The Barefoot Approach
In rural India, 60-70% of children do not attend school during the day. Instead, they help their family with essential activities, like collecting firewood or drinking water. Elementary classroom education has not traditionally been perceived as a valuable use of the children’s time. But with Barefoot College’s solar bridge school program, once children in these communities have finished with their domestic chores, they go to school–but not just any school. They attend collaborative classes that inspire creative projects and place high value on local knowledge and customs.
The Barefoot College ensures that each and every classroom environment keeps the lifestyle and work ethic of Mahatma Gandhi alive, with down-to-earth, collective and engaging learning experiences. The College demonstrates–from the knowledge, skills and wisdom of village elders and young class participants alike–that simple, inexpensive solutions are more sustainable than the top down solutions proposed by outside experts that have little relevance to the daily lives of the rural poor. Since 1979, special solar bridge schools have given rural children the opportunity to receive amazing, village-specific education after working hours.
Most solar bridge school attendees are girls, whose educational pursuits were previously devalued or ignored entirely within the community. Girls who were told to stay home during the day now thrive in an entertaining, challenging and culturally rich night curriculum. Moreover, the space stays well-lit throughout evening and night classes thanks to a solar-powered electrical system built and implemented by women solar engineers known as the Solar Grandmothers.
Literacy is recognised as a tool that accelerates development, but literacy alone is not sufficient to enable rural children to stand on their own two feet. The fundamentals of mathematics, Hindi, social studies, science and English are taught through practical examples. The curriculum draws from regional and culturally-relevant examples, such as projects about local revenue officials, postmen, policemen, rural artisans and craftsmen, weavers, carpenters, farmers, manual labourers, midwives, nurses and doctors. Village elders, officers and barefoot professionals are invited to share their experiences, traditional knowledge, skills and wisdom. Children who attend solar bridge schools are also introduced to the concept of democracy, political structure and processes in India. Barefoot communicators perform musicals, puppet shows and street plays on socio-economic themes such as children’s rights, drinking water, environmental sustainability, and women’s empowerment. Traditional media has been a powerful communication tool for children in the schools and has become a form of educational ‘activism,’ one which heightens their awareness of world events and expands their understanding of their own community’s way of life.
In 1993, the Barefoot College implemented an innovative programme called Children’s Parliament (CP) to make children feel equal and responsible members of society. The CP aims to provide students with the opportunity to actively participate in the management of their schools through a democratic process, irrespective of caste, gender or economic status. In coalition with a village committee, the Children’s Parliament groups are responsible for looking after the programming and management of all the solar bridge schools throughout India and other regions of the world.
The College continues to work with young children on empowerment through alternative approaches to education. Teachers and students work together to reinvent the classroom setting, which more and more seeks to become a sort of ideas exchange rather than a one-way street. Most of the children who have gone through the solar bridge school program have remained in their villages and gone on to become Barefoot teachers, doctors, water and solar engineers, and have been elected to respected village council positions. They continue to support their communities and help other village members educate themselves and improve their quality of life.