The World Bank has warned that school closures due to the Covid-19 crisis risk a loss of earnings of $10 trillion dollars over time for this generation of students and says many countries are being pushed off track from their learning poverty goals.

    “Without rapid, decisive, and coordinated action, the crisis threatens to pose a huge setback to hard-won gains in human capital, irreversibly damaging the lifelong opportunities of millions of children,” said Annette Dixon, World Bank Vice President for Human Development.

    It’s a huge challenge for governments and non-government organisations (NGOs) working in the field of education and one that will need a supreme effort in terms of positive energy to overcome.

    Positive Energy Prize laureate of LUI Che Woo Prize — Prize for World Civilisation, Pratham Education Foundation is one of the organisations working in this field and since its inception in 1995 has shown unwavering determination in tackling the problem of illiteracy among India’s poorest children.

    The organisation works directly with children to improve basic literacy levels, as well as through partnerships with government systems. It also helps to guide education policy.

    Leap forward for literacy

     “We had to completely transform the way we work with children.”

    Pratham Head of International Collaborations Unit Devyani Pershad

    Pratham developed the technique now known as “Teaching at the Right Level” which has helped millions of children in India learn to read and to do basic arithmetic. This low-cost model is being adapted in other countries across the world.

    Pratham is now working hard to see that the hard-won gains in schooling and learning are not lost, or diminished, as a result of the Covid-19 disruptions. At the same time, the organisation is also seeing opportunity for positive change in this crisis.

    The organisation shut its offices on March 17 and ceased its daily school and community visits even before the country went into lockdown.

    “It was a dramatic shift to how we normally work,” said Devyani Pershad, who heads Pratham’s International Collaborations unit. “We had to completely transform the way we work with children.”

    However, Pratham was swift to adapt. Refusing to be defeated, it clearly demonstrated the positive energy for which it won the LUI Che Woo Prize, finding a way to continue to work towards its goals.

    In a few short weeks, the organisation devised a way of connecting with its children, families and communities to carry on its work. This was challenging in a country where access to technology is a problem for poorer communities, especially in rural areas.

    “Quickly we found that at least 40 per cent or more don’t have access to smartphones, or the internet, or they don’t have as much data as is needed. So we started developing activities through SMS, which in India is quite inexpensive,” Pershad said.

    SMS learning

    The organisation collected the phone numbers of everyone they could reach with a phone in the villages in which it works and began sending out a daily SMS. The message was part of a campaign called "Karona, Thodi Masti, Thodi Padhai"​ (Karona means “do it”, Thodi means “little”, Masti means “fun” and Padhai means “study”). The message contained an engaging activity for children, with an instruction delivered in 160 characters or less.

    For example, the children were asked to make up a story using six words based on a popular Indian tale called The Thirsty Crow. The organisation was overwhelmed by the response from the community, with children sending in stories and short videos, sometimes involving their entire families.

    These SMS messages were followed up by weekly phone calls to parents by someone from Pratham that the family was familiar with, for feedback on the child’s response and to determine how the programme could be improved.

    Opportunity often springs from crisis and Pratham has learned valuable lessons that will continue to be incorporated in its work once the crisis is over, such as the positive impact from this increased level of connectivity with parents.

    “For us, it’s been a huge learning experience,” said Dr Rukmini Banerji, Pratham Chief Executive Officer. “It’s been three months of the fastest learning at every level of our organisation and work.

    Sometimes it makes you wonder why we weren’t doing these things before. Why do you need a crisis to push you to connect with every child on a daily basis? Sometimes when you see them face-to-face you assume things. As one of my colleagues said to me, even though we are far away we are now closer than ever.”

    Widening wealth gap

    “This is a new opportunity for mitigating disadvantage.”

    Pratham Chief Executive Officer Dr Rukmini Banerji

    There has been widespread global concern that the pandemic will exacerbate the gap between the rich and poor, in particular, due to the absence of the tablets and smartphones that are being widely used in developed nations for online learning programmes.

