According to the 2011 census, India has a population of children (0-18 years old) estimated at 472 million. Every day, 67,385 new babies are born in the country, representing one-sixth of all deliveries worldwide. With such a rapidly growing child population, what should government or society do to make this population productive?
According to Binu Verma and Ramesh Balasundaram, the answer is affordable, quality education.
The pandemic has caused irreparable damage to the education sector over the past two years, with schools closing and shifting to online teaching. The latter, obviously, is more difficult for people with limited resources.
Amidst this challenge, this Bengaluru-based NGO strives to have a holistic impact on public education in India and reverse the effects of the pandemic. Aided by technology and an inclusive and interactive approach to education, it is revitalizing over 200 government schools in Karnataka. Reaching nearly 800,000 students and counting, this couple-led NGO has an engaging history.
After successful careers in business, Ms. Binu Verma and Mr. Ramesh Balasundaram moved into the social development sector to follow their shared passion for empowering children and providing them with a better future. They laid the foundation stone of their NGO, Bal Utsav, in 2009.
“When you google pictures of Indian children, you usually see images of children with torn clothes, with their ribs showing, looking deep into the camera. While I acknowledge that such children exist, we don’t believe this is the only way to enhance our children. If we all look back, our happiest times would be our childhoods. So the idea was to go out and celebrate childhood and embrace a festive approach to problem solving. This is how the name comes from Bal meaning children and Utsav meaning celebration,” said Ramesh Balasundaram, co-founder of Bal Utsav.
The duo started with a concept of a school-museum or “bridge school” in the context of the right to education law, inside a well-known museum, for children from households with low income who had dropped out of government schools. Children learned reading, math and science and had free meals and travel facility.
60% of children attend public schools. The couple realized that to achieve their dream of providing access to quality education to every child in the country, an immediate overhaul of existing public school education is of paramount importance. In 2012, Bal Ustav started adopting government schools across Karnataka.
Four areas of intervention
Bal Utsav has developed a 360 degree school revitalization program focusing on school infrastructure, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), teacher development and scholarships for students. All students have access to a quality learning environment with smart classrooms, state-of-the-art infrastructure, drinking water, private bathrooms and good hygiene practices. They also strive to create age-appropriate materials to enhance teaching, providing teacher training and interventions through innovative and interactive methodologies.
After the first wave, public schools in Bal Utsav in Shivamogga district and nearby villages saw approx. 15% increase in registrations.
“We equipped these schools in smaller towns like Kallahalli, Dummalli and Nidige with smart TVs with pre-loaded educational content, equipped teachers with tablets to deliver lessons in the community, while some children learned via phones laptops at home. Families who owned smartphones had permission/license to download parts of their child’s respective school curriculum. The “smart infrastructure” developed using smart devices and content has led to continuous learning in rural schools supported by Bal Utsav, either on their respective campuses, remotely at home, or in the form of community learning. Because of this learning convenience, some schools have seen a reduction in dropouts and a significant increase in reverse migration where children in the district have moved to public schools from private institutions,” says Mr. Balasundaram.
With the pandemic disrupting the education system, Bal Utsav understood the urgent need to ensure continuity of education in its public schools and, with the help of its partner company, rolled out its iShaala program in December 2020. The program is a blended learning model that brings online learning and teacher-led classrooms to these rural schools.
Currently, Bal Utsav has implemented the blended learning model in over 100 public schools in Karnataka. According to Ms. Soumya GL, a teacher at the Government Upper Primary School in Dummalli, Shivamogga District, she and her six colleagues are using an e-learning program to ensure that the 130 students in their village continue their education in their respective community/houses.