A Revolutionary School Model: Ending Child Labour & Encouraging Child Education in a Rural Community

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Why do students drop out of school in many villages and in the families of urban poor? Even with government schools, why do we see parents sending their children to rather work in the nearby stone quarries or the fields? Have we ever thought of this problem from the shoes of this population?

If not, this is the time to know the story of a couple who did think about it. Eradicating child labour through a unique school model: Akshar Foundation is the name given to an unconventional school located in the rural outskirts of Guwahati. It is a school with so many real-life objectives. Started by a couple, who charge single-use plastic as fees from the students, this is a one of a school, that has fought community resistance, solved the problem of child labour & child education at the same time by looking into the problems through the lens of the community. Not just that, they gave these children a life that they deserve to receive during their childhood.

They have developed unique models such as “teaching how to teach”. They developed models of toy money, meta teaching, recycling and many more innovative concepts.

The story of such a unique model is worth narrating. Hence, On June 15th, 2020 we scheduled an interview with Mr. Mazin Mukthar, co-founder of Akshar Foundation. Now, Akshar Foundation is on a mission to reform 100 government schools in 5 years and they have already developed a revolutionary model to improve the performance of schools. Let's see what this unique model is.

Q. How did you come up with the name Akshar?

A: Actually, my wife came up with that name when we started. Akshar means the alphabet or letters. In a way, we are trying to address most of the problems of children in poverty from A to Z. Not just schooling, but they need access to food, healthcare, medicine, they need access to job training. They needed a job at school in order to stay in school. So, we are trying to meet all the needs from A to Z and of course, teach them basic literacy which is the most important tool they have to improve their lives and gain the skills they need to get themselves out of poverty.

Q. “Teaching them how to teach”, can you please share your story of Akshar, maybe the journey towards Akshar Foundation, reaching Assam and bringing out this totally new idea and everything that we could see around? How did all these evolve?

A: I am originally from New York and I am an African-American, though many people mistake me for Indian, no issues I can blend in!! I was working on a similar initiative in New York for students. There I met the son of Bhupen Hazarika, as you would know the Legendary Folk Singer from Assam. It was through him I met my wife Parmita Sarma. I came to India 7 years ago in 2013, we met and decided to start a school together based on the similar models I was working with.

From the beginning we noticed several students skipping schools and going for child labor in the village. Students dropping out of government schools while in the 4th-5th standard was a very common practice. Even from our school students skipped the classes and went for work at a stone quarry or any factory or becoming woodcutters. Also, we understood that they went for all these dangerous jobs from the very childhood, only to earn money. So, our next thought was to find a way, such that they earn money from the school itself and would give up going for manual labor. So, we decided on the “earning while learning” model for the school. So the concept of “earning while learning” was a motivator to parents, and we started to see the positive impacts like attendance of 95%, and increasing the number of students from 20 to 100 in one year or maybe less than 1 year. The happiest part was we found another set of 100 students on the waiting list and that actually showed the success of our initiative.

The strategy was very simple, the more you learn, the more you teach and the more you earn (“learn more to earn more”). A group of students who have already learned a subject will teach the younger ones and get paid in return. This is also known as “meta teaching”, here the role of an adult teacher is not only to teach them but also to teach them how to teach. The amazing part is while learning how to teach the students, they actually become better learners themselves.

Q: “In a rural region, where children are expected to be a breadwinner, how did Akshar initially convince the parents to send their children to school?”

A: Parents were really happy to know that going to school enables them to earn, and they were forcing children to go to school to learn more and get a better job and then earn. But initially, the wages were low because students knew much less and at that time some parents used to complain saying that “they would earn more going for some manual labor”. There we had to convince them that if their children go to a stone quarry, they earn the same income throughout, but if you send them to school, though they start low, gradually it is going to increase, and if they learn more they would earn more. This was a very very effective argument and now we have a large group of really supportive parents.

Q: “Shall we also know about other inclusions and vocational training in the curriculum? And is there any conventional fee system in your foundation?”

A: The vocational training they receive first is how to become a teacher. When you become a teacher, you learn responsibility, management, planning and so many other skills. We have seen a great change in the students who teach.

Now, we have expanded our vocational training to include carpentry, recycling, animal sheltering, stitching and embroidery, and landscaping as well. Some students also take up administrative work like printing worksheets, marking, and entering attendance data, and this enables them to earn some extra income and learn a skill. The animal shelter is the first program in the Health care sector. And we intend to train the senior students as healthcare workers. We train them on how to treat the dogs and puppies, basically identifying the infection from their skin.

Akshar always looks into a partnership so that, once students have completed the education we do not want to give them just a certificate but a good career. Yes, we want all students to get a good career without going to a college, and that is what we call a "School to Career Pipeline." That is what we have promised all the parents.

Regarding the fees, we do not charge any fees, it is all free. For that, we have funds and CSRs. We do not charge any monetary fees but ask students to come to school once a week with clean dry plastic waste and that is a requirement we put on parents. Instead of paying fees with money, you pay it with plastic. And this policy has motivated parents to change their waste management system, earlier they were burning plastics. Now, these plastics are used in our recycling center. To make the parents abide by this rule, we put in a catch that if they fail to send plastic waste every week, we will charge the fees with real money. Who would want to pay money instead of plastic waste, so everyone agreed.

Isn't this really interesting to see how such simple concepts have fought against the initial community resistance faced in terms of child education? In our next part, Mr. Mazin tells us about how they are planning to scale up this model and the ways they dealt with the COVID Lockdown.

Read the second part here: A Revolutionary School Model: Post COVID Recovery & Future Plans

Stay Tuned for more such stories from Rural India :)

Reported & Edited By-

Gowri & Himadri