India Exchange

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In January 2012 a group of 11 ‘Active Citizens’ from the National Literacy Trust and partner organisations across the UK including Literature Wales visited New Delhi, India. The five-day visit aimed to forge closer international links with Pratham, India’s largest educational organisation, and allowed partners to share their experiences of working on local social action projects that have a positive impact on the community.

The visit was arranged by the National Literacy Trust as part of the British Council’s Active Citizens programme. The group, which includes teachers, librarians, storytellers and community workers, attended the release of the annual India-wide education results, met with Indian Education Department officials and visited a range of local projects involved in the Read India programme. The visit follows an exchange visit to the National Literacy Trust by Pratham in October of last year.

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Blog created on the trip:


A group of volunteers were brought together by the National Literacy Trust to work on a programme called Active Citizens. This is a British Council initiative that looks to create a global network of volunteers that supports community empowerment in over 30 countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The programme works with youth leaders, women’s groups, educators and faith leaders to deliver social action projects that have a positive impact on the community:

1) Brings a global dimension to the work of people who are already socially active

2) Inspires participants to deliver social action in their community

3) Offers cultural leadership training enabling participants to run successful projects

4) Is delivered in over 30 countries worldwide, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Kenya and the UK

5) Is funded by the British Council and delivered by recipient organisations worldwide

For more information on Active Citizens go to:

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Day one:

After a seven-and-a-half hour flight we arrived at New Delhi airport to meet our driver, who took us to our hotel in the centre of Delhi. The drive itself was a foretaste of what real Delhi is like when you experience a ride in a rickshaw… and for those of you that haven’t done so, put it on your bucket list. The sights, the sounds, the smell is incredible. 17.8 million people live in Delhi and most of them were out on the road in one way or another. One of the most enchanting sights was a lady on the back of a motorbike in a beautiful gold sari. More poignant however, was seeing families camped and living on the central reservation underneath the busy Metro line. It is difficult to imagine those families living in a country where everything moves so fast, the world flashes by yet leaves them standing still.

Pedestrians nonchalantly step out onto roads filled with motorbikes, vans, buses and bicycles that look like they were made in the middle ages. Colourful trucks, driven by colourful characters with colourful hair adorn the roads they move with such splendour and ease in and out of the melee like mechanical tag-team partners, wrestling for a trophy – all but the tourist understands the order of things. Seemingly there’s not much waste in the city with every inch of space being used to it’s maximum and although unemployment seems rife, education and a sense of pride is what gels the country together for even the so-called homeless understand that with learning comes change.

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Day two:

Today we had the privilege of attending the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) with the Pratham Delhi Educational initiative. It was interesting to say the least. There were people there from all over India with international delegates to boot. Although a very long day it was informative: so much so that the statistics and numbers that were quoted to us were incredible. 65,000 volunteers. 62,000 teachers. 15,000 villages, all in the name of education. Now, if you take those statistics in a country that has a billion people, recognise the fact that the government effectively do what all governments all over the world, agree to talk eloquently, then say “do it, and we’ll help you”! It’s incredible. I heard once that if two or three people agree, then anything is possible. Well, 127,000 people agree that “Every Child in School and Learning Well” will eventually change the landscape. We sat today and listened to stories that were humbling, heartfelt and heartbreaking. Stories that made you realise that what we do in the UK doesn’t come close to the enormity of what the above do. There was a man today at the conference who was asked to speak about his role in the revolution that is Pratham. He only said a few words in English, but those mumbled expressions were lost in his modesty. It took a delegate to tell us that this man, no older than mid-twenties, had trekked for four days through the jungle to deliver a survey to children and their families because the roads, and therefore transport, were down. A jungle? I’m not being funny, but I have worked with people that complain about having to run sessions in a room that hasn’t got a whiteboard in it. I’d love some of those people to listen to the stories that we’ve heard; seen some of the sights we’ve seen, then complain that a piece of technology that many of the villagers will never have heard of, isn’t working. Pratham have a “can do” attitude and without them the status quo has no chance of changing.We believe that these attitudes will break down the barriers of responsibility, the politicians say that more money has been spent in this government on education than any other in Indian history and we are honoured to witness and be a part of it; however, unless we take the lessons taught (of which we believe will be many more) everything stands still. We won’t let that happen. A handful of people have enticed us to stand up and take arms, arms with pens and books and the knowledge that no situation is permanent.

