This social entrepreneur is promoting functional English proficiency in 2,000 schools

Mumbai-based Pehlay Akshar Foundation is teaching and improving functional English language proficiency at more than 2,000 government-run schools in India.

Pursuing higher studies from the University of Pennsylvania, US, changed Radha Goenka’s thinking process and led her to value a good education. This lasting impact compelled her to return and look at India’s education sector and its many problems. 

“I was sure [when I returned] that education was the space I wanted to be in. I was privileged enough not to have to think about my bread and butter. So, in 2005, I started exploring Worli and the surrounding community to really understand the education space,” she says. 

Radha Goenka, Founder of Pehlay Akshar Foundation

She noticed the major problem soon: most parents opted for private schools over government-run schools because of the promising English-medium education. And they were ready to put in long hours of hard work for this.

Three years later, in 2008, she launched Mumbai-based Pehlay Akshar Foundation, a schooling and training programme that aims to improve functional English language proficiency among children at government schools.

The government had implemented Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a flagship programme to standardise primary education in 2001, to sustain children in public schools. This was complemented by the well-known mid-day meal scheme that provided free food to attract student enrolment. 

Despite this, Radha noted that the root problem of quality English language education persisted due to lack of funds to hire proficient teachers. 

“I fundamentally believe that people know best. And the fact that they wanted to learn English is something I back because I think the English language is an enabler. Today, 90 percent of the content on the internet is in English. Studies have also shown that employees who know English earn a higher salary than those who don't,” she says. 

To introduce quality English education with the spirit of creative thinking and independent learning, her organisation partnered with more than 2,000 government schools and implemented the Pehlay Akshar (meaning the first step) programme to teach its uniquely developed curriculum. 

Pehlay Akshar was started as a programme under RPG Foundation where Radha serves as the Director. It was launched as an independent NGO in 2019 and continues to be funded by the RPG Foundation, which implements the CSR activities of RPG Enterprises. 

As of September 2019, the foundation had impacted 227,465 students, some of who graduated and joined the foundation as a teacher.  

Creating magic in classrooms

Radha says the colonial hangover meant that the way English was taught in most Indian schools was based on the British way of teaching to an English-speaking native. 

“It is full of rules and nomenclature, filled with explanations of an adverb, verb, adjective etc. But, all of these are not really important to converse in English or read basic English, and we devised a curriculum based on international English as a second language (ESL) standard combined with building curiosity and the love for learning among them,” says Radha, adding that the core idea is to raise children who can question things with curiosity. 

Radha and her team of more than 5,000 teachers at the foundation talk about their “magic classrooms” where “we believe in creating safe spaces”.

The entrepreneur says they are trying to create a learning experience similar to how a child masters their mother tongue. Apart from high exposure to the language, the children are in a safe space with their parents and family members, who do not judge but constantly appreciate every milestone and motivate them.  

“We call it a magic classroom because when you create this safe space, you create magic - the child is loving and enjoying the process of learning, and the teacher is enjoying the process of teaching,” Radha adds. 

The task of building these learning spaces began by training teachers. The organisation claims to have trained more than 5,000 teachers; an additional 6,000 are currently being trained in partnership with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The foundation encourages experiential learning; the teachers advise less, but focus on sharing experiences to explain simple concepts.

Learning amid COVID-19

The government schools had also requested Radha’s team to give a hand in teaching the state and national board-mandated English lessons. The founder emphasises that the method of teaching can make more difference than the subject or story being taught. 

Amid the COVID-19-induced lockdown, the Pehlay Akshar Foundation has started teaching online. It also started a new programme, A Story A Day, that allows anyone to participate by reading children’s storybooks. Bollywood actor Sonakshi Sinha recently read a book titled The New Girl as part of this initiative.

Amid the lack of access to internet at a time when most underprivileged families are striving for basic necessities like food and shelter, the Foundation aims to reach more households across India. Radha is currently in talks with Doordarshan to air the popular storytelling sessions. 

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)


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