Transforming classrooms into safe and creative havens. Interview with Shanta Dixit, President of UNESCO prize winning Rato Bangla Foundation
The Rato Bangala Foundation in Nepal is the winner from Asia-Pacific to receive the 2012 UNESCO-Hamdan Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Prize for Outstanding Practice and Performance in Enhancing the Effectiveness of Teachers.
The Prize is awarded every two years to candidates who have shown outstanding achievement in enhancing the performance and effectiveness of teachers in developing countries or within marginalized or disadvantaged communities.
Shanta Dixit, President of the Executive Committee of the Foundation, talks about the winning project.
What does it mean to you that the Rato Bangala Foundation received the UNESCO-Hamdan Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum education prize?
Shanta Dixit: “It feels very good to be appreciated, as we have tried to innovate and improve instruction in government schools. The Rato Bangala Foundation feels that its method has found support in an international peer review. We are also humble, for there is so much remaining to be done in Dailekh District and the rest of Nepal. Although we are already taking this effort to other districts, the scope of the project is limitless. In addition, this prize creates a sense of excitement as it provides an opportunity for many organizations who are working in different aspects of education to share a common forum and learn from each other.”
In your opinion what made the Foundation win the prize?
Shanta Dixit: “The work that the Foundation is doing in Dailekh has several unique characteristics that might have impressed the jurors during their visit here. We work in coordination with the government, and the ownership of this project lies with the government. This is an ambitious project, covering all of the more than 500 primary schools in the district. We directly impact 2,000 teachers and all the primary school-aged children in Dailekh. The extensive coverage of the project makes it possible for schools of different strengths to implement the training to the best of their diverse abilities, and to have a common forum to share their learning and experiences.
“Rather than being passive ‘recipients’ of aid, the individual schools are partners in the development of education by contributing their time and resources to the development of the schools. This project is reversing the decades-old tradition of teachers being paid to participate in trainings. Each stakeholder, be it parent, teacher, head of school, village elder or student, is motivated and contributes towards achieving the collective goals. Additionally the fact that a private school in Kathmandu Valley (Rato Bangala School) has decided to put in a substantial effort, including finances, to partner with the Department of Education towards the improvement of educational standards at government schools and meeting its Millennium Development Goals in Education makes the project one of a kind.”
What are the major concerns and constraints of the Foundation?
Shanta Dixit: “The strengths of this project are also, perhaps, its constraints. Ensuring that each and every school develops to the recommended standard is the challenge. The Foundation is mid-way into the five-year Dailekh School Project. Having tackled the institutional and logistical issues, for the remaining duration of the project we need to concentrate even more on improvement of classroom teaching, making it interactive and meaningful for each child.
“We are trying to raise the standard of government schools in under-served districts of Nepal where a substantial proportion of teachers have not received the basic training provided by the government, and this is a challenge. Moreover, the reality of Nepal where institutions, in particular educational institutions, suffer forced closures due to political instability at present poses a challenge to the Foundation in its effort to meet its goals. This unfortunately makes compromises to the project that might not even be evident or measurable. This breaks the momentum and can sometimes result in a loss of enthusiasm among the staff.
“A major challenge is also in finding the funds, as the combined contributions of Rato Bangala School and the Swiss philanthropic organization Mountains to Mountains need to be supplemented. This is why the Prize holds greater value for the Foundation as besides being a great recognition, it also gives us a cash infusion for enhancing the quality of the project.”
What are the challenges laying ahead?
Shanta Dixit: “Teachers, primarily in government schools in Nepal, are known for their laid back working culture and an inherent lack of respect for the children in their charge. This poses a major challenge for the Foundation in its attempts to transform classrooms into safe and creative havens for children to be nurtured to reach their potential.
“The Government's inability to match resources to the policy decisions it makes is an additional problem. For example, students are expected to learn English, but they do not have instructors who are able to assist them confidently. Books and libraries are rare, limiting students to focus on textbook learning. The primary-level students we groom with our ‘child-centered’ and ‘reading based’ approach could in the future be discouraged by traditional handling they might receive in secondary school.
“Impact evaluation of this project is not entirely straight forward because the starting point for teachers and each individual school is so different that they cannot be compared to an agreed upon standard. Evaluation needs to be individualized and the growth of each teacher and each school assessed accordingly, and additional support and the level of supervision should be mindful of this fact.
“The need for quality education in Nepal is paramount, and the Foundation has developed a formula that can be taken nationwide. However, expansion comes with its own set of challenges. These include resources, both financial and human, and there is also the danger that if expansion is too rapid, the quality of the work may be compromised.”
What do you plan to do with the cash prize received?
Shanta Dixit: “The award amount will go towards ensuring improved delivery during the second half of the project in Dailekh. The prize money will be used to provide additional resources that will help schools and teachers implement what they have learnt in a more effective manner. This includes buying and creating more material to make classroom activities hands-on, providing support for parents through parent education, and enhancing supportive supervision in the schools. We will also set aside some of the money for our upcoming programme in Gulmi District.”
What is the next move for the Foundation?
Shanta Dixit: “The recognition by UNESCO for the project design in Dailekh gives us greater confidence to continue on this path and to stick to our focus: to improve schools by motivating teachers through training. As we continue to work on Dailekh, a similar project is being initiated in Gulmi District. While this project imbibes the essential components of the Dailekh School Project, it is designed to train teachers more intensively and to add a greater practicum component to the training at crucial intervals. This allows for immediate resolution and reflection of issues that come up during the training period. The received wisdom from the Dailekh and Gulmi project will allow the Foundation to come up with a model that maximizes impact while minimizing resources.
We will then work to take our formula to other districts of the Tarai (plains), hilly and mountainous regions of Nepal.”
By Tap Raj Pant, UNESCO Kathmandu and Rojana Manowalailao, UNESCO Bangkok