Vidhi Bhardwaj on working with Simple Education Foundation

Vidhi pursued her undergraduate degree in Political Science, wanting to pursue a career in public policy. However, a step out of her academic bubble, exposed her to the systemic inequality rampant in the country. Through experiences with organisations such as SEWA Bharat, Vidhi realized she does not want to spend her life detached from reality and wants to play an active role in transforming society. She considers equal access to education the cornerstone of change and hence began her journey with Simple Education Foundation (SEF). Through her work at SEF, she wants to share the lens with which she views the world, that is one of empathy, love and infinite possibilities.

Please tell us more about your organization.

Simple Education Foundation is an education not-for-profit based out of India. We started with the fundamental idea of ensuring that where someone is born should not decide what they can do in their lives. From our personal experiences of working inside schools we realized that schools can play a catalytic role in enabling our fundamental idea. Over the years, we have done a bunch of things and learned from each one of them to finally zero down on our intervention priorities as an organization. We are focused on reinventing government schools by improving teaching practices inside them.

What inspired the founder to start this organization?

Mainak Roy and Rahul Bhanot are educators by choice. After brief stints in the corporate sector, their paths crossed at the Teach for India fellowship, where both taught in Government schools. Mainak was deeply inspired by the passion of Government school educators, but observed a gap in opportunities for their professional and personal growth which directly impacted student learning. Meanwhile, Rahul observed that learning in schools was limiting children by only preparing them to be excellent students, but not necessarily excellent human beings. With aligned passions to transform teaching learning practices in India, the duo set out to find simple solutions to complex challenges with Simple Education Foundation.

What are some education problems in rural India, if we are to talk about 3 main ones?

We have been working with a cluster of villages in Tehri Garhwal, since 2016. The 3 key challenges that we have observed would be:

  • Gap between policy and reality, while schools have teachers allocated as per national policy around teacher-student ratio, it leads to lack of teachers in rural schools because rural areas don’t have enough children in each school to ensure that there is a teacher in every class
  • The curriculum does not take the context of the villages into account, children in rural areas do not find relatable characters and settings to learn from
  • Limited livelihood opportunities leads to huge dropouts after a point

How can education in rural India be improved? Specifically in government schools?

  • Increasing staff allocation would be the most immediate way forward
  • School leadership is proven to have an impact on a school’s learning and culture. Giving more autonomy to Principals to make decisions around local hiring, deciding on immediate learning priorities, etc can make a huge difference
  • As staffing is a continuous challenge, building access to technology and integrating tech-based learning practices can make classrooms more engaging and effective
  • Contextualizing and adapting curriculum to children’s context through stories or other learning aids is also effective in increasing engagement and delivering better learning outcomes

Since you work towards the holistic development of children, how do you focus on mental health in your model because mental health is largely stigmatized in India?

Our focus on mental health and wellbeing is rooted in the idea of building skills in our educators and children that will help them navigate challenges around mental health while also ensuring mental wellbeing. We design and implement practices that help children identify their emotions, reflect on their actions, pause and think, etc; which are rooted in the overall development of the child. For Example, a simple practice like asking “How are you feeling today?” before any class, session or call has led to a small but significant shift wherein our stakeholders are pausing to understand emotions and the impact they have. We do understand the stigma around mental health and therefore we understand that exposure to social-emotional learning and mental health at a young age can change the way children will look at their mental wellbeing when they grow up.

How do you push for greater gender equality in these schools?

100% of the schools we work in are open to students from all genders and we work with the communities to ensure that every one, of school-going age, is enrolled in the school and attends the school regularly. We also work with external partners like Girl Rising and The Laali Project who work on projects that address the issues of gender equality deeply.

Our curriculum and learning practices, like the feelings chart, are designed keeping social and gender inclusivity in mind.

What are some future goals of your organization?

Our mission is to work with 50000 schools across India and transform practices that impact learning, leadership and culture in these schools. We are currently working with close to 2000 schools through our partnerships with the Delhi and Uttarakhand state governments, and we aim to expand to 2 more states over the course of the next 18 months, to impact 8000 more schools. Our big goal is to build a world where everyone lives in harmony and in alignment with their head, hand, heart and soul.

Vidhi Bubna
Vidhi Bubna
Vidhi Bubna is a freelance journalist from Mumbai who covers international relations, defence, diplomacy and social issues. Her current focus is on India-China relations.