At This School, Based on Gandhi’s dream of Nai Taleem, Children Earn While They Learn
At the Akshar Foundation’s school near Guwahati, students learn skills such as sewing, carpentry, gardening, printing, upcycling and recycling, and earn money too. This model of teaching has been adopted by several schools in Assam.
Sayantani Deb 2 Oct 2023 7:18 AM GMT
Gandhi Jayanti is celebrated with fervour at an unconventional school at the outskirts of Guwahati in northeast India. After all, there aren’t many educational institutions in the country that follow Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Nai Talim, which is based on the principle of education going hand-in-hand with skill development.
At this school, set up in 2016 by Akshar Foundation, the students, who come from underprivileged families, are grouped based on skill levels rather than age. Along with imparting education, the school teaches these children skills such as sewing, carpentry, gardening, printing, upcycling and recycling plastic products.
This is not all. The children also earn while they learn these skills so that they can support their families. ‘Earning While Learning’ is the motto of this school in Assam, which started with 10 children and today has 110 students with almost an equal number of boys and girls in classes one to 12.
Akshar Foundation’s school is a changemaker as 14 schools in the northeastern state have already adopted its model, which is likely to scale up to 25 this year and 100 next year.
Alaka Sarma, the founder of the school, explained the reason behind the unconventional method of teaching at the school. “We established this school to spread the light of education for the underprivileged community at Pamohi on the outskirts of Guwahati, where poverty is rampant and literacy scarce,” said Alaka Sarma, a former professor and two-term MLA.
But, providing education to the underprivileged comes with its unique set of challenges, as the founder of the school found out. Many of the children worked as ragpickers, did odd jobs, or took care of their younger siblings at home. To address this concern, the school decided to follow skill-based education.
“In many families in Pamohi, both parents work as daily wage labourers, while older girls take on household responsibilities and look after younger siblings,” Parmita Sarma, co-founder of the school, told Gaon Connection.
“It was unthinkable that time was spent in school when the child can be earning to augment family income. The refrain in these families was that girls should stay at home and they don't need an education,” Parmita Sarma added.
Akshar Foundation decided to adopt an unconventional teaching method where students got grouped based on skill levels rather than age. School authorities met the parents and convinced them that their children could acquire an education and earn a living while they did so.
The school has been running successfully for the past seven years based on Mahatma Gandhi's Nai Talim Education Philosophy that promotes the integration of knowledge and work. Students at Akshar Foundation learn skills such as sewing, carpentry, gardening, printing, upcycling and recycling plastic products, and more.
The school ensures a child gets paid for every work they do. “Students from level 5 to level 12 actively participate in school development activities for which they earn points which are then converted into money that is deposited into their bank accounts. During the lockdown, many students who had earned this money bought themselves smartphones,” Gaurav Das, a senior teacher at the school, told Gaon Connection.
A student earns Rs 35 per hour for carpentry, printing and landscaping work, Rs 40 per hour for segregating of waste, Rs 5 to Rs 25 per half an hour for teaching the younger students, and between Rs 10 and Rs 15 rupees for every eco-brick they make.
These eco-bricks are made of waste plastics which students bring to the school every Thursday and then recycle it. This way they are also addressing a burning problem in their neighbourhood.
Pamohi residents usually burnt the plastics they had to keep warm in winters, unaware of the health hazards that posed them and the environment. The Akshar Foundation decided to educate the community, and began an initiative where the children were encouraged to collect plastic and deposit them at a designated space in school.
“There was resistance initially as that was the only way the families kept warm, by burning plastic. But we had to be tough and we warned parents that if they did not get their children to collect the plastic and bring it to school, they would be charged a fee,” narrated Paramita Sarma. She gave them the option of paying a fee to the school with cash, or with plastic waste.
Now, every Thursday, each student brings 25 waste plastic items to school to meet a weekly quota. They collect this from their homes, from local shops, streets, etc. The plastic is sorted at school and single-use plastic bottles are recycled to make eco-bricks which are then used for various construction purposes in the school.
The school that began with just 10 students in 2016 today has 110 students. “A staggering 99 per cent of its students are first-generation learners, many of them with parents who have barely completed lower primary education,” said Parmita Sarma.
Akshar Foundation has grown to be much more than a school imparting education. It has identified several social issues that needed addressing.
Child marriage was a huge problem in Pamohi. "Many girls who were married off early became mothers by the age of fourteen or fifteen,” said Alaka Sarma. Then there was the matter of substance abuse. “Children who were engaged in rag picking were also into smoking, drinking alcohol and other substance abuse,” Mazin Mukhtar, another founding member of the school, told Gaon Connection.
Akshar Foundation began to hold regular parent-teacher meetings, where matters of family planning, gender equality, de-addiction and so on were openly discussed.
The interaction with the guardians has had a profound impact on the local community, said Alaka Sarma. "Girls attend school instead of marrying at the age of 15 unlike their mothers. Children and teenagers who were once addicted to wrong habits are breaking free and looking ahead,” she said.
Akshar Foundation has collaborated with Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan of Assam to implement the Akshar National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 model in government schools across the state. Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan is an overarching programme for the school education sector, extending from pre-school to class 12, which implements a broader goal of improving school effectiveness measured in terms of equal opportunities for schooling and equitable learning outcomes.
At present, 14 schools have adopted Akshar Foundation’s model, which is likely to scale up to 25 this year and 100 next year. Each school will offer free daily coaching sessions, solar-powered tablet classes, digital classrooms, plastic recycling workshops, and vocational training in fields such as nursing, carpentry, electronics, office assistance, gardening, and many more.