One of the most enjoyable and informative aspects of my fellowship year has been visiting schools in different regions of India. I work in urban, government schools run under a public-private partnership model and I have had the opportunity to visit government and private schools in both urban and rural areas, in the north and the south. My last adventure took me to the Darjeeling District of West Bengal to visit fellow fellow Mike and his wife Denna’s comprehensive, school-based health and hygiene intervention. I have been helping the amazing pair write the Broadleaf monitoring and evaluation plan, and this AIF sponsored group visit allowed me to see the work in action. I was very impressed, to say the least. Project aside, I also got to spend some time in public and private schools in different communities, which provided some insight into the education system in the rural northeast.
The group of fellows started each morning with a walk to a local school or schools. Some of these walks took our (slower than usual) group an hour and a half to complete. We learned, though, that walks of that length are not uncommon for students in the area. This is a really different experience than urban areas where, although the Right to Education Act’s guarantee that each child has a school within a kilometer of home is only slowly being fulfilled, students have access to a government school relatively close to their community. Still, children in the communities we visited travel long distances in groups, often even accompanied by parents, to and from school each day.
As Mike has explained in previous blog posts, low-cost private schools have become one educational alternative parents are pursuing. In urban areas, I have heard that one of the primary reasons parents send their children to low-cost private schools is overcrowding in government schools. I had never visited one of these private schools, and I was surprised to find that the one we visited was more crowded, had more students per class than the government schools we saw. Not surprisingly, overcrowding is seemingly not a problem in the government schools in the rural areas in the north as it is in urban areas throughout the country – you do not see classrooms of 80+ students. Instead, parents are opting to send their students to private schools for other reasons. In all areas, however, the quality of education is a big motivator for sending students to private schools.
These were just two examples that highlighted for me the difficulty in crafting national education policy for India that makes sense for all of the vastly different situations in the country – for so many Indias. Complaints are often made about the out-of-touch education policy decisions made by large multinational organizations, and this exposure visit for me reinforced the importance of having local experts engaged in these decision-making conversations.
Thanks AIF, Mike, and Denna for such a great visit.