Through exemplary use of public-private partnerships, the Shyamchi Aai Foundation helps provide essential and timely career guidance to secondary school students in India
This was one in the series of workshops organised in 2017 and 2018 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India to provide a platform to the NGOs to road-show the good work they were doing in the field so that these initiatives could be scaled through public-private partnerships. This particular workshop was in Pune and I attended it in my capacity as Secretary, School Education, Government of India. A presentation was made by Sheetal Bapat, co-Founder Director, Shyamchi Aai Foundation (SAF) almost at the end of the day. We were all exhausted by the time her turn came to make a presentation but what was presented made us sit up and admire.
The genesis of SAF lay in a chance meeting between Sheetal Bapat and 13-year-old Nikita who was about to drop out of school due to financial difficulties and lack of clarity of the future career pathways. Sheetal had taken a sabbatical from her corporate career of 12 years to spend more time with her teenage daughters. This disparity actually compelled her to interact with many youngsters in the community and realise that lack of guidance and resources at the right time was the reason behind the increasing number of directionless youth and unfulfilled aspirations.
Appreciating the gravity and scale of the problem, SAF realised the need to adopt a collaborative approach with government, teachers and parents to create a sustainable and scalable ecosystem around secondary school students to facilitate their decision making. It partnered with the Government of Maharashtra to develop a career guidance ecosystem.
Maharashtra Government had started a one-year diploma to train teachers in vocational guidance. During the past few decades, 30 teachers had been certified every year. Through this process, only two per cent of grade 10 students had access to career guidance. They invited NGOs to partner with them to scale their career guidance project.
In the year 2015-16, SAF supported the Government to develop an indigenous psychometric seven-field interest test. This was piloted and standardised with the help of the Department of Psychology, Savitribai Phule Pune University. The new seven-field interest test was administered across Maharashtra to over 16 lakh students for the first time on a computer-based software. Subsequently, Maha Career Mitra website and a mobile application were developed for students to check their reports online, learn more about interest fields and search for courses and institutes as per their interest and district.
The mobile application for conducting interest and aptitude tests was developed because administering a test using computers every year was a challenge in remote areas. SAF conducted both interest and aptitude test on mobile phones in Maharashtra for the first time. Over 16 lakh students took the test with the help of 9.75 lakh plus mobile phones. Career Mitra application was subsequently used in MP, Gujarat, Goa and Rajasthan.
Realising the need for an early orientation of students for essential life skills and exposure to career information from eighth grade, SAF researched, piloted and developed life skills and career guidance curriculum as 'Self-Development and Art Appreciation' subject for grade nine & 10.
Concepts such as self-identity, values, social leadership, conflict resolution, growth mindset, what careers mean, and facets of art appreciation were covered in grade nine. In grade 10, students explored their role as citizens, effects of mass media, how to think analytically, how to work towards a career pathway and appreciating visual and performing arts. Rather than simply conveying 'information', the entire curriculum was activity-based which made it engaging for students. Continuous evaluation was done by teachers using the assessment rubrics provided at the end of each chapter. There was no written examination for this subject.
Adolescence is both a period of high vulnerability as well as the highest potential for learning. Neurological developments coupled with physiological changes often lead to behaviours that may negatively impact their life. In the past, teachers and textbooks were the only sources of information and life skills were imparted by joint families and communities. However, information was now accessible to anyone, anywhere while avenues to learn life skills had narrowed.
During the course of work, SAF realised that there was an urgent need to build the capacity of secondary school teachers who work with adolescents and equip them with information and application-based tools. There was also a need for teachers to transition from a traditional role to that of a facilitator and guide so that they could prepare their students for challenges and careers in the 21st century.
SAF and MSCERT launched a four-level online course called Avirata where 41,000 secondary school teachers (one headmaster/mistress and two teachers from 12,500 Government and aided secondary schools across Maharashtra) were trained and certified on completion of level one of Project Avirata as 'Career Vidnya' (Career Master) and 'Career Diploma' certification was awarded after completion of level four.
Avirata was an online teacher training program that equipped teachers to understand adolescent behaviours, provide career guidance to their students and learn skills to grow both professionally and personally. The course ensured 100 per cent learning and keeps teacher engagement high throughout the course of being associated with the course where the teachers learn about:
Demands of the 21st century
Neurological developments of the adolescent brain
Effective communication with adolescents
Self-Development for teachers
Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)
Techniques for career guidance
Teacher in different roles — a person, facilitator, democratic leader, anchor and career counsellor.
SAF also put in place 'Sanjeevani' a project that supported higher secondary students academically, career-wise and financially to achieve their goals. This was an initiative of SAF to help the youth towards transforming the life path of students who came from lower-income families to become responsible adults leading a meaningful life through career guidance, counselling, mentoring, and financial support. Through this project, every adolescent gets equal access, resources and opportunity to higher education linked to his/her interest and aptitude leading to a meaningful career to build a safer, happier and prosperous nation.
SAF has now made the free interest and aptitude test available to all students from grade eight to 12 in three languages available on its website. This will help state governments, NGO's and anybody working with adolescents to guide them for their career pathways.
What Sheetal Bapat and her committed team have achieved is truly remarkable. It is a model that has already been scaled through public-private partnership in the true spirit of Nexus of Good. It has the potential of scaling further.
Views expressed are personal