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Day three:

Here’s a concept for you: children wanting desperately to go to school. We had another emotionally powerful day today. Three groups set off in different directions to look at an Early Childhood Programme; a School-based Library Programme; an Early Literacy and Numeracy class and a Community Based Learning Centre. What we saw was mind-blowing. Children were being taught on hard concrete floors, no chairs, just a piece of carpet. Some groups were sat on sheets spread across compacted soil – the sheets were brightly coloured with depictions of fruits or animals, letters and numbers to provide more stimulus. They had chalk boards in some schools and tattered writing books in others. Their pictures were hung on strings proudly displayed on the outer stone walls that provided the back drop for these incredible scenes, as were the teaching aids used. The kids were rightly proud of their work, their communities, themselves and their zest for learning.
Eyes don’t lie: and every single pupil’s eyes shone with the kind of pride that they wanted to share with these strange looking visitors from foreign shores. We went into slums that had sewage running through its middle: in one, three different age groups were being taught, outside, in an area no bigger than a football pitch’s 18-yard box. To the right there was a huge rubbish dump that featured the biggest hogs we’d ever seen. It was a chilly day in India and most kids, though they left worn shoes neatly in a line, donned woolly hats. Excitement ran through these areas as its inhabitants spread the word that outsiders had arrived and this is the fundamental point: all of the people teaching voluntarily on these programmes are effectively from the communities the classes are based in: they have a vested interest in up-skilling themselves, then take those skills back into the communities that need them the most. In one of the programmes, there was a drawing of an apple, in the middle of the apple it said “Each One Teach One,” a beautiful concept of community learning that underpins the very culture that we’ve been witness to.

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Day four:

We don’t want this to sound like a love in: however, we can’t help but feel The British Council have started something quite spectacular with their Active Citizens Programme. It seems everyone that we’ve met so far without exception, has a common interest in educating the children of India. The whole group were driven to a semi-rural town called Dadri in which Pratham, our exchange partners, have set up an office. On arrival we were split into two groups and ferried off in different directions to visit areas in which locals had been trained and were delivering programs to children that may not be in education if not for this intervention. Again we were humbled by teaching staff whose dedication was exemplary and by children who were engaged, enthusiastic and visibly having fun. On one of the visits there was a parents’ meeting going on, which happens twice a month. Naturally they were a little apprehensive about us and covered their faces but soon warmed up when they realised we were fundamentally a support network looking to help in any way we could. There was elder involvement because nothing changes without seeking that blessing; motivational head teachers, whose excitement and enthusiasm for what they’re doing was clearly visible. In one school every door is open so the community can walk past and hear the learning, a clever ruse in our opinion, effectively employing an open door policy to entice local people’s support. The syllabus is such that teachers were keen to share with us their books, assessment charts and the like. They wanted to show us what they could do almost as if looking for some kind of validation, when in actual fact they were doing things that made some of us want to go back to our authorities and communities to implement straight away.
In the afternoon we went back to Delhi where one group were visiting senior government officials of the state who were keen to engage in dialogue about methods of Ofsted inspections, where appropriate, for Indian schools. The meeting went very well, again with delegates from the National Literacy Trust impressed by our hosts’ quest for knowledge. The other group went to the Pratham Delhi office to meet the architects of the programme that they are rolling out all over the country. Again we found them humble and more than willing to discuss with us their procedures, from implementation to assessment. It was brilliant, they showed us curriculum, how they research, train and pilot their sessions. When they first started there were not enough books for all of the children that needed them, so, what did they do? They wrote their own; these children’s books are now on sale at ridiculously low prices because ultimately profit is not their aim: a sculpting of the mind, body and soul is what they aspire to.

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Day five:

