To begin season four of Ei Dialogues, Pranav Kothari spoke to Dr. Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham Education Foundation. Pratham works to make quality education accessible to all and is world-renowned for its Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) that gauges learning outcomes of children. Dr. Banerji has been working at Pratham for over two decades and was recently awarded the 2021 Yidan Prize for her work in improving learning outcomes.
Pivoting during the pandemic
In the conversation, Dr. Banerji spoke about how Pratham innovated to reach children at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pratham’s team members began by locating contacts in each village and neighbourhood they worked in. In this way, they were able to reach over 10,000 villages in 3 months!
Restricted to providing interventions and communicating over mobile phones, Pratham had to be creative with the content it was sharing with children and their families. For those with smartphones, long messages and multimedia content could be shared. Many families, though, only had basic mobile phones. Working within the constraints of 160 characters, they shared poems, stories and activities for children to do. Crucially, they found ways to actively engage parents even with these exercises, giving a deep insight into what makes for a holistic learning experience outside the four walls of a classroom.
As Dr. Banerji said “We have years spent years doing teaching at the right level; last entire year should be labeled as reaching at the right level, and when you can reach parents at the level at which they feel this is for me, then you get a lot of participation…We have come a long way in knowing what engages families–parents and children–and what is seen as a textbook type of thing.”
The importance of the National Education Policy
A firm believer in the vision of the NEP, Dr. Banerji believes that “the New Education Policy being announced right in the middle of the pandemic, to me, was a bunch of stars all getting in alignment with each other.” The NEP’s focus on stages of learning and the importance it gives to Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) creates a framework to design post-pandemic education.
Implementing the policy well, she maintained, requires creating trust in the system and reaching out to all stakeholders at the last mile. For example, teachers, must be assured that they will not be penalised for prioritising foundational skills over a curriculum that students may not be ready for, given the year and a half they have spent out of school.
Building back better after COVID-19
Despite the challenges of the last year, Dr. Banerji sounded a note of optimism for our education system as students return to school. A strong advocate of teamwork for improving a child’s education, she believes that parents, teachers and anganwadi workers must collaborate to ensure that through cohesive efforts in schools, at homes, and in communities, children develop a broad foundation of necessary skills.
The coming months, Dr. Banerji envisaged, can be looked at as a ‘catch-up’ period for students in class 3 and above, and a year of ‘school-readiness’ for younger children. Drawing upon her vast experience, She said, “we have evidence in India which shows that we can do a massive amount of catch up in 100 days,” which can create an effective platform for further education. The NEPs emphasis on FLN skills also provides the political framework for such decisions, though she was worried that a hurry to finish the curriculum could derail such hopes.
Dr. Banerji ended on a positive note, saying, “[F]orget about doom and gloom. If you take your own evidence seriously and listen to me…in April 2022 we can be much stronger than we were in April 2020.” This is certainly an inspiring vision to work towards.