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.

#EducateToEmpower

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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By students, for students

How Bal Sansad, or child parliaments, enable students to find their voices

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“The PM has a budget for the nation. Why don’t we have a budget for the school?” – Bal Sansad Student, MS Dalsinghsarai, Samastipur District, Bihar

With non-cognitive skills such as critical reasoning and the ability to engage in meaningful debates becoming ever-more important in a fast changing job market, enabling young people to articulate questions such as these is crucial.

The idea of Bal Sansad (or ‘Child Parliaments’) within government elementary schools is not new. A model United Nations program has been running internationally since the mid twentieth century, while the Indian government first proposed the idea of Child Parliaments almost twenty years ago. In practice, its implementation has been sporadic and inconsistent. In Bihar, where Quest Alliance run the Anandshala program in the Samastipur district, interventions to enliven the Bal Sansad Child Parliaments date back to 2012.

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