Village Learning Centres in Uttarakhand

Country Profile: India

Population

1,210,193,422 (2011 census)

Poverty (population living on less than US$1.25 per day)

42% (2005)

Official languages

Hindi and English

Total expenditure on education as % of GNP

4.1

Primary school net enrolment / attendance ratio (2005–2010)

95%

Primary school completion rate

90%

Total youth literacy rate (15 – 24 years, 2005 – 2010)
  • Female: 74%
  • Male: 88%
  • Total: 81%
Adult literacy rate (15 years and over, 2005 – 2010)
  • Female: 51%
  • Male: 75%
  • Total: 63%
Statistical sources

Programme Overview

Programme TitleVillage Learning Centres in Uttarakhand
Implementing OrganizationUttarakhand Seva Nidhi Paryavaran Shiksha Sansthan (USNPSS), known in English as Uttarakhand Environmental Education Centre (UEEC)
Language of InstructionPrimarily Hindi. Local languages such as Kumaoni and Garhwali are also used by facilitators to support learners.
FundingRajeshwar Susheela Dayal Charitable Trust; Association for India’s Development (AID). In the past the programme was supported by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust.
Programme PartnersUSNPSS and other community-based organizations
Annual Programme CostsINR 6,500,000 in 2016 (approximately US $97,000)
Annual Programme Cost per Learner US $10
Date of Inception2014

Country Context and Background

India is the second most populous country in the world with more than 1.3 billion inhabitants (UIS, 2015), and the world’s fourth-largest economy (World Bank, 2017). Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has increased fourfold in the past few decades, from US $1.574 trillion in 1990 to US $6.558 trillion in 2013 (UNDP, 2015). However, India was ranked 130th out of 188 countries in the Human Development Report (UNDP, 2015) indicating that economic growth has not necessarily equated to significant improvements in quality of life for most of its population. Although there have been some positive signs of development and poverty alleviation in recent years, the country continues to struggle, with 58 per cent of its citizens living on less than US $3.10 PPP a day (UIS, 2015).

Despite the government’s investment in education having slightly increased from 3.09 per cent of GDP in 2006 to 3.84 per cent in 2013, India remains one of the lowest-ranked countries in terms of literacy, with the highest number of adults with low or no literacy skills in the world: a total of 259,311,189 people aged 15 and above (UIS, 2015). In addition, literacy rates show a considerable gender gap, with the literacy rate for adult men surpassing that of women by 18 per cent (80.94 per cent and 62.98 per cent respectively [UIS, 2015]).

As well as gender inequality, caste-based discrimination represents one of the most significant problems in Indian society today, even though the country’s constitution guarantees civil and political rights for the most disadvantaged social groups, referred to as ‘scheduled castes’, ‘scheduled tribes’ and ‘other backward classes’ (Indian Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, 2017).

The State of Uttarakhand, where the Village Learning Centres programme is being implemented, has its fair share of these problems. Uttarakhand has a population of more than 10 million inhabitants (Uttarakhand Population Census, 2011) and is located in the northwest of India, in the central Himalayas.

The Village Learning Centres Programme

The Uttarakhand Environmental Education Centre (USNPSS, its abbreviation from Hindi) is an Indian-based non-governmental organization working in the fields of education, environment and gender equality in the hill villages of Uttarakhand. Since its foundation in 1987, USNPSS has worked with community-based organizations to provide educational opportunities for villagers in Uttarakhand through various initiatives, one of which is the Village Learning Centres programme.

This programme was designed on the basis of USNPSS’s 25 years’ experience engaging the remote rural communities of Uttarakhand, with the aim of improving residents’ living conditions, and in response to growing demands for learning opportunities and facilities. In recent years, the quality of formal school education has raised serious concerns in the region. As a result there has been a significant increase in the number of residents migrating from villages to nearby towns and cities, citing better educational opportunities for their children as one of the main driving factors.

