Not Just Another IAS Aspirant

This is not a tale of wishful thinking, especially coming from a girl who was brazen enough to file an affidavit and change her name as soon as she turned 16 (because why not?) and tirade against the dangers of dowry to her wide-eyed relatives.

“A little to the right…no, too much…slight left…slight right…perfect!”

The limits of my moderately-priced phone’s camera is tested as it tries to do justice to the innocence and charm radiating from its subject. When not smoothing out the crease on her kurta or adjusting her spectacles, this lanky 17-year-old beams into the lens, silently imploring me to release her from her misery.

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Meet Amisha Choubey. Having traversed 2,000 km from her hometown in Bihar, she is currently pursuing a computer training course in an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) in Bangalore. Fresh out of high school, she hopes to break the mould of Bihar being a land of IAS-aspirants (only) by joining the ranks of the State cadre some day – dreams that has led her to take her first steps in this nondescript college.

“I am acutely aware that my passion may not be any more than that of the next aspirant you meet. But I don’t want to be reduced to a statistic – I will clear the civil services examination. That is a promise I made to myself.”

Flashback to sharing a modest house with an extended family, Amisha has bittersweet memories of her school time when days were punctuated by long walks to the bus stop through early morning fog and fending off “chhichore ladke” (worthless men) who would line up to eve-tease unsuspecting women.

“They [my parents] would have been comforted by the idea of me aspiring to be a nurse or get into the teaching domain, but I try to drown out all the noise.”

Belonging to a family that couldn’t afford to make good education a priority, Amisha’s father – a small time farmer – left no stone unturned to ensure that she and her sister were enrolled in a decent school, predominantly reserved for ‘privileged’ male students in the neighbourhood. This resolve caught on with her who took up formal tuition lessons for weak students to fund her long commutes. All of ten back then, Amisha also spent her after-school hours pitching in to run a PCO machine close by. Trained on how to make calls and prepare the billing process, she was more than delighted to be able to supplement her meagre tuition income.

“Money has always been a delicate issue at home. Getting basic education is one thing, but aspiring for anything more that doesn’t guarantee immediate financial benefits is generally not encouraged. Drawing a salary has always been the primary motivation behind getting a job, and understandably so. Although I’ve seldom borrowed from my father after 10th  grade, my father used to peddle his rickety cycle 8 km each way to drop me to school some days. I’m aiming for a scholarship this year at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) to study political science which will help me prepare for UPSC.”

However despite all this number-crunching, mathematics has been her nemesis since school. One would think a school-level academic blow would worry an IAS-aspirant, but Amisha has done her homework – the smart teenager knows that pruning the logical reasoning aspects of the subject would suffice – mastery, although desired, is not paramount to clearing the exams.

“Although proficiency in English is not a prerequisite to clearing UPSC, my observation has been that English-speaking students get greater attention in coaching classes so I wanted to be confident in it. “

I take notes as she educates me on tips to crack one of the toughest competitive exams in the country. Her knowledge on the subject stuns me, especially since she’s never had a mentor or role model back in her village. What’s more, there was plenty of wisdom directed at her from all quarters about how it could be too ambitious for someone of her grounding and the challenges such an undertaking would entail.

“It was not easy to convince my family that this is the path I want to embark on. They would have been comforted by the idea of me aspiring to be a nurse or get into the teaching domain, but I try to drown out all the noise. What matters is my firm belief that the only thing separating one aspirant to the next is the level of hard work put in and that’s all that matters.”

Amisha recalls the excitement at getting a smartphone after her exams. But rather than getting caught in the Tik Tok tide, she leveraged the power of the internet to help her study. “My father gifted me a 4G mobile phone after my boards so I can broaden my preparation. It also helped me connect with other aspirants and civil servants across the country who helped streamline my curriculum.”

I was so enthralled by her speech, that I almost forgot to ask her something I should have brought up at the start of the meeting. Why UPSC?

“I used to be amazed at how indifferent people were to civic issues. People in my neighbourhood seem to have made their peace with acute shortage of public transport or have grown tolerant towards the rampant eve-teasing. I believe that we deserve better. There has been some progress over the years, but development is slow and scarce. I want to change this.”

This is not a tale of wishful thinking, especially coming from a girl who was brazen enough to file an affidavit and change her name as soon as she turned 16 (because why not?) and tirade against the dangers of dowry to her wide-eyed relatives.

She’s almost crossed a year away from home on a trip that turned out to be her first outside Bihar. How has the transition been?

“No one in my village had studied in RVTI, Bangalore before me – I found out about it myself. Although I was a little hesitant to speak in English at first, I soon got over it. The employability skills course offered by Quest Alliance as part of the computer course I’m pursuing has been very helpful too. Although proficiency in English is not a prerequisite to clearing UPSC, my observation has been that English-speaking students get greater attention in coaching classes so I wanted to be confident in it. Meeting different kinds of people in class also has been a huge learning experience.”

