Bright-eyed and with wide grins, a bunch of children are standing with their teachers waiting to greet the visitors as we enter the Panchayat Union Primary School at Anchetty village, 50 kms from the industrial hub of Hosur in Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu.

Each visitor is given a welcome card, which reads “welcome to the achievers’ campus,” by a child and then led into the school by eager little ones, where over the next hour we witness the leap in learning these children have undergone the past few years. 

In this school in remote Anchetty, where the first structure, a striking tiled-roof building, was inaugurated by former TN chief minister K Kamaraj in 1961, children of various age groups, with help of teachers, have spread out on different tables.

Panchayat Union Primary School at Anchetty village was inaugurated by former TN chief minister K Kamaraj in 1961

Panchayat Union Primary School at Anchetty village was inaugurated by former TN chief minister K Kamaraj in 1961

Over the next hour we get an exposition on the skills they have picked up in maths, English, science, poetry recitation, computer skills, art, and a veshti-clad chubby lad in the role of a vegetable vendor, L Santosh, displayed his money-handling skills. One of the visitors says he will give a thirty rupee note for some vegetables, but the boy is quick on the uptake, “There’s no thirty rupee note,” he retorts!     

Over 15 to 25 per cent of learning improvement has occurred in primary and middle school students of Anchetty, one of the 399 schools in Krishnagiri that buses-to-trucks major Ashok Leyland is supporting as part of its corporate social responsibility programme — Road to School (RTS) — which began in 2015.   

Anandhi, a farmworker who assists her husband in the fields in the nearby village of A.Pudhur, says she pulled her daughter, Priyadarshini S, out of a private, English-medium school where she was paying ₹18,000 a year, and enrolled her in the Panchayat school of A.Pudhur, also supported by Leyland, after heeding to all the rave reviews from other parents in the village.   

“Though initially, I was hesitant, it turned out to be the best decision for my daughter. I really wanted to give her a good education. Now it’s coming at no cost. I haven’t studied beyond class six. She wants to become an IAS officer. She is a very bright student and eager to learn. I am happy my daughter is getting this education,” says Anandhi.  

Priyadarshini is not alone. Over 10,000 students have migrated from local private schools to government schools after RTS interventions.

Started with 36 schools in two clusters of 18 schools in Krishnagiri district, the RTS programme has now expanded to 969 schools covering 92,000 children and spread over Jammu & Kashmir, Alwar in Rajasthan, Bhandara in Maharashtra, and four districts of Tamil Nadu — Krishnagiri, Thiruvallur, Namakkal and Salem.   

In 2019-20, Leyland spent ₹27.13 crore for the RTS programme of a total CSR spend of ₹41.52 crore. But the two Covid years saw a dip in CSR spends for the RTS. In 2020-21, the RTS spend dropped to ₹14.22 crore, and further down to ₹14.8 crore this year.   

NV Balachandar, Chief Sustainability Officer and President, CSR and Corporate Affairs, Ashok Leyland, says before it rolled out the programme, there was a lot of debate if the company had to put its money into higher and primary education and decided it would have to be primary as it would have a long-term impact.

“We decided too that we would focus on government-funded schools in remote locations where teacher shortage and learning levels were low, communities were under-resourced and where children were socially, physically also not up to the state average. These were the criteria we established and formed the basis of our intervention,” explains Balachandar.  

Partnering with a professional agency, Learning Links, the RTS programme supports government teachers with resource persons, work with the school principal to identify children below average levels and give them remedial education to bring them up to the class average. “This was the primary remit,” he says. But, later the company realised that nutrition, health and hygiene, lack of social awareness, was a huge problem out there too.    

“That opened up avenues where we felt we had to intervene, we also got into co-curricular activities, plus science and maths kits which could make learning fun, getting kids getting excited at working with Learning Links resource persons. We took the children out of school, exposed them to markets, and police stations, and even took a bunch of kids to ISRO, all to build their social consciousness and awareness,” he elaborates.    

Through LLF and Leyland’s joint initiative, 800 rural youth have been trained to work as teachers in these remote schools, providing them full-time employment opportunities and deepening community engagement.

Most of these teachers stay on the school campus in one classroom cordoned off for their accommodation. A daily trek to these schools, especially during rainy season, is practically impossible, they say.   

We are next on a bumpy, untarred road for over 15 kms through a reserve forest, heading to a Panchayat Union Middle School in Belapatti, 95 kms from Hosur. Again, a single teacher school, where Manjunath M doubles up as the headmaster, this school has 69 children mostly of daily wagers and agricultural workers enrolled. A gaggle of excited kids with pretty bouquets made from local flowers are ready to receive us.   

We are ushered into a classroom where both parents and wards are ready to speak to us. A couple of the boys who passed out of this middle school have gone on to the Ashok Leyland driver training institute for a two-year programme and are now ready to work in the automotive industry.     

Manjunath believes the high-quality early education Leyland is providing can change the arc of the village children’s lives, and for some, it already has.   

“In the past half a decade, a lot has changed. Children of Belapatti have never enrolled in colleges or pursued higher education even. In 2017-18, ten girls moved into hostels in Denkanikottai (a nearby town) in pursuit of their undergraduate degrees. This academic year, in Manchikondapalli panchayat which covers a cluster of villages, nearly 120 have joined arts colleges for their BCom degrees,” he says. 

Even here, where villages are full of tribal populations and migrant labourers, an appetite for education has begun to set in. 

Manjunath also highlights Leyland’s novel efforts in the early days to renovate the school to make it conducive for learning. “Our classrooms were extremely old with leaky ceilings. They changed all that. They built restrooms for girls and spent nearly ₹6.5 lakh on that. They built classrooms. They have made RO water systems for clean, hygienic water,” he adds.   

While many urban schools are struggling to cope with the learning loss induced by Covid and 500+ days of school closure, RTS students stand out as exception. Covid did not widen the learning gap, says Girish S, Project Director, Learning Links Foundation, contrary to expectations. He says, the villages around displayed true conviction as some of them sold their cattle and procured bank loans to buy smartphones! 

Despite the success of the Covid experiment, it didn’t come easy and along the way lay many hurdles, says Girish. The resource persons who had to engage in online learning had to battle domestic violence and psychological stress from their families.

The students had to time their lessons in the wee hours as that was the only time their parents were at home and they had access to smartphones. Villagers with reasonably large homes had to step up and offer an empty rooms to be used as community learning centres. 

In August 2020, during peak Covid, nearly 55,000 booklets were distributed to maintain hand dexterity for the students. “Covid helped us engage with the community more intimately as we had to mobilise parents’ support for online learning to work. We took learning out of classrooms. It went door-to-door, it went into the communities, and we delivered learning where the child was. Wherever possible, we set up community learning centres for a group of 10-15 students and resource persons took classes. All of which are still continuing,” says Girish. 

(Videography by Akshaya Chandrasekaran. Produced by Darshan Sanghvi. )