will be a while before Singh and assistant teacher Kunwarsen can polish the din it now creates into something resembling music but they, and the children, are proud of it.

Principal Satyapal Singh and teacher Kunwarsen supervise as boys at the upper primary school in Harraipur play the band. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

At the primary school in Laua in Budaun’s Ujhani block, villagers pooled Rs 18,000 for a water tank and a police constable donated the sound system.

The sense of ownership and ties to schools this has created has practically ended theft of school property. In fact, the Harraipur school’s keys stay with the villagers.

Getting work done

Parents’ committees are also crucial for getting the local administration – panchayats – to fund school development projects. Laua’s parents got its panchayat to lay a road through the village, leading to the school. The Harraipur school got a water-harvesting system and will soon add solar lights. Gotha’s school got its front yard paved.

But what the mostly poor villagers put in most is their time.

The Laua committee can be relied upon to lead the morning prayer. On July 4, one of its members, Devendra Singh, set out for Ujhani, the closest town, to purchase cloth for the new uniforms. “We will do anything we need to for the school,” he said.

In Gotha, committee member Mahinder Pal’s daughter Shalini volunteers as a crafts teacher.

Harraipur farmer Vedram makes his home available from 3 pm to 4 pm every day, for 20 of the weakest students in Class 8 to study and complete their homework together. “This encourages peer learning but we guide them,” explained Kunwarsen. The study group is led by the school’s star student and Vedram’s grandson Sonu.

School management committee members of Laua primary school. Principal Mukesh Kumar is on the right. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Ahilkar Singh, a security guard, marks attendance of teachers at Baror Amanullahpur, another village in Badaun. “He has locked teachers who were late out of the school too,” said Brishbhan Singh, a trainer for Project Muskaan. Mahinder Singh, also with the project, pointed out that villagers have stopped using school facilities to wash clothes or water livestock.

Women to the fore

Project Muskaan has been able to mobilise even women members of the school committees – a statutory requirement. “They stayed in purdah and never attended meetings,” said Gotha’s coordinator Kamlesh Kumari. “But their participation is important because these are coeducational schools.” Mridula Devi and Geeta Devi, both with children in the upper primary school in Gotha, attend meetings and check mid-day meals regularly. In Harraipur, Anita and Premvati (neither uses a last name) also fetch children who have been skipping school from home. “Some days I collect as many as six,” Anita said. Where about 50% children attended school earlier, attendance seldom drops below 85% now.

Anita (front) and Premvati are part of the school management committee in Harraipur. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Plans for the future

A crucial function of the committees is to draw up school development plans. The newly trained parents have a few ideas.

The primary school in Laua needs an outdoor play area and its boundary wall raised.

Parents in all three villages demand their schools be upgraded to include Classes 9 and 10. “Many of our daughters drop out because the closest secondary school is over 5 km away, in Wazirganj,” said Mridula Devi of Gotha.

The Gotha school also needs a boundary wall. At present, Varshney is crowd-sourcing a floral boundary wall by holding monthly plantation drives – children with birthdays in that month do the planting.