T. Bhuvanesh Ram writes:
The innovative education model of two residential school programmes run by the Telangana government for marginalised students merits a closer look for their accessible and quality education that acts as a catalyst for upward social mobility.
The Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS) and the Telangana Tribal Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TTWREIS), together, run 447 institutions, benefitting close to 250,000 students every year. Facilities are provided at near-zero cost to the students.
One only needs to look at the success stories to realise the transformational impact of the TSWREIS model on the poorest of the poor. For instance, from 2014 to 2020, 318 students got placed in the Indian Institutes of Technology and the National Institutes of Technology, 522 students got admission into medicine or dentistry programmes, and 195 were admitted into Delhi University.
However, the measure of excellence goes beyond academic yardsticks at TSWREIS schools, with equal importance being given to extra-curricular activities. The society runs 23 dedicated sports academies, whose alumni have won 16 international and 367 national-level medals.
A key figure who was instrumental in setting up the schools was the bureaucrat S.R. Sankaran. In 1984, as principal secretary in the social welfare department of undivided Andhra Pradesh, he laid the foundation for residential schools and hostels dedicated to the Dalit community. However, the schools, which were then known as Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Residential Schools, soon suffered from inadequate financial and infrastructural resources.
“Should I be proud that my son is a senior IPS officer who has made a name for himself, or should I be sad that our neighbourhood’s fortune has hardly changed in all these years?”
The meteoric rise of TSWREIS schools, as they were renamed in 2014, owes to the leadership of R.S. Praveen Kumar, who became secretary of the school programme in 2012. Kumar, himself an alumnus of government social welfare hostels, had a family history that shaped his attitude towards education. His maternal grandparents were bonded labourers. Kumar’s mother, as a child, was expected to work in the fields. Two teachers, Purushottam and Prakasham, convinced her parents and took full responsibility for her education. They renamed her as ‘Premamma’. This small ‘image makeover’ exercise had a tremendous impact on Premamma’s life, pushing her to become a teacher and later a headmistress who touched the lives of many more under-served children.
Kumar, trained as a veterinarian, entered the Indian Police Service (IPS). But when he visited his mother on her 69th birthday, Premamma pointed to her neighbours, all of whom who shared their childhood with Kumar, and asked “Should I be proud that my son is a senior IPS officer who has made a name for himself, or should I be sad that our neighbourhood’s fortune has hardly changed in all these years?”
It was a question Kumar had been thinking about for some time: the cost of not having a support system during a poor child’s formative years. It was sparked by an incident during his posting as a special officer to contain the protests calling for the formation of Telangana. A student immolated himself and later succumbed to his injuries. The student was from a TSWREIS school. Kumar thought to himself: “What is that powerful sentiment driving children like him to take his own life, instead of giving his life towards a productive cause?”
Soon, he would spearhead the movement in creating exactly that.
Foundations of a new normal
Premamma’s life made two things clear to Kumar. First, access to education must be unimpeded, determined not by adversity but by ability. Second, to lead a fulfilling life, one’s self-perception is as important as competency. These form the fulcrum of the TSWREIS educational philosophy.
"What bothered me was their sense of inferiority, more than the poor facilities at state-run schools.”
Kumar in one of his talks, explained that: “When I interacted with students after taking charge, I realised they were hesitant in revealing their name, locality, their parents’ occupation etc. What bothered me was their sense of inferiority, more than the poor facilities at state-run schools.” He resolved to create a new ecosystem that would shift the focus from their dire circumstances to the possibilities of an empowered future, from a past of depravity to a future of agency.
What followed was a three-step process. The first was the creation of an identity. Students and alumni of TSWREIS identify themselves as ‘Swareos;’ (‘sw" for state welfare and ‘aero’ indicating the sky is the limit), to enhance their self-efficacy and break away from the painful connotations associated with their Dalit and tribal identities. While critics could argue that such a cosmetic name-change hardly has a positive impact, social psychologists believe in the effect of the stereotype-threat. It implies that when reminded of a negative stereotype about a group, people relating to the group perform badly in a given task. The Swareo identity strives to take negative reminders such as being ‘weak’, ‘lower’ or ‘inferior’ out of the equation.
