All it took was a yellow bus to turn Vishal and Roshan’s frowns upside down.
On August 14, a school bus rolled into Pune’s Sandavghar village for the first time. Until then, the boys would scowl at the mere mention of ‘school’.
Getting to their school in Saiv Khurd meant that brothers Vishal and Roshan, and 10 other children from the remote hamlet had to undertake a 5-km trek that took nearly one hour across muddy and kutcha stretches.
That changed when the Pune Zilla Parishad decided to group children from the Saiv Khurd school and 15 others schools into an experimental ‘cluster school’ in Panshet to tackle the problem of schools with low enrollment.
But that would have meant a longer journey to school and parents were sceptical — that’s how the bus came to Sandavghar and other villages, a speck of yellow in the lush green, puffing its way up the winding roads. Though the children have to walk down the slushy hillock till the stop, a squelchy walk, the bus makes it all worthwhile.
Sitting under a lone bulb that is lighting up their mud shanty, Dipali Waghmare’s mother has nearly finished braiding the pigtails of the Class 4 student, who is ready in her beige tunic and a red-white shirt.
In a house nearby, Vishal (10) and Roshan’s (8) mother Manda Pawar, who is in her early 20s, looks on patiently as her younger son finishes his homework. Their oiled hair combed neatly, the boys, dressed in their gingham shirts and beige shorts, are fidgeting to get to school.
“Vishal and Roshan would go to their Saiv Khurd school just twice or thrice a week before the bus from Panshet Cluster School arrived. And that too, after a lot of cajoling,” recalls Manda, dressed in an orange saree for the parent-teacher meeting (PTM) at the Panshet Cluster School.
Speaking in a Marathi dialect, her son Rohan adds shyly, “Earlier, I would reach home only by evening because I had to walk 5 km one way. My feet don’t hurt now. It’s fun going to school on a bus. I like my new school much better.”
Over the next 25 minutes, the bus goes on to pick up about 10 more children from the nearby Saiv Khurd and Aadmaal villages. Another bus brings children to the cluster school from Ambi, Kuran, Wanjalewadi, Kadve, Vargad, Kuran, Varasgaon, Padalwadi and Mose villages.
Located in Pune district’s Velha tehsil, the Panshet Cluster School is a pioneering experiment in Maharashtra. Built on an idea mooted by the Zilla Parishad in 2021, the cluster school hopes to address the issue of low enrolment in schools located in the hilly parts of the district. With access to better educational facilities — more teachers, classrooms, computers and a reading room — the cluster school attempts to correct low attendance and learning levels among students residing in a 10-km radius in thinly populated areas around the school.
Shabana Shaikh, principal of the Panshet Cluster School, said, “Some villagers told us about children who were not attending their schools regularly. So we approached their parents and asked them to send their children to our cluster school. The parents agreed after we said we would send buses to pick them up from the villages.”
Data shared by Pune Zilla Parishad’s Education Department shows that of 3,638 primary schools it ran in 2022, 1,054 schools had less than 20 students, 374 schools less than 10 and 161 schools less than 5.
Each village has a school because of successive government policies that promoted setting up of schools within the proximity of settlements, no matter how small. Migration of families from the hilly parts of the region to cities due to lack of employment opportunities left few families and even fewer students behind in these remote villages.
Data obtained by The Indian Express from Zilla Parishad’s education department stated that the average number of students in its primary schools was 66 in 2022, but the figure was much lower in hilly areas that had seen severe outward-migration of the population.
To realise its cluster school experiment, the Zilla Parishad approached Akurdi-based Jankidevi Bajaj Gram Vikas Sanstha, the registered charitable arm of automotive giant Bajaj Auto Limited.
In 2021, the existing school building in Panshet was demolished. In its place today, stands a colourful two-storey structure with yellow-red paver blocks, murals adorning the corridors and classroom doors, a ramp and 12 rooms. It also has an e-learning set-up (a computer lab), a laboratory and a reading project (library). For the two buses, the Zilla Parishad turned to N K Firodia’s Force Motors, a Pune-based Indian multinational automotive manufacturing company.
Before the school was rebuilt, it catered to nearly 100 students. By July 2023, the enrollment numbers jumped to 110. By August 14, 22 more students had enrolled at the school.
Ayush Prasad, the IAS officer who headed the Pune Zilla Parishad when the cluster school plan was mooted in 2021, said, “The cost per student (in a cluster school) is many times higher (Rs 6.5 lakh) than in bigger schools (Rs 90,000) due to fixed costs. However, when schools are smaller and have just a few students, students lose out on peer learning, extracurricular activities and the opportunity to learn from teachers specialising in their subjects. The Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Survey (conducted by the Economic Advisory Council to Prime Minister in 2022) had revealed that students from smaller schools had lower language and math skills.”
The idea of a cluster school, however, didn’t start on the right foot. Zilla Parishad’s Education Officer Sandhya Gaikwad said, “Parents were initially anxious about their children going to a school far from the village. This, especially in the case of their daughters.”
The Zilla Parishad’s teachers too had misgivings. She added, “Some of these teachers started dissuading parents from sending their children to the Panshet Cluster School. They were anxious that their school would be shut down temporarily in case the enrollment dipped to zero. They were also scared that they would be transferred elsewhere.”
Teachers at Panshet Cluster School said the new students have shown progress since they joined nearly two weeks ago. “We noticed that students from Classes 3 and 4 were struggling with elementary concepts. We have been paying extra attention to them so that they catch up with the others,” said Pradnya Javalkar, one of the six teachers at the school.
Back at Sandavghar hamlet, Anjana Waghmare, whose son Rahul is a Class 4 student at the cluster school, said the children seem excited to go to school in a bus. “Some of them get up while it’s still dark outside and start getting ready for school,” she said.
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