On course to sit for BHU’s entrance exams later this month, Amisha hopes to make her family – especially her father – proud. Despite their differences on a range of topics, she is absolutely sure nothing would make him happier than being proved wrong this one time.

Anu Thomas, Senior Content Editor at Quest Alliance

Bal Sansads: Rethinking education in a changing world

Rajeev Ranjan may be on his way to becoming an able retail manager, but the Bihar native still fondly remembers his experience as the ‘Prime Minister’ of the student parliament – or Bal Sansad – in his school. Democratically elected, he identified problems in his school and undertook change-projects to resolve them with the help of the school administrators and community.

Thus, tasked with overseeing key functions and activities around the school, Ranjay unwittingly ended up grooming his bargaining and presentation skills – crucial in his current job, which regular classroom teaching would have left him lacking. As a Bal Sansad member, he in turn cultivated the skills of leadership, networking, self-expression and most importantly, problem-solving.

As the economic landscape shifts with the introduction of automation technologies and AI, education must adapt to keep pace with the needs of the labour market. Technical expertise needs to be supplemented with certain life skills to enable students to effectively deal with the demands and challenges of everyday life.

This throws light on the reality that in today’s day and age, it is simply not enough to ensure that children go to school. Classrooms must keep abreast with a constantly changing world for education to be relevant (and engaging) to students. Skills – meant to cultivate collaboration and problem-solving – will become essential for businesses across all sectors and hence, necessitates the need for schools to make ’21st Century Skills’ a core component of education.

What are 21st Century Skills?

Although overused in the parlance of education, the term has evolved to encompass all the skills needed to navigate one’s personal and professional life in the context of a fast-changing world.

21st Century Skills – as we have come to understand – is a potpourri of skills that aims to boost one’s self-awareness, critical thinking faculties, relationship-building abilities and the capability to communicate effectively. These skills will help an individual

· Reflect on the self and understand multiple dimensions to their personality,

· Locate, analyse and synthesise information, identify problems, take informed decisions, ask questions to challenge existing norms and move towards finding solutions and triggering change,

· Collaborate, build enabling relationships, taking responsibility for one’s actions and be adaptable,

· Articulate oneself clearly without inhibition, and comprehend others effectively and respond with compassion and sensitivity.

Jobs in the future will be characterized more by one’s ability to develop these skills – skills that need to be nurtured from childhood. If learners are self-aware, equipped with skills to ask critical questions, have a solution-oriented mindset, articulate themselves confidently and build supportive relationships, they can be effective drivers of change.

And one way to integrate 21st Century Skills in learning ecosystems is through Bal Sansads – or student parliaments – in schools.

Bal Sansads: Problems & Interventions

Present times demand that young people thrive as self-learners and equipped with 21st Century Skills, drive their own development pathways. In this context, the aim of Bal Sansads has been to create ownership opportunities for students as they cultivate aforementioned 21st Century Skills.

A major issue in schools has been the lack of teachers. One feasible way of countering this problem is by assigning responsibilities (outside the teaching domain) to students by way of Bal Sansads. Under this, students monitor various aspects of the school – handled by teachers up until then – including conducting assemblies, ensuring bells go off on time between classes, keep a track of good practises and shortcomings as well as plan and execute corresponding solutions. They also engage students during classes when teachers are absent or unavailable.

Such a set up makes it easier (and faster) to get things done, especially since students don’t wait for instructions from teachers and only rely on them for guidance. This empowers students and encourages them to take a leadership position, becoming problem-solvers in the process. Moreover, when they are actively involved in various aspects of the school, they begin to see the institution as their own. Another critical takeaway is that students – who were earlier not taken seriously – felt ‘useful’ by playing an important role in encouraging others to learn better.

Hence, instead of shrugging it off as tedious, students typically express a lot of excitement in organizing student parliaments. Following any other election process, students can file their nominations and conduct campaigns, and this is followed by voting, counting and the final oath-taking. The entire operation is handled by students under the supervision of teachers. In fact, by the time they get elected to respective posts, they would have developed a lot of aforementioned soft skills already.

An interesting initiative started in a school in Samastipur district of Bihar with the help of Quest Alliance is the Bal Mitra Nayalaya. Under the aegis of Bal Sansad, it is designed to operate as a children’s court with the objective of addressing issues of discontent among students. Complete with a Magistrate, Secretary and Director, this weekly court will hear complaints through a well-structured application process, with ‘verdicts’ announced every Saturday.

While similar drives are organized by Bal Sansads across schools in Samastipur, some need a nudge to get things going. Through this lens, Quest conducts workshops as part of its Anandshala program in schools to build the capacity of student parliaments. This exercise also throws light on problems that are prevalent across institutions, including missing drinking water, toilet and handwashing facilities, as well as recreational rooms and libraries.