We have been so caught up with the learning on this trip, we’ve almost forgotten to breathe in and smell the incense. In the beginning, every journey on Indian roads seemed thwart with danger; every close shave required another prayer to ensure we arrived at our destination safely, now, it’s as though we’ve become seasoned travellers in a land that seemingly has no rules or regulations when it comes to driving. We journeyed to the Taj Mahal today in Agra: over 200 kms, mostly in thick smog, so dense that it would have had most British drivers cruising at a modest 30 miles per hour on a motorway. It wasn’t until this evening that we realised we’d become acclimatised to it, fallen in line with the natural order of sights, sounds and speed! It was still fascinating to see young children, dogs, baboons and all manner of creation whizzing, jumping in and around bustling traffic – but not nearly as frightening.
The Taj Mahal was brilliant, and for those of you that decide to see it, take a guide with you, we did and it was tremendously informative. On average, 10,000 people a day visit this shrine to love. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal who bore him 14 children, it was started in 1632 after she died and completed 22 years later in 1653. No picture or postcard can come close to the sight of this white-domed marble mausoleum, you have to see it yourself. Our guide re-told the tragic story of how the youngest son, Aurangzeb Murad, killed his elder brothers and imprisoned his father so that he could rule India. Shah Jahan died in captivity at the age of 74, when his vision was completed. Wow, imagine building something like this in the time? No lorries, scaffolding or hard hats: whole pieces of marble, sculpted, intricately, lovingly. This is India in all its tragedy and glory. Today all 11 British ambassadors were the consummate tourists, wanting to be educated, learning parts of the history of a country that quite frankly, we’re beginning to love. The British Council and Pratham are building their own testament to love, love and also a legacy for the Indian people.

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The final day…

Today is our last day. Although the group is tired, we’re sad to be leaving. We awoke in Agra this morning to heavier smog than we’d experienced in Delhi. Chauffeured to a Teacher Training Centre in a rural village outside the town, we were greeted with the same curiosity that had become a feature on this trip as residents came out in force. We were finding about a programme called Education for Education. Once in the centre we were taken to the basement where three women were sat in front of computers familiarizing themselves with its features, drawing circles within circles and colouring them in, making speech bubbles and putting stars inside. The electricity in the village was down so the male trainer was explaining the program to us in the dark. A makeshift generator was powering computers. These women were taking lessons with only the lights from the screen and a torch, how dedicated is that? These new cohorts had enrolled in January and are trained for a period of six months, three days a week: once they pass they teach in their villages. The tutor showed us the training manuals which included word, excel and PowerPoint; there was Internet access which was amazing because of the areas remoteness. One of the incentives for the group is after two years of teaching they get to keep a computer and are actively encouraged to start their own businesses, a bit like the social enterprise schemes we have in England. There are five trainers for a hundred villages, trainers work six days a week – if anyone ever needed a definition of dedication, there it is. These are farming peoples who have ambitions to be something other than their lot and it’s moving to see.

We left the training centre, drove for about twenty minutes and arrived in another village where we entered a tiny school, the children in the areas had been given five days off due to the cold weather but when we arrived a volunteer teacher had made her way in and so had some of the children. Again sat on rugs, they were reading books and reciting text: we went to the local library and met two very young librarians, part of the group had been absconded and were led into a private school, where it seemed that the rest of the children off school had congregated. They were rehearsing for a community performance, so we were privy to those rehearsals. They sang, danced and made fun of each other with one young boy dressed as a female, mimicking all the deity’s of a shy young lady being pursued through dance by her suitor. It was hilarious and a real testament to the way they’d accepted us into their fold. Then came the young ladies, proving that the world over, all young girls love to make up dances and share them with others. They danced with the kind of subtlety and finesse associated with the Asian culture: rhythmic hands and incalculable beauty, It was a truly wonderful and memorable experience. In the third village we went to again we felt their generosity and hospitality. One of our motley crew was asked to do an impromptu storytelling session with a group of children: parents with babies came and sat down to enjoy the show, it was a call and response session where the children and crowd mimicked the storyteller. All had good fun: children and adults brought the best out of each other. Nearly every home we passed, people hung over roofs, through curtains, round the bullocks and cows chained up outside abodes like bicycles, to say hello. We went to the library in the same village where more children looked through books and smiled for our cameras, even the elected head of the village came out to greet us. Our journey home was delayed because quite frankly it was hard to leave these villages that many of us may never see again.

The long drive back to Delhi where our Pratham hosts were awaiting us for final presentations and a buffet dinner was action packed. At one stage our driver was hurtling down the wrong side of the road with lorries heading towards us in the other direction! “Don’t worry,” he said. We needn’t have, his driving skills were excellent. We did feed back to our hosts and the conclusions were more like questions. What could we take back into our communities? How can we duplicate the movement here to make things better there? The Active Citizen programme brings communities together to learn and to better themselves and the people around them. Every child in school and learning well. Each one Teach One. These are the badges we’ll be wearing from now on and this experience with the wonder that is Pratham, has shown, just what is possible when a few people try..