The Village Learning Centres programme was implemented in 2014, and absorbed educational services and facilities for children, adolescents and women that were previously run by USNPSS. These include the management of pre-school centres, evening centres and village libraries. The village learning centres were established with the purpose of promoting villagers’ participation in dealing with local issues and improving their knowledge in areas the formal school curriculum did not cover, for instance, gender and caste equality, local history and environmental awareness.

The activities at the village centres engage participants from a variety of backgrounds and ages, from young children to the elderly. To date, USNPSS has established and run 75 village centres in collaboration with 14 community-based organizations across seven districts of Uttarakhand: Almora, Bageshwar, Champawat, Pithoragarh, Chamoli, Rudraprayag and Pauri Garhwal.

Aims and Objectives

Programme Implementation

The Village Learning Centres programme is a continuation of USNPSS’s earlier work organizing educational activities for rural communities in partnership with community-based organizations (CBOs) in the state of Uttarakhand. These CBOs work in clusters of villages in their respective regions and also act as local hubs for USNPSS in different locations around the state. In turn, USNPSS provides them with the financial assistance, training, monitoring and supervision required to run the village learning centres at local level. The geographical distribution of the 15 clusters of village learning centres supported by USNPSS is shown in Figure 1. A list of USNPSS’s local partner organizations can be found at: http://www.sevanidhi.org/partners.html.

Figure 1. Geographical distribution of clusters of village learning centres in Uttarakhand. Source: USNPSS

Figure 1. Geographical distribution of clusters of village learning centres in Uttarakhand. Source: USNPSS

The village learning centres established by USNPSS and its partner CBOs in Uttarakhand offer facilities in which various educational and trans-disciplinary activities take place. Local community members, especially villagers from disadvantaged groups and scheduled castes, participate in meetings and non-formal learning activities that vary according to their age group:

The village learning centres are open to local residents throughout the year. They are open in the evenings from Tuesday to Sunday, since Monday is a weekly holiday. The physical space for each centre is provided by the local communities – usually for free – and the women’s group at every village is in charge of maintenance. In the following sections, the learning activities and topics dealt with by each age group are further explained.

Teaching and Learning: Approaches and Methodologies

In the village learning centres, UNSPSS has adopted and implemented an inclusive and participatory learning approach that allows all community members to work together towards shared goals. Although activities may differ on the basis of participants’ preference and age, the centres provide a common physical space that integrates the needs and aspirations of all, regardless of their age, gender, caste, religious or socio-economic background.

The programme uses a learner-centred approach that incentivizes change through dialogue. It is an interactive and relational approach designed to nurture a sense of optimism among villagers, promoting learning and enabling them to better understand their surroundings and the issues that affect their lives.

The activities organized at the centres aim to raise awareness and appreciation of the land among local communities. They foster villagers’ self-reflection on lived experiences and opens dialogues that allow them to express differing perspectives on community issues. The meetings held among the different age groups encourage locals to connect with innovative ideas, learn new vocabulary and deepen their understanding of the importance of education, equality, environmental protection and local development.

The main language of instruction at the learning centres is Hindi. As many members of the women’s groups – mostly those over 50 years of age – are not proficient in Hindi, facilitators use local dialects such as Kumaoni and Garhwali during their meetings. Some activities may also involve the use of English as a second language. The learner-facilitator ratio varies according to age group, being approximately 1:20 for children and 1:30 for group meetings involving adolescent girls, young adults and women.

Programme Content

Although the content and main areas of study vary among the different age groups, the programme’s main academic elements are reading and comprehension, mathematics, art, health and life skills, environmental education and social equality, with gender and caste equality discussed across the board.

During their visits to the centres, children and adolescents are encouraged to practise their reading and writing skills, and to socialize with their peers. Children’s crafting, language and maths skills are strengthened while their knowledge of their surroundings, village and environment is nurtured. Through practical learning sessions they become aware of the locations, boundaries and status of local natural resources, including land, grassland, forests, water sources, housing and the agricultural fields available to their community. Findings from such activities are then shared with the whole community during monthly village meetings.