Thus, in addition to preparing them for school-to-work transition, Bal Sansads link students and school administrators, ensuring that students’ voices aren’t ignored or dismissed. Additionally, Bal Sansads have also demonstrated its significance in tackling the issue of student absenteeism in schools. Although concerted efforts by organisations like Quest and its collaboration with government bodies has led to a reduction in dropout rates among students, the average attendance rate in classrooms is still abysmally low.

Lack of quality resources and infrastructure, combined with discriminatory social norms has been a common stumbling block. However, the introduction of Bal Sansads has reportedly corresponded with students attending school more regularly.


With the objective of empowering 300 Bal Sansads in Bihar through its Anandshala program, Quest is on a campaign to strengthen and nurture student leaders by supporting them with stationery, training, a toolkit and a small fund to help student parliaments drive the change they want in their schools.

As established earlier, Bal Sansads yield big results by giving students the agency to drive change – from starting libraries, creating kitchen gardens, building water stations, to reaching out to parents to get them to send their girls to schools – and our campaign is built to nurture these micro-communities of self-directed creative learners across schools in Samastipur district in Bihar.

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Lessons learnt in Government Relations

“Engaging with the movers and shakers of the sector varies depending on the geography and, more importantly, on the political hierarchy one is dealing with.”

It is unfortunate that the words ‘government’ and ‘relations’ taken in conjunction commonly inspire perceptions of inaccessibility and hopelessness. Navigating this diplomatic tightrope may be a skill perfected by a blend of tact and credibility, but real-time experience goes a long way too.

While ivory-towered optimism is always eclipsed by the realities on ground, I don’t think starting off with that attitude is necessarily a bad thing, as long as expectations driven by that passion is managed well. I speak from personal experience when I offer this caveat, because for all the policies that are in place to ensure good practises, the execution phase can be very challenging.

I moved to Bihar in 2015 – following years of spearheading a pilot program of Quest Alliance to deliver quality education to schools in India. Monikered Anandshala, the project has been aiming at bringing about large scale systematic reform at the district level, starting from a small hamlet called Samastipur.

Continue reading “Lessons learnt in Government Relations”

The Educator: A Designer, Innovator, and Thinker

“To facilitate effective learning spaces, educators must also think of themselves as method designers. You are in the role of a hacker or a ‘prototyper.’” David Jul, a learning designer from Kaospilot, outlines five questions that educators must ask themselves when they design learning experiences.


The educator plays one of the most important roles in determining how young people experience learning. We at Quest have worked with children from diverse age groups and backgrounds for over 12 years, and we have observed that the educator’s role is a constant and highly important factor in young peoples’ learning. How students experience their learning environment has a significant impact on their attitude toward learning as a whole. It is the educator who cultivates this environment and determines how young learners interact with various forms of knowledge and with each other.

At Quest 2 Learn 2018, we had the opportunity to interview David Jul, who is a learning designer at Kaospilot. We discussed how Kaospilot designs learning experiences for its students and how educators use a variety to tools and methodologies to design education environments. In the conversation, David outlined five questions that an educator must ask himself or herself when designing learning experiences.

Continue reading “The Educator: A Designer, Innovator, and Thinker”

Building Trust, Strengthening Education

The importance of improving relationships and building trust between parents, teachers, and communities for improved education

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In the development of a school, the local community has a crucial role to play. Teachers and community members both see the development of students as a priority, but the challenge lies in channelling this shared desire in a productive way. A lack of trust between the school and the community lies at the heart of the matter – school personnel generally seem to believe parents are not interested in their child’s education, and parents similarly seem to believe teachers are not productive. Continue reading “Building Trust, Strengthening Education”

Education & Skills Sector Reading List, March 2018

The Quest Alliance round-up of what we’ve been reading in the education and skills sector this month.



An analysis of corporate data suggests that while corporations have been creating new jobs, the pace of job creation has been lacklustre in recent years. Read more in Live Mint here.

The ministry of labour and employment has issued a notification extending full-benefit, fixed-term jobs to all sectors of the economy, reports the Financial Express here.

Continue reading “Education & Skills Sector Reading List, March 2018”

Coalition Building & Corporate Philanthropy

Funder and nonprofit perspectives come together to tackle an issue at the heart of the development sector. What needs to be done to amplify the impact of CSR funds?

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Over the past decade, I have watched the admirable, at times controversial, but ceaseless march of corporations and philanthropic foundations to ‘do good’ in India, and to do it well. It’s been accelerated by changes to the Indian Companies Act, which mandated that 2% of the average profits of a company be invested in CSR.

Continue reading “Coalition Building & Corporate Philanthropy”