Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2017   |   India

Sreeja S

India Education Collective
This description of Sreeja S's work was prepared when Sreeja S was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017.

The New Idea

Sreeja thinks that in spite of the myriad education innovations that are taking place in India, the education system is not drastically improving because the solutions are spoon-fed by external stakeholders, and lose steam once they withdraw. Therefore, Sreeja is building ownership in local communities over the education system in their area, so that they can identify and solve problems in the system themselves and in real time and are able to hold schools accountable to deliver high quality of education.

Sreeja partners with state governments to gain access to intervene in all the public schools in the state. She then launches a Fellowship program for members of local NGOs, who already have a trust base and relationships in the community to lead the process of mobilizing the community. The Fellow is supported through a small seed fund and training. The Fellow brings together parents, students, teachers and Panchayat leaders (village governance) regularly in a Shikshan Gram Sabha (Village Education Committee), where they Audit schools, and hold them accountable to improved infrastructure and learning outcomes. While the over populated teacher training space in India has tried to prescribe solutions to teachers, Sreeja’s methodology of changing assessments to measure “how” children are learning, rather than “what”, they are learning, restores teachers’ ownership over identifying learning gaps in children and coming up with their own solutions to classroom challenges.

The Problem

Over 75% of schools in India are public schools and over half of the children in the country attend these schools. The challenge is that most of these schools are unable to keep their students in school. The condition of these schools in terms of infrastructure as well as quality of education is extremely poor which is why it is difficult to keep students engaged.

More than half of Grade-V students in these schools cannot read a grade-II text and only 44.1 per cent of grade-VIII students can do division. These schools lack basic amenities such as separate toilets for girls and boys, drinking water, desks and so on. These schools have 40 % teacher absenteeism on an average every day. They teachers are also paid poorly and have not been empowered with autonomy over the subjects taught in class or other school activities. This leads to teachers not being motivated and looking at the job as yet another secure government job. The curriculum fails to bridge the gap between school and the real world. Students find the pedagogy boring and irrelevant which makes them drop out. Not many parents push for their child to stay in school because they have not seen many graduates from these schools turn successful. They would also rather have them work and contribute to their household income. This creates a vicious cycle of illiteracy or educated people who are not equipped with skills to find jobs they want.

This challenge of lack of ownership is even seen in other sectors such as health. Sreeja is building a democratic model to institutionalize ownership in communities starting with education which can be replicated in other sectors as well.

The Strategy

Sreeja gets the buy-in from communities to engage with their schools by collecting data and presenting facts about their schools and communities. The next step after collecting data on broad parameters such as enrolment, midday meal, infrastructure, is to call for a workshop where they present the analysed data to all the community members in a simple manner. The Block Development Officers are amongst the key invited attendees, since education falls under their governance. This workshop is attended by the school leaders, education ministers, parents, teachers and so on. Sreeja makes sure that all the important people from the community are present even if that means personally inviting some of them. These workshops are very carefully facilitated as there may be hidden political tension between the attendees. The data is not presented as pointing out problem areas, rather the workshop is structured as a problem solving session, where the various stakeholders attending use the data to ideate solutions. Sreeja’s team facilitates the conversation in a way that the administration, rather than feeling blamed, feels that it is not their responsibility alone to solve these problems in the schools, but the community will support them. There is a buy-in from the administration from this workshop, and they sign MOUs, giving Sreeja and her team permission to work with the communities to build the Shikshan Gram Sabha.

All these stakeholders are then brought together regularly in a Shikshan Gram Sabha (Village Education Committee), where they start by auditing, first, simple elements like infrastructure (are there sufficient bathrooms, are classrooms in good condition), and fixing them by applying to the Panchayat for funds, which are transferred to the school administration for repairs, and then checked up-on by the committee after a stipulated time. Since all the stakeholders needed for this cycle are present in the same committee meeting, solutions are decided on and implemented on the spot. The Committee then progresses to take ownership of more complex issues like learning processes and assessments. Apart from this, the fact that everyone is involved in this meeting and decisions are made on the spot, brings in transparency as it is a direct democratic process.

After working through existing child rights organisations, like Ashoka Fellow founded Maya, and the national Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, building an independent vertical in them of the school ownership program, in 2015, Sreeja founded India Education Collective. Through this Sreeja is creating a movement by having other organisations working in the education and child rights space adopt her ownership approach to strengthen their own work. In order to do this, Sreeja launched a Fellowship program for members of local NGOs, who already have a trust base and relationships in the community to lead the process of mobilizing the community. The Fellow, who is usually someone from the community and has vested interest in it, is supported through a small seed fund of $200/month and training. The Fellow follows the process starting from data collection, the problem solving workshop and then forming the Gram Shikshan Committee to build community ownership over education and child rights in their own regions of work. This approach of scaling through grassroots partner organisations helps India Education Collective reach a wider number of districts in lesser time.

Since Sreeja identified that the teachers were not motivated to teach because the current education system takes away leadership from them, she decided to conduct “Teacher Collective meetings” facilitated by India Education collective in certain states that are ready for such meetings. These meetings are spaces for teachers to share ideas and classroom best practices with each other which gives them more confidence in the work they are doing.

Sreeja has spread her community owned process measurement model in 8 states across India, in over 15,500 schools. These schools, over 3-5 years, achieve the same learning outcomes as an urban private school. This data is enabling Sreeja to use the competitive nature of state governments and political parties to achieve better developmental milestones than their competitors, to be invited into states to launch her process of building community ownership of schools.  

The Person

Sreeja grew up in Bihar in a family where she was the youngest of four children. She moved to Kerala for college but soon realised that she was not learning anything in class. In her second year of college, she stopped attending class and starting trying to solve problems that she saw around her in Trivandrum. Sreeja starting taking old homeless people to old age homes, admitting street children into schools and starting teaching at the missionaries of Charity school. To pay for children’s stationary, she starting working as a copy editor at an advertising agency and starting teaching economics at coaching centres.

At that time, she started getting more self-aware about who she is and was not defined by a single passion. Sreeja started influencing her classmates to stop going to class as well and said they would understand economics much better if they stepped into the real world.
After graduation, Sreeja moved on to do her masters in social work where she worked in a slum that had a huge brown sugar addiction problem. She identified the kingpin of that slum and convinced him to go to rehab. This person, influenced a lot of others in the slum to go to rehab as well.
She moved on to working with Maya, an organisation that worked with street children and against child labour. While working there, they realised that even though they took students out of streets, they realised within a few weeks they would go back to work on the streets. This is when they realised the challenge was with the public schools and Sreeja started working on mobilizing communities to take ownership of their schools.

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