Each groups has its own agenda, deals with specific topics, and develops small projects in different areas of interest. For instance, activities for adolescent girls focus on strengthening their life skills and helping them deal with the challenges they face on a daily basis, such as violence, dowry laws, gender stereotypes, and gender and caste-based discrimination. They also discuss issues such as self-development and health education, particularly those relating to preventative healthcare measures and reproductive health. Girls are continually encouraged to improve their education: efforts are made to ensure that all girls continue attending school and those who drop out are given incentives to re-enrol and resume attendance.

The groups of young men and women, meanwhile, engage in activities designed to build local youth networks and enhance employment opportunities through skill-based training with local businesses, most of which are involved with land-based activities. As migration to cities in search of a job is common among young people, many start attending the centres when they return to the villages after a few years away. Young men and women also go to the village learning centres to borrow books, read newspapers, play games and practise sport. Those preparing for competitive exams may use and borrow educational material available at the centres’ libraries.

Finally, the local women’s groups deal with various issues and organize activities related to the following topics:

As part of these activities, local girls and women, as well as their facilitators, write articles and stories about their experiences. Selected articles are published in a local annual magazine called Nanda and in a biannual newsletter, Muskaan, which are distributed among villagers. Contributions made by women who lack literacy skills, such as sketches and drawings, are also featured in these publications.

Teaching and Learning Material

Each village centre has a library where reading materials for different age groups are available, including books, dictionaries, magazines and daily newspapers. The centres’ libraries have become an important source of information and educational resources for school-age children, young people and adult villagers alike. Some centres have also made computers available for the use of the community, allowing locals to improve their ICT skills.

Most of the teaching and learning materials used in the village learning centres are produced in-house by USNPSS. This material is developed in collaboration with other partner organizations.

USNPSS incorporates content into the youth and adult learning sessions that complements the environmental awareness classes that children attend at school. The concepts and topics revisited are:

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

Facilitators are selected jointly by USNPSS, local partner organizations and the women’s group at each village. They work at the village learning centres on a part-time basis and USNPSS pays them a small salary. At present, most facilitators are aged between 18 and 22, and approximately 95 per cent are women.

To select facilitators an open meeting coordinated by the women’s group is held, which other community-based organizations also attend. In order to be eligible, potential facilitators must be over 18, have completed their formal school education (to the end of secondary school), and should be interested in working with local communities and children. In some cases, candidates may be required to take a small written test before their recruitment.

Once recruited, the facilitator is required to participate in training sessions organized and delivered by USNPSS at its facilities in Almora, a municipality within the state of Uttarakhand. Training sessions are conducted by USNPSS staff and take place pre-service and in-service. Their contents are described below.

During pre-service training (five days), facilitators take part in an intensive and integrated training programme that aims to improve their understanding of the main learning areas at the village centres (reading and comprehension, mathematics, art, health and life skills). The course encourages facilitators to use education to bring about changes in the villagers’ personal and social behaviour, while also linking learning to their ecological and social environment. Facilitators are trained to form and coordinate groups of adolescent girls and to engage the women’s groups within local communities.

In-service training (four days) consists of refresher training sessions, which are designed to further strengthen facilitators’ mathematical and language skills. During these sessions, facilitators have the chance to discuss their experiences up to this point, and are encouraged to think of new strategies to make learning more interesting and effective for the different groups.

In addition to these training sessions, USNPSS organizes review meetings in which staff provide on-the-spot guidance and conduct short training programmes for facilitators from a cluster of villages. At the village centres, facilitators participate in the monthly women’s group meetings, which helps them improve their ability to speak and coordinate debates. Facilitators also take part in meetings organised by USNPSS’s local partner organizations, which allows them to continually improve their skills.

At the moment, no formal accreditation is provided to facilitators for their training.

