Francesca Tennant trained at the Central School of Ballet, graduating with a BA in Professional Dance and Performance. She danced with New English Ballet Theatre for 2 years and has also freelanced in contemporary and classical ballet performing at the Royal Opera House, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Sadlers Wells and during the London 2012 Olympics. She retired from dance in 2014, worked in online publishing and, after volunteering for Educate Girls, is now travelling in India.
This summer, thanks to an introduction from Stars Foundation, I have been volunteering for the communications team at Educate Girls, a 2014 Stars Impact Award winner, at their head office in Mumbai, India. It has been a great privilege, and an interesting experience, to learn about where, why and how Educate Girls works. At the beginning of August I was lucky enough to join the team on a field trip to Pali, Rajasthan to have a closer look at some of the villages and schools where the organisation is based.
Educate Girls is fighting gender disparity in education in some of India’s worst affected districts, currently within Rajasthan (although watch this space to see where it heads to next!).
The pegs holding up Educate Girls' 'community-mobilisation' model are a team of volunteers, called Team Balika. Crucially, Team Balika members are educated men and women of all ages and local advocates for education, perfectly placed to address their own communities.
Educate Girls has a three-pronged approach to improving education for girls: enrolment of out-of-school girls, retention of girls in school and improving learning outcomes for all children.
Before volunteering with Educate Girls, I had not realised just how critical this last phase is. Its volunteers train school teachers to teach both boys and girls using Creative Learning and Teaching (CLT) techniques. They are also trained to teach Life Skills to Bal Sabha members (Girls’ Councils mandated by the government as one of the initiatives under India’s Right to Education Act), using kits developed by Educate Girls, and give Life Skills training to teachers so that they can teach it too.
With such a focus globally on making sure girls are actually allowed the opportunity of an education, it was not until I witnessed the classes in person that I understood the vital importance of improving the quality of learning too.
As a passionate advocate for education and someone who greatly enjoyed my own schooling, I was distressed to see, in some of the schools we visited, rows of children with glazed eyes, bored by endlessly reciting information that had no impact. This system of rote learning, I have now come to learn, is widely used in many schools across India, and in fact globally. I quickly became aware that ticking the box of education for girls and boys is in no way enough.
It was like receiving rain after a drought to observe the Team Balika members engage the students in activity-based learning. For one CLT activity, the class was seated in a circle and children were asked to select letters in English or Hindi on cards, to create words. In another, to add a little competition, children were split into teams and opposing team members had to race to select words to form complete sentences when their assigned numbers were called out. The students were participating, laughing and actively learning.
In Life Skills classes conducted during the Bal Sabha, the girls are encouraged to express themselves. This is something they are often denied in normal schooling, as cultural norms dictate that girls do not express opinions at home, socially or in the workplace.
We played charades using confidence-building sentences. I personally acted out ‘I know I can be brave’. This involved my colleague chasing me around a classroom, much over-enthusiastic gesturing on my part and rather a lot of giggling from everybody else. Interestingly, despite the language barrier, we understood each other.
In these Life Skills training sessions, the girls are taught many things, from problem-solving to leadership skills. I understood through my trip that, whilst perhaps not academically a normal part of an education, these skills are very necessary.
In village assemblies organised by Educate Girls, I saw a distinct separation between men and women both physically and socially. They sat on separate sides, the women often wearing ghoonghats (a scarf, part of the traditional Rajasthani attire, that covers the entire head, face and shoulders), silent, rarely contributing, usually consigned to child management during the proceedings.
Gender inequality in India, and globally, takes various forms, and is the subject of much debate, but it was still shocking to see it so clearly represented in a community context. In school management committee (SMC) meetings, although still hesitant, the women did make contributions when encouraged to participate by an Educate Girls staff member.
This made me realise why it is so valuable that Educate Girls is helping develop the voices of the young girls with whom it works. Not only will they receive an education, they will be able to positively effect change for themselves, their families and communities.
It is not enough just to say we are providing an education for children. We have a responsibility to ensure that as they grow up, they are adequately equipped to deal with the evolving and difficult world we live in. Whether that is the ability to actually read and write or the ability to understand when they are being mistreated and how to handle it.
I am encouraged to see how Educate Girls is realising this concept. It has already enrolled over 80,000 out-of-school girls into school since inception, and in 2014-15 it recorded an average learning improvement of 43% in Hindi, 25% in English and 40% in maths in children across the schools where it works. I have seen the commitment and initiative of its volunteers and staff in the field and at its offices.
I am hugely grateful to both Stars Foundation and Educate Girls for allowing me the opportunity of a very different and valuable education, from which I hope I am wiser and better equipped to assist the fight for gender equality and quality education for all.