Jaipur - "Hawa chali, hawa chali, peeley rang ki hawa chali" (The breeze blows, it is yellow in colour) ... As Batool Aapa and Sayeeda Akhtar sing these lines, the young children at the Amagarh Bodhshala (community school) lift up yellow toys to show their teachers. Although Batool aapa ('aapa' is a term for 'aunt') is around 70, her energy is that of a 20-year-old. The children, between three and four years of age, are learning colour recognition. As they sing and dance, they also learn new words and shapes.

Amagarh is a slum in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Most of the families here are Muslim, and polish colourful stones to earn a living; these are used in decorations and as jewellery. The school was founded in the early 1990s by Bodh Shiksha Samiti, a Jaipur-based NGO that aims to bring quality education to poor and marginalised children. The school is a result of years of active dialogue and engagement with the communities. The NGO works with rural communities and slum residents in Rajasthan.

Picture: Batool aapa (credit: AKDN/Amit Pasricha)

Batool aapa came to the school about 15 years ago. "Initially, when the Bodh team asked me to join their pre-school, I was reluctant. 'I am illiterate, and had never been out of the house. How could I become a teacher?', I asked them," she recalls. For the Bodh team, however, this didn't matter. To them, Batool was the ideal 'mother-teacher' - someone who is connected to her community, knows its traditions, is trusted, and has a way with children.

The Mother-Teacher Programme is an integral part of the Programme for Enrichment of School Level Education (PESLE), initiated by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) in India and supported by the European Commission and Canadian International Development Agency. Pre-school is an important component of child development. Worldwide, research indicates that investment in early education is critical - 85 per cent of a child's core brain structure is already formed by age three. This pre-school programme focuses on improving the child's social environment, and in some ways preparing both the child and the community for long-term education. In Rajasthan, Bodh implements PESLE and the mother-teachers are part of its core team at the school level.

Lekha Mohan, who oversees the Mother-Teacher Programme in Bodh, says all the mother-teachers are appointed after consultation with the community. "A mother-teacher is the first link with the child. And a crucial link with the community." Mohan says the idea behind the programme is not only to sensitively introduce schooling to children, but also to empower the women in the process. Some of the mother-teachers are illiterate when they start off, but slowly educate themselves too. "When I came here, I couldn't recognise alphabets or numbers. But after my training in Bodh, I was also inspired to study. Now I can write the next day's schedule on my own," says Sayeeda.

In many ways, Batool's class resembles the classroom of a private city school, offering special care and innovative methods of learning.

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