Founder, Barefoot College, Tilonia
An alumnus of the blue-chip Doon School, Dehradun and St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, Sanjit (‘Bunker’) Roy, experienced an epiphany while digging wells in rural Rajasthan. This resulted in the registration of the SWC Trust, aka Barefoot College, Tilonia (BC) in 1972. Since then over the past 48 years, Barefoot College has developed a unique basic literacy and skills education model which has transformed Tilonia district into a prosperous oasis. Moreover, the Barefoot College rural development model has been replicated in 93 countries and 14 states of the Indian Union. However, for mysterious reasons, the Indian establishment, including the academy and media, has studiously ignored the BC model of education.
The Covid-19 crisis has majorly disrupted the education system. How are BC aided primary schools responding to this challenge?
The positive flip-side of the crisis is that it presents an unprecedented opportunity for democratising education through last mile technology. This is the direction in which we have moved BC’s formal and non-formal schools. We are at the cusp of educational transformation in a nation where, even in remote rural households, there is acute awareness that education is the key to future jobs that will lift the next generation out of the cycle of poverty. Our challenge was to provide effective tools to parents to facilitate learning and to students so they learn to learn by themselves. We have witnessed unprecedented effort in our parent and student communities to leverage any available technology for continuous learning.
What are the major challenges confronting rural India in the new Covid-19 era?
Livelihood, food and medical security are the major concerns reported by our ground workers. These concerns stem from deep uncertainty about the future. These uncertain times have unleashed some of the deepest human insecurities which have provoked violence against women, children and minorities. Therefore, a major challenge is to keep grassroots communities strongly unified in the belief that we will get through this crisis together, if we are united.
What are your Top 3 recommendations to revive K-12 education in the post Covid-19 era?
First, government, society, should make teaching a truly aspirational profession. Currently, except for a small minority of mavericks, it is a fallback profession. From investment in training, higher salaries, stronger quality checks at entry, to high-visibility recognition and well-marketed campaigns in media, a concerted national effort is needed to elevate the profession and bring back its value and dignity. It’s important to reiterate that one good teacher can change an entire community in one generation. Secondly, democratise education by bringing parents and learners into the education system. Children learn a lot outside of school and empowering parents to teach values at home, integrating learning from nature, and adapting learning in day-to-day living will create empathetic individuals with respect and admiration of local communities and cultures. Third, educators need to balance technology with environment preservation and sustainable development. Conversations on digital citizenship — beyond digital literacy and skills — in their formative years will equip our children to maintain that balance.
What are your future plans for Barefoot College?
We are witnessing validation of our decentralised, sustainable, self-sufficient, low-cost and community-centred non-formal education model in real time. We have focused on building citizenship, environmental stewardship and critical thinking skills, integrating technology and gender equality principles. It is time to scale our reach, content and impact. For this, we need strong and visionary partners, genuinely willing to invest in the next generation and its innate resiliency and innovative talents. It is also time to strengthen rural life as a viable and heroic option for the children of India.