Sikshana was offering Scholarships to deserving students from High Schools who fare well in the final examinations to pursue further studies. During last year alone, thirty students were awarded about Rs 3000 each based on merit and economic criteria. The prospects of getting this financial assistance did have a cascading effect on others; though no serious studies were conducted on the impact, our own informal assessment was that this could have spurred at least a few hundred students towards better performance. The downside of such a program was that it impacted almost exclusively those at the top end of the spectrum, whereas the focus of Sikshana had always been on those at the other end.
We realized that the scholarship, once awarded, helps just one student - the one who receives it. That, by any standards, should be considered as a poor 'return on the investment'. We started examining the feasibility of getter a better leverage for the funds deployed in terms of student coverage, especially in the weaker segment.
After many rounds of brainstorming, we came across what looked like a far better way of doing this, without compromising on the focal issue: helping the deserving students to pursue higher studies. In each school, we identified the students who looked most likely to fail in the examinations in spite of the best efforts using the traditional approach. We asked the class whether any of the 'brighter' students are willing to come forward to helping their weak friends during the next three months in a sustained and structured imitative.
Under this, each student volunteer needs to engage with five of their friends on a daily basis. The outer parameters for the program will be as specified by us. Roughly this requires 90 minutes of combined study in a day, six days a week at a mutually agreed location, where the activity will be monitored. For such an involvement the student will receive Rs 3000, subject however to the condition that four of the five under his tutelage pass the final examinations. It was highlighted to them that such an effort at coaching others, apart from the financial incentive, will also be to their benefit since it will result in improving their own scores.
We were not sure how such a repackaged scholarship program will appeal to the students; there were doubts whether the good ones who deserve such assistance will really come forward to participate in a program with its associated elements of risk. There were also a number of sociological factors that came into play here; the village dynamics, involving gender and caste sensitivities, was pretty rigidly structured in each school zone to restrict the options available for such interactive sessions.
To our great surprise, the new idea was enthusiastically received in all the schools. Already 50 students have come forward in 20 schools to take up this challenge and go for the scholarship. This will mean that 250 kids are now being placed under an innovative peer learning program with an incentive for performance. This works out to 25% of the total number who are in the high risk category for the ensuing examinations.
At the same time, we are also running a second pilot with a smaller batch size with three 'learner' students. Here the incentive is non-financial; the students are being promised a holiday at a location of their choice.
We are keenly studying all aspects of both pilots; the success of either or both will show the way we have to go during the following years.
E S Ramamurthy