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Intrepid reformer reconfigures preschool paradigm: 'It smacks of factory process'

By Moin Qazi* 

Preschools have now become an integral part of child education. Preschool, also known as nursery school, is an educational establishment that offers early education to under-fives before primary school. Preschools improve children’s social and emotional skills and enhance later stage educational attainment. They are a boon to working parents who sorely need better child care and pre-K options. It has also become clear that the best investment for future health and happiness was in the first five years of life.
There has, however, been a mixed response to their role in children’s lives. The difference in the outcome is largely on account of the varied approaches of the founders. Many use them as a business platform, and profit-making is the primary motive. They are generally characterized by underpaid teachers and understaffed classrooms.
But some make this early learning a magical experience for children. They are trying to change the way people think about early childhood. Preschoolers should love and be excited about their first encounter with a school. While educating them, the focus shouldn’t be too much on school-readiness skills but character-building and social-emotional learning.
We are now seeing a wave of fresh thinking in addressing social problems. A band of education reformers is now pairing their ingenuity with their passion for reconfiguring the preschool paradigm. They believe that as long as we carry on underestimating the mysterious complexities of learning, we’ll continue offering wasteful ways of teaching. Shazia Khan, a trained educationist, a visionary entrepreneur, and an intrepid reformer, is creating new light in the world of young children.
A few years back, Shazia’s social chromosomes fired her imagination to do something useful. That vision had been years in the making for long and when her husband, Prof Sajjad nudged her to follow her heart, she turned her back on her senior position in management education to pursue her passion: tending young minds. She founded Steps Play School designing her indigenous teaching pedagogy. She is redefining the preschool landscape in Nagpur.
Shazia has long had misgivings about the current education system. The truancy of students was the natural consequence, she felt, of these shortcomings. She figured out that the education model has long exceeded its sell-by date and smacked of a factory process. She was keen to institute change in the preschool stage which is when a child’s real cognitive and emotional abilities develop.
Schools should have a more “playful” learning approach rather than making children “exam machines”, avers Shazia. The traditional format, she believes, dragoons pupils into rows where they passively listen to their teacher and are stuffed and force-fed with inert facts. The instinct of nature of creativity and curiosity is snuffed.
Shazia has designed a structure that provides middle-income families the best quality education that otherwise is highly expensive. At the same time, bright children from low-income groups are also accommodated. Her model addresses the fundamental touchstones of any public service -- affordability, accessibility, and quality. 
“Once we do a thorough check on the economic status of parents, we provide scholarships to low-income parents and later help them through school education in state-funded schools till tenth or even higher education by paying their annual fee either full or partial,” says Shazia.
The hallmark of Shazia’s school is its highly committed teachers who are paid very competitive salaries which explains their high level of motivation and devotion. 60-80 per cent of most nursery school incomes goes towards staff salaries and benefits. Teaching is labour-intensive; children need well-trained teachers to care for them and engage them in age-appropriate play and activities.
“The greatest determinant of preschool teaching outcome”, underlines Shazia, “is the teacher – specifically, the quality of their interactions with children. As young children’s brains are rapidly developing, a highly skilled teacher will build a unique relationship with each child in her care, using her training, experience, and observation to take advantage of learning opportunities that emerge through daily routines. 
Schools should have a more playful learning approach rather than making children exam machines
Shazia has maintained a healthy pupil-teacher ratio of 15:1 which allows personalized attention. Similarly, the fees are made affordable for middle income groups and low-income groups through a social business approach.
Steps Play School is an extension of an ideal home. A toddler needs a peer group that can function like a beehive. The focus is on activities that are not only visually appealing but also engaging. Student engagement activities are thoughtfully designed to help students reach out to their optimum potential. “I agree that a face-to-face, high-quality pre-school is the best option. This has to be supported by an eclectic array of extra-curricular activities,” says Shazia.
Shazia holds a doctorate in business management and a double bachelor’s in education and mathematics and has two decades of experience in teaching. In her school, she has retained all the ingredients of a typical Indian anganwadi while at the same time creating the sophisticated ambience which urban parents look forward to. Regular progress in food habits, behavioural changes, and social skills are monitored. Her advice to parents is: The best way to see the child grow is to have a positive relationship with your child’s preschool teacher.
Shazia’s ultimate goal is to give marginalized families the choice of a different type of school, a new type of learning, and maybe, just maybe, a better type of life.
---
*Development expert

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