Enrolment of Learners and Needs Assessment

The village learning centres offer activities for every community member who wishes to participate, therefore enrolment remains as open and unrestricted as possible. New participants are usually invited to join one of the group meetings or learning sessions, depending on their interests, age and gender, and are not required to take any kind of assessment test.

The enrolment process varies according to age group: while children, adolescent girls and young people are enrolled by local partner organizations, the women’s groups keep a separate register and enrol new participants independently. Enrolment records are also kept by USNPSS and locally appointed supervisors.

Because the Village Learning Centres programme emerged from USNPSS’s earlier work with rural communities in Uttarakhand, local needs had already been assessed. During this assessment, USNPSS identified a need to improve children’s education – especially in mathematics and language – as well as opportunities for both young people and adults to build their social skills and have access to reading and learning material.

Awareness events were organized at the beginning of USNPSS’s engagement with the region in order to reach out to potential participants. At present, no promotional events or outreach campaigns are under way as the organization and its activities are now generally known to local communities. News of potential participants is shared on an ongoing basis among the members of the women’s groups, the adolescent girls’ groups, USNPSS staff and its partner CBOs. Participants also serve as spokespersons and help attract new participants by word of mouth.

Assessment of Learning Outcomes

A systematic grading scheme is used in order to evaluate participants’ progress and to provide differentiated instructions to strengthen the areas in which they need to improve. The assessment process includes:

Usually, learning assessments are carried out jointly by facilitators and supervisors. Facilitators working within the same cluster of villages may also conduct joint visits to each centre to assess participants’ progress. During these visits, they fill in grading sheets based on their own impressions of learners’ performance. Participants are generally not awarded any type of certificate for their attendance, although USNPSS staff may provide a certificate should such a request arise.

Monitoring and Evaluation

USNPSS staff, supervisors and facilitators are in charge of carrying out monitoring and evaluation activities at the village learning centres. Findings are used regularly to provide differentiated instructions to support learning in all age groups and to adapt the learning process to participants of varying needs.

Staff from USNPSS and its partner CBOs visit the village learning centres on a regular basis to monitor attendance, assess the progress of learners, collect feedback on the overall implementation of the programme, and to advise and support facilitators. If facilitators have encountered difficulties with a particular activity, staff will also give guidance and provide demonstrations to help.

In addition, USNPSS mobilizes trained supervisors to conduct field visits to the village centres, in which they also monitor facilitators’ performance. USNPSS staff are accompanied by representatives of local partner organisations, who serve as village-level or local supervisors. To monitor each centre’s activities, local supervisors also organize regular monthly meetings with facilitators.

The assessment results reported by supervisors are tabulated on a master data sheet, which is later shared with the facilitators working at each centre and the respective CBOs.

The quantitative aspects evaluated by USNPSS supervisors include number of participants, gender and caste distribution, participation rate and learner-facilitator ratio. The qualitative aspects differ according to each target group:

As the major focus of the village learning centres programme has been on women and girls, USNPSS has not conducted grading for the youth group so far.

Programme Impact and Challenges

Impact and Achievements

The village learning centres in the remote hill villages of Uttarakhand have provided school-age children, adolescents, young people, adults and elderly villagers with a community space in which they can meet, interact and discuss matters that are crucial to their lives and livelihoods. Group meetings and learning activities at the centres have introduced them to new ideas and people and they have contributed to raising community awareness on gender and caste equality, local development and the environment.

The village centres have offered learning opportunities for 2,465 children, many of who come from socially disadvantaged groups, namely scheduled castes and other under-privileged classes. Most children in the region were weak in mathematics and languages and also needed opportunities to develop their social skills. USNPSS’s assessment of children’s learning progress has shown significant improvements in their reading, writing and maths skills, in their ability to draw and paint, and in their general knowledge of their surroundings. For instance, children’s and adolescent girls’ overall performance at the village learning centres shifted from C (satisfactory) to B (good) in the period between October 2014 and March 2015. Besides academic achievements, many children and adolescents have strengthened their social, emotional and decision-making skills, being able to maintain healthy social relationships and show responsibility at school and in the community.