    However, Dr Banerji said that her team members feel that continuous and frequent interaction between Pratham and parents across the 11,000 to 12,000 Indian villages in which it works is potentially helping to compensate for the lack of technology.

    “We have seen a big jump in parental response even among those who are not very educated,” she said. “This is a new opportunity for mitigating disadvantage," she said, again identifying a silver lining in the current cloud.

    The Pratham Education Foundation embodies positive energy and says it’s particularly honoured to have been recognised by the LUI Che Woo Prize in this unique category.

    This prize aims to honour an individual or organisation that has shown unwavering determination to adopt a positive attitude and make constructive changes in the face of adversity.

    In Pratham’s case, its positive energy is helping millions of the world’s poorest children to believe in themselves and their abilities.

    “When a child comes to think that I can do it, it's a positive energy that spreads to everyone else,” Dr Banerji explained. “When one child has gone through this process they make sure that no younger sibling ever feels that they can’t do it. It helps spread positiveness.”

    She added that if you can help a child achieve basic literacy and mathematics skills they are able to become more self-reliant and confident about their own future.

    Teaching at the right level

    The “Teaching at the Right Level'' approach developed by Pratham Education Foundation came from the realisation that even though children were enrolled in schools, they were often not learning.

    The school system in India lacked learning support and a mechanism to recognise that the child was falling behind.

    For example, in the 5th grade in India, 50 per cent of children can read a simple story, but 13 per cent of students in the same class are able to read words but not sentences, while 20 per cent can read paragraphs but not a story at Grade 2 level. Just under 20 per cent cannot even read words yet. (ASER 2018)

    The curriculum and the typical teaching approach only addresses the top 20 per cent or so of the class.

    To begin the process, Pratham teams assess children using a simple one-on-one reading tool and ask children to do some very basic arithmetic tasks. Then children are grouped by their current level rather than by their age or grade. These level wise groups then work on acquiring basic skills for a few hours a day during the school day.

    Dr Banerji said she is often asked whether this approach causes any stigma for older children being taught with much younger classmates.

    She argued that a child in 5th grade who is unable to keep up is quickly disengaged and that can have a psychological impact for life. It is also not uncommon in developing countries such as India and Africa to have a wide variety of grades in the same classroom due to a lack of teachers and resources.

    “Teaching at the Right Level” works quickly. Used effectively, for children 7 or 8 or older, a child can achieve basic literacy skills within a month.

    Dr Banerji said that once the children realise they are able to progress, they gain tremendous confidence, which encourages them to persevere in their studies. As a result, the organisation has noted that school attendance has improved in areas where in the past children were staying away.

    Spreading the message

    The efficacy of the model has been recognised in other disadvantaged areas of the world and Pratham Education Foundation is now working with NGOs and governments in 15 countries, in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa, to help to adapt the system to the local context.

    As the pandemic has spread, the organisation has been in constant contact with its partners to share ideas about the challenge of remote learning in a developing nation and how to maintain momentum in their work.

    Pershad says for example that Botswana has started a radio learning and SMS follow up programme, inspired by the organisation’s work in India.

    The Côte d’Ivoire, which also has a “Teaching at the Right Level'' model has also been experimenting with radio learning and is interested in continuing even after the crisis is over.

    “In my view, there should be some permanent changes in the way children learn,” Pershad said. “Parents, environment and community can play a part in how children learn and the school system has tended to ignore that, especially in India, or Sub-Saharan Africa.

    Dr Banerji added that the crisis has also forced everyone to do a lot more with a lot less and to focus on the things that are the most important.

    Connection in crisis

    “It has reinforced faith in ourselves and it has brought the organisation closer together, which is exactly what you need to do in a crisis,” Dr Banerji said.

    “I have been very impressed with the energy since the lockdown. I think positive energy is extremely important. There will be a light at the end of this tunnel. In the meantime, how do we do what is possible, learn from it and get the energy from the feeling you are doing something that is adding value. All of this helps everyone on the team feel that we have the capacity and confidence with the challenges that lie ahead.”