This Mumbai foundation is improving English language proficiency among govt school children, teachers. Here's how

Pehlay Akshar's primary focus is to help children learn creatively through creating safe learning spaces and equip them with skills for the future. We find out more
Pic: Pehlay Aksar Foundation
Pic: Pehlay Aksar Foundation

Around 2008, the most pressing problem the government education system had been facing was a lot of children leaving public schools and joining private ones. This occurred primarily because most parents opted for private schools to provide their children with a promising English-medium education. In 2009, the government introduced the Right To Education Act to bring back children to government-run schools, started mid-day meals to decrease dropout rates. The government's efforts did yield some result in bringing back children to the public system, however, the issue of quality English language education remained. That's when Radha Goenka set up the Pehlay Aksar Foundation in Mumbai. The foundation's schooling and training programme of the same name has been since improving English language proficiency among children and teachers in government schools across the country.

Radha Goenka

Radha noted that the root problem of quality English language education in government schools hadn't been solved due to lack of funds to hire proficient teachers and existing teachers who didn't know the language well. "When we started the programme, we recruited our own teachers. When we got into the system we saw that the way in which English was taught was quite similar to our British colonisers with a lot of rules. We then devised our own system called Functional English which is kind of similar to English as a second language worldwide. Here we are not focusing on the nomenclature but the usage of the language. Focusing mainly on the reading skills, we introduced concepts like immersion where children are exposed to the language through interactive plays, fun games so they enjoy what they are learning. We are trying to create a learning experience similar to how a child masters their mother tongue, we try to recreate that experience inside a classroom," explains Radha.

Creating magic inside classrooms
Pehlay Akshar's primary focus is to help children learn creatively through creating safe learning spaces and equip them with skills for the future. They believe that if students love the process of learning they will become lifelong learners and be adequately equipped for the future. Pehlay Aksar calls their learning spaces Magic Classrooms. "We believe that a Magic Classroom is a place where students and teachers come together to make learning interesting and meaningful. It is built on the strong foundation of safe spaces. This enables us to nurture students' curiosity where they express themselves freely without any fear. Every single child is born curious, our schooling system loses that with a focus on rot learning. Our ideology is based on creating this safe environment that children get at home to drive that curiosity. And the good part is it just doesn't help with language but this approach can be applied to all subjects, across mediums of instruction and geographies," adds Radha.

Pehlay Aksar partners with government schools to reach a higher number of children. Radha tells us that the task of building these learning spaces began by training teachers. "About five years ago, we also began teacher training. We have already trained over 3000 teachers and an additional 6,000 are currently being trained in partnership with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)," she adds. Their teacher training is mainly focused on primary and middle school educators as they haven't ventured into the senior school yet. Pehlay Aksar typically starts their schooling programme from Classes 3 to 4, but currently, in Mumbai, they also teach from Class 1.

The COVID-19 impact
The COVID-19 pandemic posed new challenges, where Pehlay Aksar pivoted online, thereby transforming their entire training content and facilitating teacher training through digital mediums like Zoom and Goggle Meet. Their six-day long training sessions are now divided into two-hour weekly workshops for a span of 20 weeks and are followed up by weekly peer learning sessions. Pehlay Akshar is also running a digital campaign called ' A Story A Day' (ASAD) which aims at providing story videos to children, in order to keep them motivated and continue learning throughout this crisis. "Currently, we have a story bank of over 550 videos on our YouTube Channel that are contributed by various cricketers and film celebrities, such as Sonakshi Sinha, Diva Dhawan, Sunil Gavaskar, Ajinkya Rahane and many others," adds Radha. For children from the underprivileged backgrounds who are currently out of schools and have no access to the internet, Pehlay Akshar has partnered with the Maharashtra State Government to create videos based on the English textbooks. These videos will be aired on DD Sahyadri to help students across Maharashtra have access to learning even from their homes. The dates haven't been finalised yet, but it will most likely be aired by the end of November.

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