Activities carried out at the centres have contributed to gender equality by encouraging young girls who had dropped out of school to resume attendance and continue learning in a non-formal setting. To this end, USNPSS and its local partners have promoted the engagement of the girls’ parents throughout the process. At the beginning of the programme, school enrolment for adolescent girls was low and drop-out rates were high whereas, at present, every girl attends school regularly and many of them have been able to continue their education to university level. The sports equipment available at the centres has allowed them to practise sport and participate in outdoor activities such as running, jumping and playing with boys, behaviour that is otherwise discouraged for young local girls due to gender discrimination. In turn, local boys and young men now have the opportunity to learn and discuss equality, gender and reproductive health, issues with which very few were acquainted prior to their participation in activities at the village learning centres.

The presence of libraries at the centres has provided access to reading materials and learning resources that had not been available to villagers in the region before. For instance, magazines and daily newspapers only started to reach these remote hill villages once the community libraries were established. Now villagers can stay informed about recent events. The village centres have also made recreational equipment available for the use of the community. In addition, five centres have been equipped with computers and other ICT hardware, allowing villagers to improve their computer skills and become familiar with the internet.

Activities at the village learning centres have contributed to enhanced employment opportunities for young men and women, particularly land-based work such as vegetable cultivation, horticulture, fish farming and fruit-processing. As a result, hundreds of poly-houses (greenhouses for crop production) and rain-water harvesting tanks have been set up, enabling many residents to grow vegetables and fruit trees and to venture into seed production and off-season production in these remote villages.

Women’s groups have raised their voices and taken collective action against enduring problems such as alcoholism and gambling. Joint meetings of women and adolescent girls’ groups have also been held, facilitating inter-generational discussions and allowing women of different ages to deepen their mutual understanding.

As a result of these coordinated activities, the women’s groups have been able to create new rules or challenge existing ones in the villages, in view of local needs and interests. For example, new rules were instituted to ensure a more equal distribution of community resources (water, grass, etc.), to prevent open grazing in the fields, and to prevent the use of abusive language and gambling. Local women have become more proactive in their daily lives: they have started to go to village schools and healthcare centres, and they have turned to governmental offices to seek information about social schemes that could improve their living conditions.

Members of the women’s groups and other groups at the village learning centres have started to participate and run as candidates in local elections. In June 2014, about 526 people (379 of whom were women) directly associated with this programme were elected to various positions on local committees and other governmental offices. Most of them were able to win the elections thanks to the work and support of the women’s groups in their respective villages.

Participants’ Testimonies

When the women’s group was not formed in the village, we used to quarrel a lot. There were no sanitation facilities. We had a water shortage and children were not sent to school. While mothers went out to the fields, children would quarrel among themselves… use abusive words and show no respect to others. However, when the group was formed… we began to sympathize with each other [and] to use new words that showed respect while talking… Women began to identify their problems and found solutions. The village became clean. We worked together to provide clean drinking water to every household... earlier we used to fight over availability of water in the village. A few households were getting more than the others… people would go and defecate near the water source. The women’s group took action on the issue. Our health was taken care of… everyone in my village has benefitted because we have installed latrines… during the monthly meetings of the women’s group, we talk about nutrition, health and sanitation. We also attended literacy centres. Women in my village have learned a lot. Now, all girls go to school… Members of the women’s group have been elected in panchayats [local committees]. Now our village is a different place and we like it.
Revati Arya

Challenges and Lessons Learned

The village learning centres emerged as a convergence of USNPSS’s earlier work with rural communities and remote villages in Uttarakhand. Their activities were first carried out in villages where evening centres or libraries were already functional. Women’s groups, in turn, started to form in all the villages where learning centres for children had been set up. The village learning centres gradually became operational as a joint initiative in which all the previous or ongoing activities organized by USNPSS could merge.

