News and opinion

Helen Atkinson

BLOG - Namaste

13 October 2015

Photographer and videographer Helen has been shooting professionally for more than 15 years and has been published both nationally and internationally. For us, she visited two of our programmes in India: one in urban Hyderabad and one in rural Ranchi.

Passion, positivity, pleasure and pride 

Passion, positivity, pleasure and pride shine out from both student and teacher alike in all the CfBT schools we visited in Hyderabad (Telangana province) and Ranchi (Jarkhand province), India.

Upon my arrival at each school, many of the children were, not surprisingly, somewhat shy and perhaps a little scared of a strange blonde, pale-skinned woman with all her camera and film gear – many had never seen someone like me in the flesh before. For the most rural of schools in Ranchi, ahead of my arrival, the team had been easing in the children with 'selfies' on their mobile phones!

Helen Atkinson blog

Quickly warming to my presence, the children clearly delighted at showing off their abilities in class. Near the end of my visit to one school the children all wanted to shake my hand and didn’t want to let go. With more and more joining in I became engulfed by children, which had quite a powerful effect!

I had expected to see boys outnumbering girls in the classrooms, but was pleased to see that the numbers were roughly equal. This was something that was clearly being addressed from the outset of the learning programme.

Hyderabad sees a mix of majority Hindu and some Muslims, while Ranchi is predominantly Catholic. I was privileged to join them for early morning mass on Sunday with a turnout of what looked to be close on 3,000.

Tucked between slums and houses in Hyderabad, the schools are often limited to classroom space only, while the rural setting of Ranchi offers more outdoor space for the children to run around and play.

Helen Atkinson blog

From the outset I was surprised at how dark the classrooms were, as many of the shutters were broken shut and there was no power. I learnt that there is no government provision for this in the public schools. Where there was an electricity supply, it was often the case that the headteacher paid for this personally.

The CfBT programme of interactive and mixed visual, oral and aural teaching techniques delivered by the teachers encourages considered and analytical thinking, rather than simple parrot fashion learning. This was so engaging to see in action, and some classes I joined I really didn’t want to leave because of the infectious enthusiasm of the teachers. For the children the effect is immediately evident, as they react so positively to the teaching and have deep respect for their teachers.

Helen Atkinson blog

After absorbing me and my filming, some children took the opportunity to try out their English by asking me questions. When I understood them and gave them answers their excitement soared and their smiles grew. I felt like a superstar at one school, where they all wanted my autograph!

One of the many experiences I enjoyed was eating local food the local way, by hand. The cuisine was not as spicy as I expected but was bursting with flavour. I noticed that I never wanted to snack in between meals and I never felt hungry! For water, I was very thankful for my ‘water straw’, which filters out bacteria, viruses and other contaminants. This meant I could drink all the water offered to me upon entering the schools with the comfort of knowing I’d be OK! I was intrigued to find that most tea comes with milk ‘pre-added’, and as my preference is for black tea, I was happy to keep to the water.

Encouragement for both pupils and teachers to attend is key to the success of the programme and ultimately the long-term prospects and wider opportunities for the children's future. The CfBT team on the ground work tirelessly to encourage the benefits of the continual learning programme and help the parents to understand the benchmarks for learning at school.

Just as I was leaving one school in Hyderabad, I ducked in to see some class 1 children doing English writing and spelling, and one little girl [pictured below] caught my eye. She was four years old, yet her writing far exceeded that of her peers being small and neat. It turns out her English reading and speaking were advanced for her age too.

Helen Atkinson blog

A far cry from the maze of buildings and hustle and bustle of traffic in Hyderabad, Ranchi is beautiful, luscious green, and appears to have a gentler pace of life, but winter is harsh. It is often below freezing, and sanitation and living conditions are extremely basic. However, life and school continue as normal.

Helen Atkinson blog

The education challenge in Ranchi is much higher than Hyderabad, as many only speak the local dialect and not yet Hindi let alone English. The culture is very different and much of the lifestyle revolves around the needs of farming. Tribal law combined with government law and utmost respect for the locally elected tribal leaders ensures a harmonious and democratic way of life, which is literally inscribed in stone for all to see [see picture below].

Helen Atkinson blog

In one remote school the same boy [pictured below] appeared in every class I visited. I discovered that his daily routine was to dip in and out of all the classes irrelevant of learning level. He was by no means unruly, but fully engaged in whatever activity was going on and had the most wonderful smile ever.

Helen Atkinson blog

The inspirational teaching that the children react so positively to has the potential to grow a new generation that will have the knowledge to bring modern technology to the most rural of communities and dwellings, providing a more comfortable lifestyle while maintaining a low environmental impact and keeping their culture and way of life intact.


Freelance photographer and videographer Helen Atkinson went to India to photograph two of our programmes