SSK - Reaching out to the excluded and underprivileged in West Bengal
Eager hands go up in the classroom. Thirteen-year-old Deepali runs up to the ‘board’, carefully selects the words from cardboard cards and places them next to each other to form a sentence in Bengali ‘I love my village’. The excited class claps their hands when the teacher announces that Deepali has written correctly. This is one among the numerous participative teaching methods that have been adopted through songs, games and poems to make school a fun place to be in under the The Shishu Shiksha Karmasuchi programme( SSK) one of the most innovative education programmes to reach out to deprived and excluded children in the state of West Bengal
Deepali loves her school and has never missed a day, not even during the sowing or harvesting seasons when many children remain absent as they labour in the rice fields along with their parents. During the day as Deepali hurries through the household chores, cooks for the family and gets her siblings to eat their meal, she looks forward to her ‘own time’ wherein she can go through her lessons before going to the school the next day
Both Shephali and Deepali belong to Oraon community, (one of the most deprived communities) of Amdanga village near Kolkata, the capital city of the state of West Bengal. Her mother, Brihaspati, 35 years old, had neither heard of a school nor understood how it could ever benefit her children. “Can one read a book on a burning, hungry stomach? We are poor, we have to work hard to survive,” But the SSK programme made all the difference. Today, Deepali along with her four younger siblings studies in the new school run by the community.
Deepali is a first-generation learner in her family and perhaps the first in the Oraon community. In this short space of four years the villagers’ attitudes have changed. They now take a keen interest in their children’s education. “My mother wants me to study. I too want to, though I don’t know whether my parents can afford it,” Deepali says with a shy smile. “May be I will be a teacher when I grow up.”
The Oraons, a tribal community, are among the poorest sections of the landless or daily wage labourers in West Bengal. The infant mortality rate among tribals in the state is high at 85 deaths for every 1000 live birth as compared to 51 deaths for infants belonging to non-tribal communities. “We were blind,” explains Kamini Oraon, a neighbour. “Just because we never learnt to read and write does not mean our children should not grow up to be human beings, SSK has changed our lives.”
Initiated in West Bengal in the year 1999 against the backdrop of about 2.7 million children being out of school, the programme today reaches out to more than 1.4 million children.
While there has been overall improvement in literacy in the state during the last decade, there were clear significant differences across socio-economic groups, which persisted and suggested a need for targeted interventions for universal coverage. To address the problems of access and community involvement the Department of Panchayats and Rural Development, Government of West Bengal (P&RD) initiated an alternate form of education system owned by the community - the Shishu Shiksha Karmasuchi (SSK) programme. Starting in 1999 with 715 centers, the SSK has grown to 16,397 centers running presently.
SSK is a fully recognized elementary education system in the sense that a child graduating from an SSK center gets the same status as the child who graduates out of a formal primary school. The curriculum and text books followed in these centers are the same as followed in the formal schools. SSK is thus academically equivalent to the formal school system. However, it differs from a formal government school in the sense that it targets the difficult to reach children catering to their specific needs through flexibility in terms of school timings, management by the community, and engaging community teachers who belong to the same community as the children.
The SSK programme adopts a three pronged strategy to reach its objective. This includes
Rudolf Schwenk, UNICEF state representative for West Bengal states that UNICEF will continue to focus its energies on enhancing the learning process by capacity building of the Sahayikas and distribution of TLM’s. “The emphasis would be to expand the SSK programme up to the elementary level and ensuring quality education apart from expanding its reach to more unreached areas”
As per government guidelines, any community with more than twenty out-of-school children can establish an SSK. The community must provide a place to run the centre, identify Sahayikas (para teachers) from within the community and ensure that all children in the area are enrolled and attend the centre regularly.
In fact, one of the main reasons behind the success of the SSK programme has been the involvement of the community in the decision making process. Today thousand of girls like Deepali Oraon are attending schools and can read and write. The dark clouds hanging in the horizons seems to have cleared as these children look towards leading a more meaningful life in the days to come.