New Delhi: On Sunday, the 10th of February 2008, an air of palpable excitement laced the cheery sunshine bathing the Chief Minister Shiela Dixit’s lawns, as her guests milled around in anticipation of the unveiling and launch of the ‘Chalta Firta School’ Mobile Learning Centres.
The animated crowd of children and adults grew hushed as the ringing of a school bell was heard in the distance. Suddenly, the gates were thrown open and lively music heralded the arrival of two bright yellow buses, which drove up in stately procession, playing the catchy Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan anthem, ‘School Chale Hum’ through built-in speakers.
Within moments of parking in perfect tandem, the pair of vehicles took on an even more magical air, appearing to sprout wings, as brightly striped awnings were extended from their rear and sides.
Spontaneous cheers broke out as the song came to its merry conclusion and the crowd surged forward to admire the twin apparitions, with exclamations of Christened ‘Chalta Firta School’, the Mobile Learning Centres (MLC) will carry expressly trained staff and educational resources right to the doorsteps of the most disadvantaged communities, frequenting those areas in Delhi with low access to school education and high concentrations of out-of-school children.
UNICEF has been collaborating with Delhi’s Universal Elementary Education (UEE) Mission to develop innovative ways and means to reduce the number of out-of-school children in the National Capital Territory, through alternate education programmes, under SSA, to bridge learning gaps and prepare marginalised children for formal schooling.
In less than three years, about 70% of Delhi’s out-of-school children were persuaded to join Alternative Learning Centres run by NGOs. Over 25,000 children underwent bridge courses and qualified to join formal schools, where they have since been mainstreamed.
But there were still too many who had not been reached and it became clear that radical measures were needed to close the education gap and reach out to every last child. Life skills and learning had to be taken to those children who could not come to school themselves.
This is when UNICEF stepped in and proposed a first-of-its-kind concept – Mobile Learning Centres. Designs were developed for mini-buses to be specially equipped with modern technology – LCD televisions, audio-visual equipment, laptop computers and a full range of teaching-learning materials. Two old buses provided by the Delhi government were refurbished & suitably modified by UNICEF.
For two hours each day, on four days a week, the Chalta Firta Schools will benefit children in selected locations, to help bridge foundational gaps in the education of out-of-school children and mainstream them into government schools within a year.
Launched under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) this project targets children living in difficult situations such as red light areas, construction sites, railway stations, traffic signals etc.
Each participating child will receive one meal a day under the government mid-day meal scheme.
The project will lay special emphasis on the education of girls, working children, children of the poor, and children with special needs.
A special team of mentors in the mobile schools will spread awareness through the use of modern technology, including books, computers, educational exhibits, teaching-learning equipment, programmes and presentations, demonstrations, counselling, workshops, films, street theatre, training and the like.
Once a week, the MLC’s will be used to spread awareness on health and hygiene, HIV/AIDS, drugs, dowry and other social issues, as well as to empower local leaders, educators and social workers to be more proactive on issues concerning the education of their children.
In a simple ceremony, attended by Delhi Education Minister, Arvinder Singh Lovely and John McCarthy, High Commissioner of Australia, the keys to the MLCs were handed over by Mrs. Shiela Dikshit, Chief Minister of Delhi, to representatives of Salaam Balak Trust and Butterflies, the two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) selected to pilot the project and probe the furthest corners of the city.
Referring to Delhi’s varied demography and the heavy influx of migrating families which continue to create more disadvantaged children, Mrs. Dikshit, said, “Whilst I am confident that this pace-setting pilot initiative will achieve the results envisaged … for ultimate success, we will need many more than the two vehicles we are currently deploying and I am confident that we can look forward to the participation of other private sector partners when we are ready to take the project to scale.”