Most children dread the thought of waking up for school, but Saira Sattar is not like most children, nor is her school like most others.
“Every morning I love to wake up to the thought that I am actually going to school,” says an excited Saira as she jots down the latest maths lesson from the blackboard.
She is a student of class five at a free-of-cost home school run by the NGO Health-Oriented Preventive Education (HOPE). If not for this school, situated in Karachi’s Mujahid Colony, Saira would spend her days loitering on the streets like millions of other impoverished children in Pakistan.
“I used to dream of going to school and becoming a teacher when I grew up, but I thought it would never happen. Now I feel it will all come true,” says Saira. Just a few years ago, even entertaining such a thought would have been impossible for Saira and those who, like her, are simply unable to afford even basic education. Now, things are different.
In 2006, HOPE set up an ‘informal’ schooling system for the destitute and now it runs 200 home schools from Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in the north of Pakistan all the way south to Thatta and Karachi. It’s informal in that the classes are held not in purpose-built buildings but in the homes of the local communities.
There’s a reason for that. “It’s undeniably impressive to have a large well-equipped school building, but it requires a lot of investment,” says Dr Mubina Agboatwalla, the chairperson of HOPE. “By saving on the cost of the school we can actually spend more on widening the reach of education. In Rs35,000 per annum we can teach 35 children, so in just Rs1,000, a child can be educated for a whole year and get a chance to turn his life around. It also takes away the hesitancy of a donor who, in a meagre amount, can see the result right in front of his eyes,” she says.
By saving on infrastructure, HOPE also manages to focus more on the quality of the teachers, who are handpicked and appointed after a thorough assessment and trial. Every year the teachers are also sent for training so that they can further hone their skills. The goal, says Agboatwalla, is to initiate a new system of learning that understands the reasons that so many children do not attend school.
Eight-year-old Muzammil Hussain would be one such child if it weren’t for this project. After only three months of attending a regular school, his father told him he couldn’t manage to pay the fees anymore. Muzammil was forced to leave school and trade his pencils for a knife, as his father got him a job cutting onions with a neighbourhood cook. It seemed, says Muzammil, that he would never again have the chance to go to school or ever study again. But then he heard of the home school programme and nervously approached his father. To his relief, once his father learned that no fees were needed, he happily allowed Muzammil to join the school. Though he still works after school, Muzammil knows he won’t be a kitchen helper for the rest of his life. “As long as my father doesn’t have to pay any fees and I keep working after school time, I can keep coming to school. This way my father is happy, and so am I,” he adds with a giggle.
The lack of fees is only one incentive, however. Another is that HOPE schools are quite literally at your doorstep. “Formal schools are generally far off and there’s only one government school per area, which means that all the children cannot be accommodated,” says Agboatwalla.
She adds that the problem is exacerbated when it comes to female students whose parents don’t allow them to commute longer distances. Given that constructing enough formal schools in every goth, mohalla and village is impossible, the ability to have many home schools scattered around the same locality make it a cost effective model with a wider reach.
This wider dispersal of schools also means that links with local communities are strengthened; something that in Saira’s case was of great importance. For her father, who works as a fruit vendor, it wasn’t enough that there were no fees to pay. He also wanted Saira to work as a domestic servant and contribute to the family income.
This, says Farzana Tanveer, a local teacher running her own home school, is where the teachers step in. “To deal with such problems we counsel the parents and make them realise that sending their child to school is the right decision by quoting examples from their own lives,” says Farzana. “And because we know everyone personally, we are able to convince them properly.”
Thirteen-year-old Anees Mustafa is one of the brightest children in Farzana’s class and is working hard towards his dream of becoming a cricketer just like his hero Shahid Afridi, so that he too can make his nation proud. Unlike many of the other children, Anees is lucky to have parents who support his quest to study. “My father is very happy to see me study, and he doesn’t have to worry about paying my fees every month. He says that if I study I will become a better person and make something out of my life,” he adds with visible pride.
Along with the children, the home schools are also changing the lives of the teachers for the better. “When we go to these localities we always find that there are many women who are educated and want to work but, because of cultural restraints, they are unable to do so. An opportunity to teach from their own house is a perfect way to earn and make the most of their talent,” says Agboatwalla.
That’s exactly what the case was with Farzana, a mother of four who had done her FSC and Primary Teacher Course. She had always wanted to teach but having gotten married immediately after completing her course, she found that her husband didn’t allow her to leave the house to work. So when HOPE approached them she was more than happy to accept. Now every morning she opens her doors to the 35 children who come to her home school.
“I believe if I am able to successfully educate even one child, I have achieved something in my life, made use of my talent and become a link in a chain that will keep on bringing positive change,” she says.
Eighteen-year-old Zarina Muhammad Ali was another young woman looking for an opportunity to give something back to her society and make the most of her education. Just like Farzana, all her requests to be allowed to teach at a local school were denied, even though her family could barely make ends meet. “Now I can do what I always wanted to right from home. There is just one earning member in my family and ten mouths to feed, making it difficult to survive. At least now I can take care of my own needs with my salary,” she says.
With success stories like these, the feedback that this programme is getting is overwhelming. Parents are happy that their children are getting a free education at the homes of women who they know and trust, and educated women whose potential would otherwise have been wasted can earn an honest wage. The model is also a great example of community empowerment, where local people work together for the greater good of all. “It’s heartwarming to see people realising the importance of education and learning to put in their share to change the face and fate of their community,” says Agboatwalla.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 26th, 2012.
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