Novel approach to primary education catches on

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PRIMARY schools with a difference have sprung up in some villages around the elite Rishi Valley School (RVS) in Andhra Pradesh. These satellite schools, started by the Rural Extension Centre (REC) of the RVS, use instruction cards, puzzles and games instead of standard text books to make education interesting. The instruction material was designed, produced and distributed by the REC and the children are taught by village youth who have passed the 10th or intermediate class.
The REC was started about 20 years ago for the children of RVS workers who could not send their children to the main school. Padmanabha Rao, programme coordinator of the Rishi Valley Satellite Extension Programme and his wife Rama, coordinator of the training cell, have changed REC from a mere extension centre of the RVS to a role model for effective primary education in remote rural areas.
"Government schools have failed to provide effective education in remote areas," Rao said, "and in spite of their good qualifications and reasonable salaries, government teachers are not always enthusiastic about serving in remote areas."
The teaching material in the satellite schools has been graded to suit individual children. The teacher assigns appropriate instruction materials, consistent with the level of progress, to each child. "Children also learn from their seniors in the class. In effect, we create an atmosphere of learning so that in a class of 30 students and one instructor, there are virtually 31 students and 31 teachers," said Rama Rao. "We avoid rigid examinations or grading and instructors in each school are free to choose their own method of evaluating the progress of each child".
The school year begins with the children conducting an environmental survey of the region, collecting data on flora, fauna, soil types, resources, occupations and trades. The children are then guided to systematically organise the data into educational charts. "The science education of the child begins by discovering the relationships in the data collected," said Rao. "Our science programme is linked with action programmes that require the children to participate in community efforts currently under way in the region such as afforestation and watershed management."
A satellite school (there are seven in a radius of 15 km), is started in a village on the initiative of its residents. In almost all the schools built around Rishi Valley, the villagers contributed land, labour and building material. The teachers are trained and supported by the REC with grants from the Department of Human Resources Development. "We hope the villagers can muster enough resources soon to make the venture self-sustaining," said Rao.
REC is also trying to revive the folk art of puppetry by inviting puppeteers to perform in the schools. The children are taught the craft so that puppetry can be used as a medium of mass education and also provide employment to artisans. REC's puppet group focuses on diverse themes, including environment awareness, and has been invited to perform in nearby cities such as Bangalore.

REC's successful experiments have motivated other rural development agencies to adopt their model. The Bhagavatula Charitable Trust at Yellamanchili, an organisation active in rural development for the past 25 years, has sent its educational officers and non-formal education instructors to the REC for training in alternative forms of instruction.
REC is also formalising a contract with publishers Orient Longman to produce audio-visual language-learning kits with instruction manuals and work books that can be used as a guide to the REC instruction methodology.