It was a hot afternoon towards the end of May. Geeta  and Iwere visiting a government middle school in Nalanda district, in Bihar, a state in eastern India.The school summer holidays were about to begin. The panchayat  in which the school is located has six primary and middle schools.
We sat in the headmaster’s office. A hot breeze swept across the dry fields outside and blew into the room. There were at least two, if not more, teachers from every school and the mukhiya (village head)was also present. A fewother active and interested people from the community had also decided to come. This panchayat had been selected to becomea ‘model’ panchayat in the district. The district administration had already drawn up a road map on how to achieve this. But Geetafelt it was important to envision this together with the community.
At first it was difficult to get everyone’s attention. Tea was served, with some biscuits. Much attention was diverted to making sure that the cups reached everyone. Children kept peeping into the room to see what was going on.
Slowly, the conversation started. Geeta began by giving a brief overview of the enrollment (which was high) and attendance (which varies). The crucial concern was the children’s ability to read or write or do simple arithmetic, which was not good at all. Everyone agreed with Geeta’s report. Many voices clamoured to explain why things were the way they were.
The teachers voiced their reasons first. Almost every school was short-staffed. A massive recruitment drive across the state in the last few months had hired new teachers but they had not yet been deployed to the schools. Some schools were short of rooms. Parents did not pay attention to their children;as a result, children did not attend school regularly. The mukhiya thought the reasons lay elsewhere. The panchayat lacked many basic amenities. For example, he wanted to do something about sanitation. He wanted to know how everyone could help to solve that problem.
The constant refrain from the people was about what they were entitled to, the inputs and infrastructure they were supposed to get– rooms, teachers, toilets, funds, books, mid-day meals. All these are supposed to come from somewhere else – not from the village, the local community or the panchayat.
“What about the school in this village?” I asked.
Until recently the school had been a primary school with four teachers. As a primary school, the teachers felt they had been able to do a fairly good job – enrollment was encouraging, attendance was acceptable and at least 70% of all children had been learning something. The others in the room agreed. But ever since the school had been upgraded to a middle school, they had begun to have a very difficult time. Doubling of enrollment without any increase in teacher strength meant that no one learnt much and attendance had fallen. Teachers were de-motivated and parents disappointed.
There were two youngsters sitting at the edge of the circle. Geeta introduced them, although they didn’t really need introductions. Everyone knew them; both were former students of this school. They were now in high school. Both had been motivated by Geeta to give some time to work with academically weak younger children to help them catch up with what was being taught in the classroom. They were not being paid. Could this not be a possible way to address the teachers’ burden? The mukhiya and some others agreed. Yes, they could try and find other young people in the panchayat and convince them to help until the regular teachers arrived.
Slowly other solutions and strategies began to emerge. One of the senior teachers said, “If I had my way, I would run the school differently.”
“How so?” everyone wanted to know.
“Well”, he said, his voice getting stronger as his conviction rose. “I would call the younger children from classes 1 to 4 to school in the morning. Each of us would take one class each. Then, after lunch, we could send them home. Children from the higher classes could come at lunch time, eat the mid-day meal and then begin class. This way we would actually be teaching the children something.”
The group debated this new idea. The mukhiya was not sure. “What if DM sahabcomes and wants to know where the rest of the children are?” Another voice said, “Well, even without this, DM sahab can come and ask why attendance is low and why the children have not learnt anything.” A teacher was emphatic: “We are not allowed to take such decisions.” Another said, “But who knows what is best for our school – the teachers or the district administration?”
Now the hot air circulating in the room was not just from the breeze wafting across the parched fields. Fundamental questions about local action and higher authority had been centre-staged. Even the children peeping in through the windows were silent,listening avidly. There were no easy answers. But it was clear:you cannot wait for change to happen. To bring about change you have to participate, individually and collectively, to develop a strategy that you believe in and were willing to stick your neck out for. The question was: who would take the first step, the first risk and, maybe, the first hit. Teachers had jobs to save. The panchayat had numerous other priorities. Parents said they did not really understand the nuts and bolts of education and were leaving it to the teachers to decide.
The two high school students at the edge of the circle looked puzzled. Why was the problem getting knotted up?Why was the search for a solution so fraught with complexity? To them it was quite simple. They had benefitted from going to school. Now their younger brothers, sisters and friends who should also benefit were struggling.The two of them were happy to find the time to help out. Where was the risk in that?For, after all, change in the community only comes from those in the community, when we come together and arewilling to help each other.
 Geeta, also from Pratham, works with children in this panchayat. Pratham is a large scale citizen’s initiative that works to ensure that every child is in school and learning well (www.pratham.org).
 Village council, an administrative unit of local self-governance in India, composed of five elected members.
 Reference to the District Magistrate, an Indian Administrative Service officer, responsible for the administration of a district.