SANTANU MISHRA is co-founder and executive trustee of Smile Foundation, one of the country’s leading voluntary organisations. He quit his corporate career at its peak and took up the responsibility of scaling up of Smile Foundation that he co-founded in 2002.
In just over a decade, Smile Foundation has been able to mobilise and invest over Rs 400 crore for various welfare projects in education, healthcare, livelihood, and community engagement, which touch the lives of more than 1.5 million underprivileged children and their families across 29 states of India.
More than 400 global organisations have partnered with Smile Foundation to achieve their corporate responsibility mandate, including the likes of Google, Microsoft, FIS, Airbus, Ericsson, Siemens, Philips, ANZ, and Mitsubishi.
Smile Foundation has a special consultative status with the United Nation’s Economic & Social Council, and has won over 30 awards and recognitions worldwide. In an interview with ABHIJEET ANAND, Mishra shares his thoughts on various crucial social issues.
Q. In what ways has the pandemic affected the learning of children, particularly those belonging to economically weaker sections?
A. The pandemic has had an adverse impact on school education. According to a report by UNICEF, more than 1 billion children are at risk of falling behind due to school closures aimed at containing the spread of Covid-19. Students in low income countries like India are particularly vulnerable to a forced break in education. Children from weak economic backgrounds face monumental challenges in accessing education. Smile Foundation conducted a pan India study among 42,831 students at various school levels which found that around 56 per cent of children have no access to smart phones – an essential tool for online education. So, there is a lot that needs to be done to address the digital divide and ensure continued education for students.
Q. Can you tell us something about the work being done by civil society organisations to deal with the impact of the pandemic on school education?
A. Civil society organisations have helped ease the shock of the pandemic on large sections of the Indian society. Their initiatives have helped ensure last-mile delivery of essential goods and services. Programmes geared to ensure continuity of education deserve special mention for their perseverance over a protracted duration. At Smile Foundation, we started with the Shiksha Na Ruke initiative to deliver continued school education to children. Children are one of the worst affected groups; many now have no access to schools. While a lot of children have the means for online classes, underprivileged children are deprived of learning as they have no access to computers or smart phones. These children have already had difficult journeys, having fought the shackles of poverty, child labour, and much more to finally reach school. But the pandemic has increased their struggle to get education. For lakhs of such children, education has come to a halt. They can’t afford smart phones, can’t count on support from their parents for home learning. Shiksha Na Ruke is a Smile Foundation initiative that is providing underprivileged children access to continuous learning. Continued education helps improve the mental wellbeing of children as they continue to learn and grow.
Q. Classes are now being held online. What is the best way to assess students in these conditions?
A. Students have now spent one full academic year online, in virtual classrooms. Therefore, online assessment or an outcome-based evaluation would do more justice given the situation. A mixed approach in setting up assessments such as including Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs), case studies, and presentations will help students engage better in the subject at hand and develop 360-degree understanding of concepts.
Q. What is blended learning and how effective has it been in improving learning outcomes of students?
A. Through the Covid-19 pandemic, Smile Foundation has implemented a blended learning approach under its Shiksha Na Ruke initiative to ensure continued education of school children to mitigate disruption. Smile Foundation’s blended learning approach improves accessibility to education for students across India through multiple means – smartphones, tablets, television sets and even through radio. The blended learning approach includes methodology for continued learning, even after schools gradually re-open. Smile Foundation has been working with children for almost two decades. Children have been one of the worst sufferers of the pandemic. Less privileged children, who could not continue their education properly, have particularly suffered as they had little or no access to digital learning. Through Shiksha Na Ruke initiative, the Foundation is making efforts to provide continued access to education for all children through a blended learning approach so that they do not drop out of the fold of education.
Q. Given the fact that Covid has taken a toll on livelihoods, have you observed an increase in child labour?
A. As per data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the pandemic has impacted the employment of 1.5 crore Indians. The economy is stressed and is still recovering. These factors have led to an increase in child labour. Children from weak economic backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to get sucked into child labour to support their families. The shutting down of schools has compounded the problem for such students. It is therefore important for the government, corporates and the general public to support programmes like Mission Education and initiatives like Shiksha Na Ruke that work to ensure continued education for underprivileged students.
Q. Children may be considered to be an added burden for families with no income. Has this led to a spurt in gender inequality, child marriage and other issues related to child welfare?
A. It is an unfortunate reality that the burden of diminishing family income falls on children and they are at the receiving end of gender discrimination and child marriage. What is required is support for targeted interventions that prevent malpractices like child marriage and gender discrimination. This, more than ever, is the time for all stakeholders to come together and consolidate strength to support movements for continued education of children. Education alone is the path to prosperity and the way out of all social ills. It has the power to transform lives and society as a whole.
Q. The government is trying to prioritise continuity in education of students. What kind of support does civil society expect from the government towards the achievement of this goal?
A. The government’s efforts in the education domain are laudable. The emphasis on varied means of education — which is indeed blended learning — with a sharp focus on improving access for students is on point. The government should turn its gaze on increasing the ease of doing good, and support endeavours that improve people’s lives tangibly and immediately. This will enable India to bounce back faster from the effects of the pandemic.