India is one of 135 countries where education is a fundamental right. On April 1st 2010, the country took an ambitious step by enacting The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act (RTE) under Article 21A of the Indian Constitution. This act contains the modalities of a free and compulsory education for children between the ages of 6 and 14 and specifies minimum norms in elementary schools. Further, the act requires surveys that will monitor all neighborhoods, identify children requiring education, and set up facilities for providing it. In fact, provisions in the act made The World Bank education specialist for India, Sam Carlson, to observe, “The RTE Act is the first legislation in the world that puts the responsibility of ensuring enrolment, attendance and completion on the Government. It is the parents’ responsibility to send the children to schools in the US and other countries.”

Despite this constitutional move however, it is not uncommon to see children out of school and participating in the unorganized labor force. Have you ever wondered why this is the case? Why do children not go to school despite the government’s wholehearted efforts to ensure that they do? A more revealing answer to the problem, I realized, can be found by speaking to children out of school or their parents rather than a numbers-heavy research report. Speak to the next child trying to sell you novels at a traffic light or handing you a cutting at the corner chai ki dukkan and in all probability you’ll get the same response that I did.

That they used to go to school but gave up because of teacher apathy or absenteeism. Or that they had an older sibling who despite completing school was bringing home the same salary he would have without the education. Or that his/her parents couldn’t afford to pay for school uniforms or textbooks. Or that the financial crunch at home did not allow for the education of all siblings, so only sons/brothers were being sent.

Statistics reveal that 30% of children drop out of school before the 5th standard and 50% before completing 8th standard. So despite the bold move, there clearly remains a lot to be achieved.

Of the many governmental bodies and nonprofits in the country, there is one nonprofit that noticed that despite going to school, children were not getting an education. That despite being literate, they didn’t know the basics about sex and health. And that they weren’t able to hold on to jobs when they entered the work force. Clearly something was amiss. And they wanted to do something about it.

This nonprofit is Magic Bus and they work on the all the weak points of the already existing system. They fend off all possible obstacles that lead children to drop out of school and help them be educated and literate in the true sense of the words. This is achieved through a combination of mentoring and experiential learning by working with children from the tender age of 7 all the way till they become adults. The stress is on teaching children life lessons and values that will empower them to make better decisions in education, health, gender equality, leadership, and livelihoods.

Teaching is imparted through weekly 2-hour sessions, which begin with an icebreaker, followed by the main sport-based activity/game. Each activity/game is a pedagogical metaphor for life lessons affecting the children in their lives (education, dowry, child labor, sexual/reproductive health, and tobacco or alcohol abuse). After the activity, sitting under a tree, a reflection session is conducted where the group mentors discuss key lessons and get inputs from the children on how they are affected at home.

An example of a session would be having two teams dribble a soccer ball to one end and then back. They repeat the activity after introducing cones as obstacles. Midway through, the ends are renamed “home” and “school” and the activity is performed again. During the reflection session, the importance of education is brought out by asking the children how many of them attend school, who doesn’t, and why not.

What makes the Magic Bus model successful is that the mentoring and coaching is done through sessions of sports and games which not only equates learning to playing but also makes it fun. This is a crucial move since the children come from poor backgrounds – with low attention spans, especially in the regular textbook style of learning/teaching. The formula is clearly working because statistics show that:

  • 77% of children in Magic Bus attend school 5 days a week (70% national average)
  • 96% of adolescent girls in Magic Bus attend school 5 days a week (46% national average)
  • 96% of children in Magic Bus are highly engaged in the classroom (as reported by teachers)
  • 95% of children in Magic Bus view their teachers favorably
  • 72% of youth in Magic Bus are attending college/university (20% national average)

Most of us don’t realize it but it clearly takes a lot to stay in school and go on to college. Moreover, these crucial years determine how life pans out for us. In the case of millions of poor children in India, these years present them the opportunity of pulling themselves and their families out of poverty. Teacher apathy or the financial situation at home or fighting off child labor or even child marriage aren’t minor hurdles but are life-changing obstacles that many children in India encounter every day. Obstacles that can be overcome for just Rs. 1,500/$25 per child – which makes Magic Bus a high-impact and scalable model.

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