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Metamorphosis at the grassroots

The idea behind the Caterpillar School in Malir is to create an environment of learning

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PUBLISHED September 18, 2022

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was formally endorsed by the Member States during the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York in September 2015. The agenda has 17 objectives, one of which is a new global education objective—SDG 4). With seven targets and three methods of implementation, SDG 4 aims to "provide inclusive and equitable quality education and promote opportunities for lifelong learning for all."

This objective was achieved through a thorough consultation process facilitated by the Member States, but with significant input from civil society, academic institutions, labour unions, bilateral organizations, regional associations, the commercial sector, and research foundations. One such example has been endorsed in many parts of Pakistan where the younger generation is stepping up and providing quality education in less privileged areas.

Kabeer Nadir, 25, started a school as a business but before even starting the school he realized that he had a duty toward society and must give back to the nation in his own way. Driving down the narrow, broken streets of Malir Kala board, and ending at the congested locality in Saudabad, you reach a two-storied, well-constructed building—a primary school named The Caterpillar School. It is the baby project of Nadir and his wife Fatima Azhar who started this school last year. “When we moved to a new house, this one became empty; and as it was well constructed, had huge rooms, recently been renovated, and we used to live here ourselves so I thought I should start some business to make good use of the place,” says Nadir. After living there for twenty-four years, now they have moved to a gated society.

Nadir’s story of starting a school in a less privileged area is not very dramatic but it was his mother’s dream that he always wanted to fulfil. “My maternal grandfather had a school, which he used to run under the name of ‘Tameer-e-Nau’ and was specifically focused on children who couldn’t afford quality education. But during Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s era, schools were nationalized, and so was my grandfather’s school. Since then, my mother had this dream to open a school of her own where she could continue the legacy of her father,” Nadir explains.

After spending a large part of his life on the premises, he didn’t want to detach himself from the place, and by renting it he would have done just that. “We have lived our whole life in Malir, and my grandparents still live on the same premises, but two floors of the house were empty, and I stepped up to start a school there,” he shares, adding that at first, almost everyone told him that it was a stupid idea not to rent the place and start a school. He could easily get around Rs 150,000 as rent, whereas to make a school, he had to invest around two million rupees from his own pocket.

Nadir is the oldest of four brothers and has been responsible for taking care of the family business of marble supply. “The shop from where we work is on the ground floor of the same premises; it’s a commercial place so the business mindset was there. I didn’t need much help, but I still met a consultant to take help in terms of setting up a school,” says, Nadir, father of a ten-month-old daughter.

After months of hard work and planning, Nadir, his mother, and other family members designed a curriculum and quality books. After careful calculations, they set up an average of Rs 3,000 fee, but when parents started becoming interested in their school, not even half of them were able to pay the total amount. “When I realized that the locality is not well-off and unable to pay the fee, I decided to go on with admissions and told the parents that they could pay only what was easy for them and not worry about the quality of education,” Nadir shares. Now there are even parents who are paying Rs 4,000 rupees for three children.

Providing education and not turning anyone away is the rule, but it is not easy to manage quality standards with less revenue. Nadir, not compromising on the standard of education, has hired teachers who are graduate or are enrolled in honour courses. “Many schools nearby are paying teachers an average of Rs 3,000 salary, so just imagine the level of education they are providing. But our idea was totally different; we are paying handsome amounts to teachers so that they pay attention. We only hire graduate level teachers so that they have knowledge of subjects they are teaching and are not just there to pass time. That is how most schools that are open in every nook and corner operate,” he says.

With the aim to change the education system and make whatever little change they could through their sincere efforts, Nadir and his wife were also appreciated by the United Nations Development Program on the International Youth Day. The idea behind the Caterpillar School located in Malir is to create an environment of learning, to allow children to grow in more ways than just academically, and to ensure that they keep going to school despite their background. Over the last year, students have participated in activity-based learning and extracurricular activities, which have nourished their confidence.

Nadir and Fatima are working on introducing computer coding as a subject in primary classes and are offering need-based scholarships. So far, the duo has helped forty students, with most studying on scholarship.

Students who usually come to them do not even know how to speak or write Urdu or English. The school staff works on that specifically to help them build a better future. “We hired a teacher who is fluent in English; in the summer holidays, we offered an English language course, free of cost, to students. We announced that anyone who is not studying in the school could also join.” Nadir says that any additional skill can help them in future—be it freelancing or any other useful medium.

Nadir, who was running the school with his own funds for the last one year, has now established a system where the school is working on its own revenue. To manage his household and other finances, he also works at a private TV channel, and due to flexible hours, he is at the school in the morning and office in the evening.

The school consists of two floors and nine rooms, for playgroup to class six. “It started last year with playgroup to class five, and this year we have started the sixth standard as our fifth class was promoted. So far, the idea is to keep it slow and make it consistent rather than going fast and losing the quality,” Nadir explains. The school also has a TV room so that students have a place to relax and not just be burdened with studies all the time. School syllabus is well-planned and is taught in well-equipped classrooms.

The Caterpillar School has a staff of five teachers, one maid, one guard, and one receptionist. “The biggest challenge for us was to make these children get used to school and not fear teachers. Initially when they came to school, we felt they were scared. But with time, involving them in activities has helped them to be at ease. For the first one month, we didn’t teach them anything and just involved them in activities so that they could build confidence and wanted to study. We started only Urdu, English and mathematics to ensure they weren’t burdened,” Nadir says.

To expand the idea, the plan is to set up a computer lab so basics like coding or related skills are taught. Nadir says, “Girls can learn and earn on their own as most of them can’t go out and do proper jobs. But if you have a computer you can earn from home and resolve the fee and affordability issue. We have also come up with the idea that any person who can afford should sponsor a child’s education.”