Students are nudged to acquire a new identity called Swaero and junk all symbols of oppression
When the Govt becomes a caring super parent
R.S. Praveen Kumar
Mounika has boarded a train, the Dakshin Express, for the first time in her life. The special general compartment that was arranged for her and 80 fellow students does not have sleeper berths. So Mounika and her friends will have to endure a gruelling 36 hours without sleep. But the sheer excitement of travelling to New Delhi, the national capital, and securing admission into Miranda House, one of India’s most sought-after colleges, has mitigated all the discomfort of a backbreaking journey.
Mounika is from the Manne-Kolavar tribe which is categorised as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, on the verge of extinction. As a student of Miranda House she will be rubbing shoulders with the children of Delhi’s power elite.
Like Mounika, hundreds of other marginalised students from Telangana joined various colleges of Delhi University this year. Perhaps this is the largest contingent a single state has ever sent to Delhi University. An equal number has joined the IITs, NITs, the Indian Maritime University and Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, which is a record of sorts.
What has enabled students from utterly poor homes and marginalised communities to join the most prestigious institutions in India? Who funds their education? How do they handle social stigma, inaccessibility and inferiority?
Telangana currently runs 877 residential schools for talented and meritorious children from discriminated communities in villages and urban slums. In 1971 the Andhra Pradesh government started three residential schools based on the gurukul model of education. Successive governments began scaling up these schools and ensuring a certain level of quality education. Some students made it to well-known medical and engineering colleges in the state. Many of them migrated to the West, an act of silent rebellion against the bitter reality in their villages and communities. The percentage of students who enrolled in the state-run residential schools was abysmally low but demand for admission grew steadily.
When the state of Telangana was formed on June 2, 2014, Chief Minister K. Chandra Sekhar Rao, or KCR, as he is popularly called, launched the KG2PG Mission under which the State becomes the ‘super parent’ by providing quality education on a mass scale to millions of children.
During his 14 years of struggle for a separate state, KCR toured as many villages as possible to understand the problems that people faced. The indigent poverty that clipped the wings of poor families struck him. Parents had aspirations but the state did not have the capacity to provide quality education so that their children could take advantage of a dynamic economy.
The KG2PG Mission raised many eyebrows when it was started.
State governments have been investing heavily in education, yet they lose students to schools run by the private sector. This exodus continues quietly although most states employ the best candidates
Due to the rise of English as the medium of instruction and the tardiness of public sector schools in adapting to this development, many impatient parents rushed to admit their wards to English-medium schools. While teacher unions in education departments were caught in the Bermuda triangle of service rules, transfer and promotions, private schools mushroomed.
The lack of space and questionable quality of those schools were overlooked by parents because they didn’t want their children to end up as refugees in the job market. Poor and lower middle-class families spent a lot of their hard-earned money paying for education in private schools. This situation required a solution.
In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, social welfare departments wanted to share the burden of the education department. The tuition and maintenance fees of poor and meritorious children, who went to the best private schools, were reimbursed and a scheme for bright boys introduced. These steps delivered to some extent but the quality of instruction in such schools in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh went unchecked.
The government-run residential schools for marginalised communities continued to be lone islands of hope. They received end-to-end support from the government and did better than other state schools in the board exams. But the capacities of these residential schools remained woefully limited and they catered to a minuscule population. Some pundits in the education sector argued that residential schools created stratification among the most needy. They also questioned the promotion of residential schools at the cost of regular day schools run by the local bodies.
The Telangana government wanted to invest its money intelligently. As soon as the government was formed, a series of brainstorming sessions was held on how to bring every child under the care of the KG2PG Mission.
To fulfil his electoral promise of free and quality education to every child, Chief Minister KCR Rao announced the setting up of 187 new residential educational institutions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the state. Another 200 institutions for religious minorities were also announced since they too lagged in education. Subsequently, 119 new residential schools were sanctioned for the most backward class category
Many critics feared that these varied schools could lead to the compartmentalisation of education, dividing society along caste lines once again. But the government intelligently addressed this problem by carefully integrating every community in each residential school run by different welfare departments. By doing this the Telangana government managed to focus on the educational development of marginalised communities as well as their integration.
By 2022, there will be around one million students studying in these English-medium residential institutions upto graduation. This is a staggering number by any standard. But the systems and processes the state has put in place to earn the faith and trust of parents requires a little elaboration.
Residential schools in Telangana are a home away from home. The school complex essentially has seven components including an academic block, a dormitory, a kitchen-cum-dining hall, residential quarters for staff members and a playground. The minimum land required to construct a government residential school is seven to 10 acres, depending on the terrain.
Each classroom has not more than 40 students. The teacher-student ratio is 1:22. Every residential school can admit around 640 students from Class 5 to Class 12. There are separate schools for boys and for girls. The government lays a little more emphasis on girls’ education since they are more marginalised among the marginalised. A few schools have been designated as centres of excellence. These schools are co-ed.
Telangana has also established 53 residential degree colleges for young women to break the cycle of early marriage and to connect them to universities. There are about 20,000 young women studying in these institutions today. The infrastructure for the schools and colleges is built in phases and the latest construction cycle is underway.
