Education is among the most crucial determinants of a better tomorrow for an individual, a community, or a country. As schools across India prepare to welcome children back to classrooms during the next academic year, it is very important to assess the learning gap due to the COVID-19 pandemic and bridge the same. While many children, especially from underprivileged backgrounds, have suffered significant learning losses, some creative measures have helped bridge the gap in some parts of the country.
Mohalla classes are one such widely acclaimed approach that offers supplementary classes for children in the 6-14 years age group. Such approaches can bridge the learning gap and make sure that out-of-school kids become part of the formal education system.
While the more affluent among India’s 250 million children continued their classes online during the Covid-19 lockdown, it was the end of the road for the less privileged. Only one in four children in India has access to digital devices and the internet, according to UNICEF.
“Online education is beyond the reach for children from marginalised communities,” said Binod Sinha, Programme Coordinator, Oxfam India, who runs several mohalla classes in five districts of Uttar Pradesh.
“A smartphone is a luxury for families with whom our teams are working. A majority of these families have only one device. And if they have the device, there is no electricity to charge it or there is no money to buy data.”
Various states, including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have recognised Mohalla classes, with organisations like Oxfam India leading the initiative. Oxfam India alone runs more than 50 mohalla classes in seven intervention districts in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.
Running a Mohalla class
Mohalla classes are in-person classes conducted in the community set up with the help of community mobilisers and volunteers. They spend 2-3 hours daily teaching children in the 6-14 age group. Once the district coordinators realise the considerable learning gap and identify the need in the neighbourhood for the Mohalla class, they begin sensitising children and community members about the importance of education.
On a parallel track, they identify and sensitise volunteers such as college students, retired teachers and stakeholders who can mobilise children for these classes.
“There are days when our team members spend the first 30 minutes gathering children because some are playing and others are away for work with their parents,” said Sonali, district programme officer, Fatehpur. “Although we try to cater to a specific age group, it does mean that we refuse children outside that bracket. Each child willing to attend the classes is welcome,” she added.
The teachers first use non-scholastic activities to engage the children and then eventually talk to them about scholastic work. Children are routinely encouraged to give up unhealthy habits and develop healthy ones.
Challenges on the path of education
It’s not all learning and playing while gathering children for Mohalla classes. It’s hard to explain the idea to stakeholders, especially in the initial months, because continuing education was not the primary concern for families against the backdrop of deaths and loss of livelihood.
“These are not urban centres where it is usual for school kids to go for tuition classes. Supplementary classes or bridge courses are alien concepts for most people here,” said Ranvijay Rai, Oxfam India’s district program officer in Pratapgarh.
The pandemic left many Indian families without a breadwinner with more than five lakh deaths. About 10 million migrant workers returned to their native towns and villages during the pandemic, with their families, many of them permanently. Experts worry that this reverse migration and unemployment may keep millions of children in India permanently out of the education system.
Adolescent girls in India, comprising 11 per cent of India’s population, form the invisible group that has borne the worst of the pandemic-induced school shutdowns. Over 10 million young girls are at the risk of being left out of schooling entirely and their futures changed irrevocably. A large number of adolescent girls have already disappeared from the education system, pushed into domesticity and child marriages, never to return to school again. Moreover, a majority of families in the intervention districts are not keen to invest in girl child education.
Navigating the hurdles
Shivanshu Mishra, Oxfam India’s district program officer in Rae Bareilly experienced this trend first-hand. “One of the biggest challenges we face is that families here want their children to contribute financially. Every penny matters. We take different approaches to make them understand the importance of formal education,” he said.
Poor infrastructure is another hurdle that Oxfam India staff routinely face. Roughly half of all the schools in Uttar Pradesh do not have electricity, and only three per cent of schools have a functional computer.
What is unique about the approach is that children are engaged through child-friendly activities, and the classes are held close to the clusters where school kids reside. Mohalla classes work because there is no dependency on the internet, facilitators can assess the learning level of children, and children get to learn in a friendly environment in their neighbourhood.
Additionally, the mobilisers had to navigate unique social equations. “When we started working in Fatehpur, I remember people telling us to stay away from a Muslim ghetto. People told my team members that it would be a waste of time as no one from the community would participate in educational activities,” recalled Sinha. “Of course, we approached them and were successful in persuading them to send their kids to our classes.”
The gradual reopening of schools across the country presents new challenges to the state administration, parents and teachers that have to deal with an ‘education emergency’. Based on the experience of the past two years, it is clear that a bottom-up approach is needed where all the stakeholders, particularly local bodies such as gram panchayats, should be involved in the decision-making process.
At the same time, these practitioners advise revisiting the assessment parameters as the traditional ways to gauge the child’s progress no longer work in the context of the pandemic. In this regard, Mohalla classes not only serve as a tool to bridge the learning gap but also as testing groups for innovating better teaching and engagement methods.
Danish Raza is a guest contributor and an independent journalist based in New Delhi. He writes on inequality, current affairs and digital culture. (Twitter:@razadanish)