The second was the creation of an aspirational culture, or as Kumar put it, a new ‘operating system’. The students were introduced to ten commandments such as ‘I shall never fear the unknown’ and ‘I shall never blame others for my failure’. The students were encouraged to learn what they love and excel in it without any fear of failure. Extra-curricular activities were not seen as a pastime but a necessity.
The third process was to expose students to audacious and unconventional activities, like mountaineering, golf, film-making societies, regatta boat racing and summer-samurai camps. The idea was to create a new normal amidst the students, that there were no inherently ‘elite’ activities or sports.
“Our approach in improving the condition of the schools has always been to put our eyes and ears on the ground - talking to the parents, teachers, and students to understand their problems both within and outside the classroom”, emphasises Kumar.
Teachers had to be trained in various aspects, spoken English being the most challenging one. They were given clear cut career-progression pathways that objectively rewarded or punished them. Parents had to be looped in as well. Most of them were daily wage labourers. Parental outreach ensured that children were not burdened with chores beyond their capacity at home, giving children time for education and extra-curricular activities.
Students are encouraged to design their course of study. They are encouraged to compete to become ‘super students’, to teach fellow students via live TV shows across the state.
The story of Poorna embodies the spirit of the model. Her parents came from an Adivasi community of farm labourers. She secured admission into one of the TSWREIS schools, where she took interest in rock climbing and became part of the ‘Swareo Go Everest’ campaign. Eventually, at 13, she went on to become the youngest girl to climb Mount Everest.
Recognising English as the ‘language of emancipation’, the schools encourage public speaking via talkathons and speaking in front of mirrors which are placed all around the schools. In institutions called as Freedom Schools, students are encouraged to design their course of study. They are encouraged to compete to become ‘super students’, to teach fellow students via live TV shows across the state, for which they are incentivised with direct-to-bank payments.
These schools illustrate that for any radical improvement in education funded by the state (or any public good for that matter) political will is a basic pre-requisite.
The model of nurturing student-teachers was upscaled creatively during school closures following the pandemic.The schools came up with the concept of ‘Village Learning Circles’, as a novel method of beating the limited digital penetration in the marginalised sections. Select students were trained by the teachers. These students then took classes of 10–20 in community spaces like public halls, in adherence to Covid-19 appropriate behaviour. A World Bank-led study has highlighted the positives of the model such as using ubiquitous technology like Whatsapp.
Vital lessons for public service delivery
These schools illustrate that for any radical improvement in education funded by the state (or any public good for that matter) political will is a basic pre-requisite. Despite Kumar being a police officer, the state government allowed him to take up a post usually staffed by officers of the Indian Administrative Service. The stability of tenure for those at the helm also gave certainty in resource planning and outcome achievement.
Second, giving greater power and resources to the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of any public good brings greater accountability. The budget for TSWREIS nearly tripled to Rs 1,378 crores in 2016–17, financed from the statutorily backed Scheduled Caste Special Development Fund. The organisation also has greater autonomy than other state schools.
Third, expanded infrastructure and widened coverage must be established to increase the reach of such schemes. Before the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, between 1984 and 2014, there were just 134 schools under the programme. Since the formation of Telangana, 104 additional schools have been established. The rapid expansion helped TSWREIS to cover as much as 10% of all Sheduled Caste students in Telangana.
Fourth, innovative pedagogy can greatly aid in the all-round development of students.
The TSWREIS model, now discussed at Harvard University as a case study, has raised the bar for public education. Its legacy is also influencing the central government’s Ekalavya residential schools, which focus on students from Scheduled Tribes. The model shows the unshackling effect of holistic education on children belonging to Dalit and tribal communities.