According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) which is the only annual survey of its kind in India depicting rural children’s learning and enrolment level district and state wise, the enrolment percentage of children in India halved from 2007 till 2014. Of the rest, the reading and arithmetic skills has fallen in these seven years. Uttar Pradesh is one of the states where these numbers have gone down considerably. On the flip side, U.P is also the home to India’s first ever English medium, all girls, agriculture-based primary school.
Unnao district in one of the poorest states in the country is home to The Good Harvest School. Started in September 2016, the school has successfully completed its first year with a beginner’s class of 10 students. Still in its nascent stage, it doesn’t have a big building but vast acres of land for agriculture, a nursery, seed bank and cattle.
The Good Harvest School is an all-girls English medium school. At the school, an all-girls environment offers a wonderful opportunity for students to explore who they are as young women without social pressure. It seeks to establish strong bonds between the girls to open up and empathise with one another and its aim is to offer a comfortable learning atmosphere with strong female role models and positive mentors.
The school was started by Ashita and Anish Nath. Ashita has 10 years of experience in the education sector, having worked with schools and NGOs. Co-founder, Anish worked for 8 years in a corporate job before becoming a farmer and teaching agriculture at The Good Harvest School. The board of trustees is an all-woman team with members varying from educationists to entrepreneurs who believe that change will happen, but it will take a long time before some results become visible and they are ready to wait and go slow.
On starting an all-girls school, Ashita says, “We always compromise when it comes to the standard of education in a rural setting. Intentionally or otherwise, we clearly have different visions for a girl born in a city and a farmer’s daughter in a village.”
How the idea of teaching agriculture cropped up
The idea of teaching agriculture right from the beginning makes much sense. After all, agriculture, with its allied sectors, is unquestionably the largest livelihood provider in India, more so in the vast rural areas. It also contributes a significant figure to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Sustainable agriculture and environmentally sustainable agri-practices such as soil conservation, sustainable natural resource management, and biodiversity protection, are essential for food security, rural employment and holistic rural development.
Although The Good Harvest School is just 10 months old, co-founders Ashita and Anish have been part of the village community for the last 4 years during which they have realised that farming is no longer just about producing. Now, a farmer, especially a marginal one with land holdings less than 2 acres has a lot to take care of: production, managing post-harvest losses and disease control. To tackle such challenges, one has to have basic education and more importantly, the willingness to continue farming. They have seen a large number of farmers quit farming and sell off their lands. Normally a good farmer can produce 3 or 4 crops a year, but Unnao's farmers are only cultivating a single crop, allowing their land to remain fallow the rest of the year. They find it easier and more profitable to sell their lands, shift to commercial cultivation of fast-yielding tree species for quick money, or take up paid employment as farm labour.
Says Ashita,“Being in the village and working with farmers for almost four years, we understand why our farmers fail to have a good harvest and what to do to cut the risk. We are working with agri-experts to develop a strong learning program. To give our students practical, modern knowledge of agriculture, we are dedicating over 50,000 square feet of area to the teaching of various aspects of agriculture. Apart from formal education, our focus will be on equipping our students with the technical and scientific understanding of farming.”
Combining classroom learning with field knowledge
Along with formal education, there is an emphasis on agriculture too. The founding team is working closely with educationists and experts at Krishi Vigyan Kendra to build a curriculum to instil good farming practices right from the beginning. They are also developing an agriculture curriculum from kindergarten to 5th standard and expect it to be ready in the next three years.
“Currently we are running the junior school, and most of our students are between the ages of 4 and 12. We have understood so far while designing a curriculum that since most of them cannot read and write yet, a theory-heavy curriculum is not desirable. So, the challenge is to build a thoughtful curriculum for 4 to 6-year-olds with an aim to make learning fun. Right now, we don't expect them to fully understand how critical their role is in the farming community”, says Anish who teaches the children agriculture.
The school has a dedicated acre of space for children to learn good farming practices. They have cows, goats, ducks, turkeys and rabbits in their animal husbandry unit and are building a new unit to accommodate more animals. They are also preparing to plant 1,000 trees this monsoon.
Pedagogy includes teaching through play, storytelling, picture books and rhymes. Children are showing significant improvement when it comes to language and vocabulary, mathematical ability, cleanliness and hygiene. The school also organises exposure trips to the zoo and to the aquarium of the Fisheries Department. This year, post harvest they plan to take students to various farms, cold storage units, and to the local mandi (wholesale market) to demonstrate the farm-to-market cycle.
Promoting sustainable farm practices
Set in a context where chemical agriculture is predominant, The Good Harvest School focuses on spreading the message of environment friendly farming and follows the three ethical principles of 'Care of the Earth. Care of People. Return of surplus to Earth and People'.
On the school's farm, vermi-compost is used as the primary fertiliser; neem oil as the primary pesticide and solar power as primary source of energy. They are in the process of developing a low-cost water harvesting unit and a seed collection unit of their own. Biodiversity is maintained by planting a variety of crops. They follow a minimum farm wastage rule and fully utilise local resources. Eucalyptus plantations are discouraged. Farm animals are housed humanely and given proper space.
The vision of The Good Harvest School is to see long term changes. They hope that the school will play a key role in their students’ lives by providing quality education to girls who are the backbone of Indian agriculture, teaching them about the environment and sustainable farming methods. Says Ashita, "Women's role in agriculture is crucial yet invisible. Our desire is to see women being acknowledged for their contribution in agriculture. We hope that if they study with us for 5 to 8 years, they will learn scientific ways to diversify their crops and improve yields. So, if they choose to go back into farming, they won't sell their land and instead practise environmentally-friendly farming."
Currently, it is too early to predict an impact; the students are too young to fully understand the significance of what they do. But, since most of the girls are either drop-outs or have been denied education, for the founders, it is extremely satisfying to see them in school and growing every day. The school is trying to instil good values early on, and turn them into habits. The founders are sure that their students will gradually get the big picture and do their best to love the surroundings and care for them.
Amidst all the news of farmers taking extreme actions to overcome their struggles, this small village is up to something unique. The Good Harvest School is an initiative by young people who are passionate about bringing a positive change in villages through good education. And what better way than a school that teaches farming, too?
The Good Harvest School is a not-for-profit learning centre. It has been designed as a self-sustaining institution by ensuring community participation. You too can make sure your contribution to the growth and development of girls of Jabrella village in Paschim Gaon by contributing in various capacities. The school is accepting applications from volunteers and currently also raising funds on the crowdfunding platform Milaap.
Images courtesy: The Good Harvest School
Shruti has an M.A. in Development from Azim Premji University and is a volunteer at The Good Harvest School. She blogs at https://shrutilekh.wordpress.com/