But it is not infrastructure alone that makes these institutions special. An operating system runs the schools seamlessly.
The Telangana government has given its residential schools a budget and autonomy. These schools are organised into different societies registered under the Societies Act and are headed by a secretary who is guided by a board of governors.
Students are nudged to acquire a new identity called Swaero and junk all symbols of oppression. Dalit, backward and similar markers are not encouraged by a strict ‘Don’t Ask, Won’t Tell’ policy. Students recite the Swaero Ten Commandments every day during assembly and are encouraged to apply those rules in real-life situations.
Every teacher is assigned the role of a dorm parent for a group of 40 students. He or she is expected to take care of the emotional and academic needs of every student in the group. Most teachers live on the campus along with their families, depending on the availability of accommodation. But excessive dependence on teachers and figures of authority has its own downsides.
By design, residential schools distribute authority among different stakeholders. There is an elected students’ council, for instance. The council helps the principal in maintaining order and in the upkeep of the school. The council runs various clubs on its own even in the absence of teachers. In classrooms, teaching assistants supplement the efforts of teachers every day. There is a quartet system which acts as a platform for individual and collaborative learning. It consists of four students with varying levels of educational performance.
Teaching assistants, who are exceptional, are promoted as super students. They give lectures on live television for the entire state and quite a few of them work as green gurus or student-teachers in schools where there are challenges in teaching.
The Swaero way of life believes in self-learning and this is reflected in schools everywhere. For instance, most schools have huge mirrors in all possible corners where children talk to their images to reflect on themselves, their actions and to improve their language. Young Swaeroes chant their Tenth Commandment, “I shall never give up” before they go to bed.
The welfare residential education department believes that children must learn outside the classroom as well. Under the banner of Summer Samurai, field trips and summer camps are organised. Mostly university students and many knowledge partners act as teachers during summer camps instead of being on vacation. Students are taught skills ranging from horse riding to coding to making drones.
When students dominate the whole scene, what would the role of teachers be?
Teachers in residential schools, whose number is around 25,000, are happy to be guides and not perpetual sages on stage. They are selected after a rigorous examination which is held at three levels. Candidates are tested for their proficiency in English, in their subject, in pedagogy and for social sensitivity. Teacher training is carefully designed. It is called the ‘sandwiched’ model. At least 20 percent of training sessions are handled by students and parents, who try to sensitise teacher trainees about their real needs and how they feel neglected.
During training the lecture method is discouraged. Trainee teachers are helped to make classroom teaching an interactive and lively experience. After this, teachers are sent on an intensive immersion exercise where they visit the homes of students in marginalised colonies and spend time with their families for a couple of days.
This is immediately followed by an intensive debriefing session at the training academy. The trainee teachers are then attached to their mentors in districts for the next two years till they become proficient. All the mentors are carefully selected. Outliers are always rewarded with commendation letters, tours and additional points during transfers and promotions.
Fifty percent of teachers are promoted based on their performance and the rest by direct recruitment to retain vitality in the organisation. Teachers handle complex topics and leave simpler topics to students to tackle themselves. Students are expected to come prepared to class and contribute to conversations in the classroom. The teacher initiates the conversation and gradually encourages students to join in.
All teachers must present a seminar on topics given by the school’s society once a year under the New Quality Policy unveiled in 2016. The best are rewarded with bonus points. Teachers also perform the role of caregivers if a student falls ill in school or is hospitalised. There is a command centre called Panacea which monitors the health of every student on a 24x7 basis.
The engagement with stakeholders like parents and alumni has never been as good as it is today. This novel approach towards the community has changed the perception of the people towards the residential schools run by the state.
Knowing that the Swaeroes Network will help makes the entire effort sustainable.
The Swaeroes Network was launched on October 22, 2013, on IAS officer S.R. Sankaran’s birth anniversary. He was known as an ascetic because he spent his life serving the poor. Around 100 alumni of state welfare hostels and schools gathered on this day to launch the Swaeroes Network.
Its aim is to reconnect with the grassroots, promote excellence in every field, saturate the community and schools with positive messages, and fight the social evils plaguing marginalised communities. The Swaeroes Network now has a 30,000-strong alumni network in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The network has been supplementing the efforts of the government and helping parents when their wards leave home in search of knowledge and opportunity.
“Swaeroism has been raising the bar for our children. Earlier, our boys used to worry about finding jobs and the girls were petrified of early marriage. Now they dream about great universities in the world. But for the government’s vision this would have been just a mirage,” observes Dr Sharada Venkatesh, the regional coordinator of Hyderabad-Ranga Reddy region.
For instance, Mounika is also a product of the STARS-30 mission, a programme that tutors meritorious students. It was started by R.C. Karnan, an IAS officer, and is modelled on Patna-based Anand Kumar’s famed Super-30.
As I write this, news has come that Renuka, another girl escaping early marriage in her village, has reached the Central University of Punjab in Bathinda to pursue a master’s degree. This news makes me even more confident about the system, officials and members of the Swaeroes Network with whom I work every day. It also pushes me to work harder for the people of the extremely marginalised communities that I come from and to pitch in every joule of energy that I have to serve the most deserving.
R.S. Praveen Kumar is Secretary of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society