During the implementation of the village learning centres, USNPSS has faced several challenges.

Social barriers persist in the villages since many locals still suffer caste-based discrimination and the imposition of gender steoreotypes. For instance, young local girls are discouraged from practising sports or playing outdoors and this has created some resistance to the idea that girls could engage in such activities. Some children from upper-caste families have refused to sit on the same mattresses as those from socially disadvantaged groups. To deter this behaviour, USNPSS and its partner CBOs work with facilitators to organize an annual learning centre fair in which all children and villagers from different social groups have the chance to show the community what they have learned at the centre and to participate in games. This way, social relationships between community members from different backgrounds are strengthened.

Until recently, the majority of facilitators were new to their roles, and many had limited skills, especially in mathematics. USNPSS has improved the training of facilitators in order to improve their understanding of language, mathematics and environmental issues.

As the programme provides a lot of freedom and flexibility, some centres have experienced irregular attendance by participants, particularly those who reside in more remote areas. To tackle this irregularity, facilitators and group members continually reach out to these participants, trying to solve any problems they may have in attending the centres, and persuading them to continue.

Since the beginning of the programme, USNPSS has taken away many lessons:

As the village learning centres are a community-based initiative, the raising of awareness within local communities about the benefits of participation in the programme has been critical for its execution and success.

Community learning occurs by promoting self-reflection and by examining the socio-political structures within which the village functions. Both personal and social transformation are essential determinants of change. For example, it is by understanding patriarchal structures that local women have been able to emancipate and empower themselves. Each centre has had to go beyond the goal of providing better educational opportunities for children in order to let the whole community engage in the process of learning.

Events organized for adolescent girls were initially not open to women since facilitators and some partner organizations perceived that young girls could feel intimidated and would refrain from speaking up in front of their mothers or other relatives. However, once the girls had attended a few workshops on gender and caste-related issues, it was possible to organize joint events where both adolescent girls and women could interact.

An important role has been played by the facilitators, who are responsible not only for developing and promoting new ideas but also for nurturing the learning environment and engaging villagers when any problems arise. To have open-minded facilitators who can reflect on the issues and are able to offer constructive guidance to other community members has proved of great importance.

Next Steps and Sustainability

Since 2014, USNPSS and its partner organizations have successfully established and run 75 village learning centres in the hill villages of Uttarakhand. Having gained valuable experience so far, USNPSS plans to continue setting up village learning centres in new locations, particularly where there is most demand for learning opportunities for local residents.

At the same time, the organization plans to develop new strategies to continue working with communities where the goals set at the beginning of the programme have already been met. To that end, future activities at the village learning centres must address higher aspirations from villagers, in a context where their education, standard of living and community awareness have improved substantially. However, as technological advances and globalization start reaching and affecting the region, these villages face more complex, fast-paced challenges that reinforce the role of the village learning centres and their importance in finding solutions to common issues.

To ensure the sustainability of the programme, USNPSS relies on the financial support of the Rajeshwar Susheela Dayal Charitable Trust (based in New Delhi, India) and the Association for India’s Development (Washington DC Chapter, United States of America). USNPSS’s partnerships with local organizations remain crucial for the provision of facilities and on-the-ground support. By engaging these organizations, USNPSS promotes local initiative and community resilience with the view that local communities will be able to take full ownership of the programme and continue running the village learning centres on their own in later stages of implementation.

Sources

Contact

Dr Lalit Pande (Director) or Ms Anuradha Pande
Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi Paryavaran Shiksha Sansthan (USNPSS)
Jakhan Devi, Mall Road
Almora 263601
Uttarakhand
India
Phone: (91) 5962-234430
Fax: (91) 5962-231100
Email: an.lalit (at) gmail.com or anu.almora (at) gmail.com
http://www.sevanidhi.org