Schools of hope
Kapil Bajaj May 27, 2008
In 1998, he cracks the Joint Entrance Exam of the IITs (IIT-JEE) in his first attempt; he later goes on to become the Country Manager (India) of Muehlbauer, a German RFID and biometric solutions provider with operations in over a dozen countries.
The JNV impactThe examples of Nirmal Prakash and Arjun Singh are just two of the thousands of incredible tales of socio-economic mobility that JNVs have scripted in Indian villages. Underinvestment in education and maladministration have made sure that most of the 75 crore people who reside in villages never receive modern, quality education and, hence, a chance to become a member of the educated society that enjoys the bountiful fruits of the modern, urban economy.
For schools located in India’s rural hinterland and serving children from largely-disadvantaged backgrounds, JNVs seem to be doing very well, even surpassing their more privileged urban counterparts.
The ratios of first divisions (60 per cent marks or more) achieved by JNV pupils in exams for 10th and 12th standards have been above 77 and 72 per cent, respectively. A survey conducted in 2007 found the ‘annual income of father’ of 74 per cent of the JNV pupils to be less than Rs 48,000, highlighting the economically disadvantaged backgrounds of the children attending these schools.An idea that clickedStarted in 1986 on a pilot basis, JNVs have currently grown to 560 schools, located in all the states and Union Territories of the country except Tamil Nadu which has so far refused to accept the scheme for political reasons. “More JNVs are being opened every year,” says Khanna of NVS. The Navodaya scheme aims to set up in each district of India one residential school as a model school providing quality education—with English as a subject language and medium of instruction— and modern infrastructure to rural children (for whom 75 per cent of seats are reserved).
“Our admission test is so designed as to ensure that rural children are able to compete without any disadvantage,” says Khanna of NVS, which also ensures that only children of a district get admission in the JNV located in that district.
The success that the JNVs have had in targeting the needier students is perhaps one of the reasons for their impressive acceptance among the states and the rural population. States, which have to provide 30 acres of land free of cost for the JNV campus, have been “very enthusiastic” in getting all their districts to acquire a Navodaya, says Khanna. And for people in India’s villages, most of whom are inured to teacher absenteeism, abysmal infrastructure, and myriad other problems in school education, JNVs stand for well funded and managed institutions that will enable their children to compete with the city kids.
“In the desert hamlet in Rajasthan I was born in, access to a school is a blessing enough. JNVs, on the other hand, promise people quality education for free. For them (the rural folks), JNVs are as good as the Doon Schools of India, if not better,” says Rajendra Meena, an Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer currently posted in the Directorate General of Central Excise Intelligence, and a JNV alumnus.
“The wide acceptance of JNVs also reflects the desperate demand for quality, English-medium education in rural India. Most state government schools don’t care about competence in English or the overall quality of education,” says Boyapati Rajani, an alumnus of JNV-Krishna district, who’s currently working as Project Manager for Goldstone Technologies, a Hyderabad-based software firm, after a seven-year stint as Flight Lieutenant in Indian Air Force.
At JNV-Shimla, located in a remote mountainous region, this writer finds a well-equipped computer lab (32 desktops, a projector, internet connections through VSAT, and pupils being taught C++), labs for sciences and maths, a language resource room, a library, a smart classroom (with a projector and an LCD screen), apart from well-furnished hostels, classrooms, a mess, staff quarters, and playgrounds, etc.
Providing More About 20,000 employees of NVS (comprising 1600 teaching and other school staff and the remainder administrative staff) manage about 2 lakh students, spread across remote locations all over India, trying to meet the schools’ academic, social and national objectives. The schools not only have a threelanguage formula (Hindi, English and the main language of the region), making Hindispeaking pupils learn a non-Hindi language and vice versa, but also a ‘migration scheme’, where selected kids from one linguistic region go to study for a year in another. (For example, the JNVs in Goa and Himachal Pradesh exchange their students.) “The migration scheme and the requirement for teachers to teach outside their home state make for a rare cross-cultural experience for JNV boys and girls,” says Khanna.
The JNV administration also seems to have things going right for it. Four years ago, NVS implemented a ‘counselling-based’ method of transferring faculty, wherein all teachers gather at a place and decide among themselves where they would like to work within the JNV system.
That dramatically cut the attrition rate among teachers who had been frustrated by long tenures away from their home-states. “Now many private companies want our advice on how we did it,” smiles Khanna of NVS. Of late, the administration of JNVs has been becoming increasingly decentralised, allowing schools more freedom in managing themselves, says P.K. Sharma, Principal, JNV-Shimla.
However, JNVs have had their share of problems, especially with regard to administration and faculty. The remote rural locations of the schools make it difficult for them to retain faculty and sometimes even students, particularly those who want extra coaching for competitive exams.The teachers have also complained of being underpaid for the long hours they put in as resident faculty. “JNVs have also failed to meet their original objective of turning themselves into a resource organisation for state government schools. They have become islands in a sea of mediocrity, not communicating with other schools,” says Chavan.
Agrees Arvind Sardana, an educationist at Eklavya, an NGO that helps government schools improve the quality of education: “A lot of underprivileged children are getting social mobility because of JNVs. But building just one JNV in a district has meant that only a handful get to receive better educational facilities. What will happen to the majority of children?” Some people also talk of the cash crunch that they believe JNVs face. Sharma of JNV-Shimla complains of rising food prices and stagnant allocation for rations.
(According to rates revised in April 2007, a pupil gets Rs 675 per month for food in a normal JNV and Rs 850 in a school located in a remote, inhospitable location.) Despite the problems, JNVs continue to throw up heart-warming stories of socio-economic advancement in a country where millions of people live hopelessly in watertight compartments of castes, religion, gender, and economic status. Says Ramesh Bathija, Director of Training at Dakshana Foundation, a Kotabased non-profit organisation that selects and coaches JNV pupils for IIT-JEE: “JNVs are a goldmine of talent.
It’s about time urban India became familiar with what they are.” Without doubt, it’s also time other government school systems borrowed a leaf out of the JNVs.