International Education Day is annually observed on the 24th of January and is proclaimed by the United Nations to celebrate the role of education and how it can lead to bringing about development and peace. Inclusive and quality education is paramount to alleviating poverty and providing people with quality opportunities in terms of employment.
Amrita Patwardhan is someone who has devoted her entire professional and educational career to understanding the role of quality education and the impact it has on child development and social justice.
She is currently the head of the education portfolio at Tata Trusts. She has been associated with the trust since 2003. Amrita holds a Master’s in Child Development, an M.Phil in Education, and has done a Fellowship with “The Edberg Fellowship” from Sweden, under the International Development Department at Clark University, Worcester where she researched the impact of displacement on children and literacy.
Post which she devoted her time as an educator, teaching in Primary school as well as college-level–an opportunity she says helped her understand the ground realities, challenges and burdens the education field faced in India.
Over the years Amrita has represented the Tata Trusts in the “National Mission on Libraries”. She has been an expert committee member for the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) and The Ministry of Human Resource Development to review national programmes on literacy, primary education and children’s literature.
In conversation with TC46, Amrita Patwardhan, Head of Education, Tata Trusts talks about her passion and commitment to the field of education in India, and the impact quality education has on the development of a child and in turn the nation via social justice, peace and development.
1. What is your educational and professional background?
I did my school and college education in Pune, where I grew up. I chose humanities and did my Bachelor’s in Psychology. I was interested in child psychology, hence I pursued my Master’s in Child Development from MS University Baroda. The Human Development and Family Studies Department developed by seminal Prof. TS Saraswathi exposed me to a range of ideas on cross-cultural psychology and socio-cultural influences on children while Prof Baljit Kaur got me interested in emergent literacy, a topic on which I did my Master’s thesis.
I decided to work before studying further and spent a year volunteering at Narmada Jeevanshala where I worked with teachers and developed the school curriculum in Pavri and Bhili tribal languages. Here, I understood ground realities in remote tribal areas where the education system was completely absent and government schools existed only on paper. My interest in child development seemed to strongly intersect with the education field, so I decided to pursue my M.Phil in Education at the Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi. I was fortunate to have Prof. Nargis Panchapakesan, Prof. Poonam Batra, Prof. Krishna Kumar, and Prof. Ramakant Agnihotri as my teachers. This helped deepen my perspective on social factors that play a significant role in shaping children and their growth trajectory, including educational outcomes, at times far more than inherent capacities. While working on my dissertation on tribal education, and perceptions of tribal communities around formal education, culture, and curriculum, I saw the way social inequities play out and the transformative force that education is.
Thereafter, especially since I had won the Junior Research Fellowship by University Grants Commission and cleared the NET qualification required to teach at the college level, I was expected to pursue a PhD, but I wanted to experience working with children and teaching in classrooms on-ground, so I chose to be a primary school teacher at Aksharnandan Pune. It is an innovative school that strives toward inclusion and multilingual education through strong child-centred pedagogies. The Edberg Fellowship from Sweden provided an opportunity to spend a year at the International Development Department at Clark University in Worcester where I researched the impact of displacement on children while auditing courses on social movements and early literacy amongst others. Understanding children in conflict and education at the intersection of social justice issues was a key takeaway.
2. What prompted you to join Tata Trusts? Why did you choose the education sector as your focus area?
I grew up in a home where both my parents were deeply committed to the social sector, working voluntarily on issues of environment and social justice, including setting up a nonprofit organisation. Exposure to social issues, the need to make a difference, and the role we play in bringing about a change were deeply internalised during my upbringing. I had never thought of a career in philanthropy but an opening at the Sir Ratan Tata Trusts as a Programme Officer for Education seemed like an interesting opportunity to engage and contribute to the social development of the country, work, and learn from some of the best civil society organisations and design and shape programs that can make a significant long-term difference to the education sector. Re-joining the education sector was a natural progression based on my educational and professional interests, so I joined Tata Trusts because I got an opportunity to build its education portfolio.
3. What are some ways Tata Trusts is driving social changes in terms of gender equality in education?
Tata Trusts works in Education, Health, Rural Upliftment, Nutrition, and WASH with a clear rural focus. A large part of the rural development work is gender-focused and ranges from self-help groups to enterprise and empowerment work with women. In the space of education, our work towards strengthening women’s literacy and our life skills work with adolescents including efforts to help out of school children have a special gender focus both in curriculum and participants of the programs. A majority of Tata Trusts’ work is in strengthening the quality of education in government-run Anganwadis and schools where we work with both girls and boys. Creating curriculums and storybooks that focus on a range of social issues including the importance of gender equality is another key area of work.
4. As the Education Head of Tata Trusts, can you explain what Tata Trusts wishes to achieve with their work?
Education is among the oldest portfolios of Tata Trusts. JN Tata Endowment set up as a scholarship program in 1892 was among the very first offerings of Tata Trusts dating back 130 years. Building institutes of higher learning in areas of national importance such as the Indian Institute of Science in the 1900s, the Tata Institute of Social Science in the 1930s have been important interventions in higher education. So, work in the field of education flows out of our founder’s nation-building vision. At present, we focus on seeding transformative work in school education, ranging from Early Childhood Education and Care (ECCE) to high school to address issues of quality and equity in education with a focus on disadvantaged communities.
Some of the key initiatives include focused field implementation in tribal, rural districts by working with the community and government to improve classroom practice; school environment through teacher development; addressing gap areas in the education sector through focused initiatives on reading promotion through an initiative called Parag; setting up the Centre of Excellence in Teacher Education (CETE), and a range of technology-enabled initiatives to enhance teaching and learning.
5. What, in your opinion, is the importance of education in a woman’s life?
Education that is well-rounded and rooted in constitutional values can equip girls to understand their rights, become economically independent and contribute as active citizens.
6. What are your recommendations for women who want to work for philanthropic causes?
My advice to all young women who want to contribute to social causes would be to stay committed to the cause you are passionate about, be patient as social change is a long and difficult process, and ask hard questions to critically examine if chosen strategies are making a real difference.
7. What are some things about educational philanthropy you’d like to share with the next generation?
India is a deeply unequal society and inequality has been further exacerbated during the pandemic. Many of us with social-economic privilege often credit our success to our merit and hard work, without realising talent is everywhere but opportunity is not. Creating an equitable society needs work at multiple levels from on-ground interventions to social policy.
It is important to start early by ensuring access to quality Early Childhood Education at the preschool level, ensuring access to good schools as well as mentoring and creating social capital for children from disadvantaged communities to help break out of the cycle of poverty. We cannot develop as a nation if half our children are malnourished and nearly half drop out of school before completing secondary education. Investing in children, their education, nutrition and well-being by strengthening the public education system so quality education and care are universalised, is the only way forward.
8. For International Education Day, what are the thoughts of Tata Trusts with regards to education for young girls?
Educating girls is important in itself and is required to meet our constitutional commitment toward the Right to Education as well as Sustainable Development Goals. In addition to that, research shows that educating girls contributes to a whole host of other social development goals ranging from maternal and child health, economic development, and so on. Young girls are our future. Investing in them is key to advancing the nation.
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