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Children’s Global Network – meaningful learning for all

  • Posted On: 11th June 2013
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Children’s Global Network – meaningful learning for all
Education in Pakistan has always been a controversial subject. Among the ongoing debates, some are related to the private/public school debacle and the non-uniformity of the standards meted out in these; some to do with the budgetary allocations for education being extremely low; still others about the curriculum being outdated and the system of education not encouraging critical thinking. While half-baked education policies are formulated and then pushed aside; stories of ghost teachers and schools are published in the newspapers and forgotten; and millions of dollars of aid invested into projects which never see the light of day; one wonders if there are any genuine efforts being made for any sort of improvement in any of the aforementioned aspects.
Mehnaz Aziz has been working for the development of the social sector for over 20 years. With her training as a development professional, Mehnaz was involved in many facets of the social sector, but found education to be the panacea and wanted to delve further into it to bring about a meaningful change. Mehnaz elaborates, “The fact is that we have not been able to provide equitable education for all in Pakistan. I started by supporting non-formal schools, which were being started in the rural areas. I worked on those for seven years and realised that those are not the answer. As long as there is funding, these schools will continue and once the funding stops, these schools will just evaporate. The marginalised are always pushed to remain marginalised — we give them scraps — and non-formal education is also like that. We sit in our drawing rooms and say that the poor don’t want to send their children to good schools and that they want to send them to madrassahs; but actually, we have not provided them with good schools.” She illustrates this by saying that around the late 1990s, low-income private schools came about in small towns. There was a slight change as people from the lower strata, who could afford to spend a little money on education, started pulling their children out from public schools and sending them to these low-income private schools, where they had to pay school fees of about Rs. 150, and their children were taught subjects like English, Computers and Religion.
In 2002, Mehnaz Aziz founded the Children’s Global Network Pakistan (CGN-P), with USAID as the partner organisation which provided CGN-P with the required funding. For Mehnaz, CGN-P was the solution to all the problems she had observed while working in the education sector for the past decade or so. It was to provide meaningful learning in public classrooms across Pakistan, comprising teacher training audio visual aids and interactive learning, resulting in increased interest and better performance shown by the students. Mehnaz says, “What we are doing at CGN is a global product; the publications, the teaching modules… everything. You bring in a methodology which is interactive. The teachers are responsive to the children’s needs. It’s what you see in the best of schools; the global methodology to encourage students and drawing out creativity, and to train the teachers, etc. There is an entire philosophy behind what we’re doing, and it’s all documented. This methodology is tried and tested in 35 countries across the world. We’ve tried many things and our problem is that 40% children coming into schools drop out because the teachers can’t engage them and the classroom environment leaves a lot to be desired. The retention level has become high because of these methodologies. It started as a pilot programme, and now we are in 700 schools. The government has also responded very well and USAID is supporting this entire initiative.”
Parental involvement is also very important, explains Mehnaz. Parents were not encouraged to step inside schools initially, but a change was brought about in this respect as well. CGN trains teachers to teach adults also and there are adult literacy programmes being implemented on a large scale. With the permission from the government, the school premises are available after school hours, so that the mothers can come and learn, along with their children. It helps community-building as well, says Mehnaz, as the schools act as a forum for interaction and keeps people from different backgrounds engaged in productive activities. The mothers feel that they learn better parenting skills from these meetings, as there is an air of liveliness and camaraderie between the mothers and their kids. She relates a funny incident in which a child was telling his mother off, ‘why haven’t you done your homework!’
CGN has also partnered with the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and provided universities across Pakistan with courses for the B.Ed and M.Ed programmes, in which the under-training teachers are trained in these new methodologies. What’s even more interesting is how CGN makes these programmes sustainable. Mehnaz explains, “We are transferring it to the government. From next year onwards, all the materials that we give to the classrooms will be a part of the Federal Directorate of Education’s budget. We don’t want it to be this way, that for eight years they had all these things in the classrooms and in the ninth year, there is nothing because the funds did not come. I have learned from my prior experience; where I’ve seen NGOs and non-formal systems of education close down; so we have built this in. All that we’ve shared is now under the ownership of the government. We have institutionalised it.”
Mehnaz is quite concerned about extremism coming to the forefront and seeming to occupy a leading role in the society. She says, “Extremism and that ideology is perpetuated when you close down all links to information. So, that is the danger and I don’t think people realise that. What we’ll do is we’ll put up our walls a bit higher or put barbed wire or keep two guards instead of one… what would be better would be to educate the poor child next door and help him with his education. That could be our investment into the future. We have not done that in the past. We need global links in our education system, because we are becoming isolated from the rest of the world.”
Now heading a team of almost 100 people, Mehnaz reflects on how it all started with two people and grew into something that everyone involved could be proud of. She concludes by saying, “I said we will make a difference and it’s been 7-8 years and we have made a difference. CGN, for me, is a 24-hour thing; I’m thinking, breathing and eating CGN! It’s not like a slot in my life, it is my life. My inspiration comes from the results I see. The more disappointing a situation becomes, the stronger our resolve becomes and, in the end, we get very positive feedback. And, the best part is that everyone involved has a feeling of ownership. They all feel responsible for the changes that have come through and they all feel proud of it.”

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