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17:18 - 9 October 2006

Keeping the dreams alive

Making a difference: Joanna Harma meets a class at the free school for girls she founded at Chakarsi, Uttar Pradesh, India, thanks to the donations of generous Cumbrians
Making a difference: Joanna Harma meets a class at the free school for girls she founded at Chakarsi, Uttar Pradesh, India, thanks to the donations of generous Cumbrians
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Five-year-old Payal was facing a future working in factories for a few pence a day. Now she can read fluently and has hopes of a career, thanks in no small part to the people of Cumbria.

It was an ambitious dream – to build a school for youngsters on the other side of the world. But when Joanna Harma, 28, from Blackwell in Carlisle, saw the plight of young children in rural India, she was determined to do something about it.

Joanna was looking for work experience after finishing her university studies in 2002 and went to work for an organisation in India helping children get back into education.

While she was there she saw young children working in factories, stitching footballs for 20 pence a day. Poor rural families cannot afford the fees charged by Indian schools, so many children have no hope of escaping poverty.

The situation is especially hard for girls who are traditionally expected to be uneducated wives and mothers. Schools charge a variety of fees which, though amounting to only £10 per year, are too expensive for most rural families.

During her time in India, Joanna met and married Gaurav Siddhu, a development economist, and together they decided to set up a free school for the poorest children. Local villagers requested that it cater for girls since they most often miss out on education.

Joanna and Gaurav founded the charity Free Schools for India and made an appeal for funds. Cumbrians, and especially the people of Carlisle, responded with donations and by buying goods at a fund raising shop which Joanna opened on Abbey Street in the city (which has since closed).

The plan was to build a new school from scratch, providing a broad curriculum, including art and sport, plus free clinics with a visiting doctor, education on health, hygiene, family planning, and HIV.

In July 2004 the school opened its doors for the first time in Chakarsi, Uttar Pradesh, about 80 miles north east of Delhi. There were 100 girls on roll and six teachers.

Now the school has been open 18 months and Joanna has gone out there for the first time since it opened to see how it has progressed. Her husband’s father has been in charge of day to day management.

While she is there Joanna is carrying out research for her PhD on education in Uttar Pradesh.

She told the News & Star: “I am so happy with our school. My research entails visiting all the government and private schools in the area and they are appalling. The tiny, cramped, dark, windowless, deskless classrooms; the brutal corporal punishment, the lack of motivated or qualified teachers.

“Our school has 20 foot by 25 foot regulation sized classrooms which are full of light, painted light colours, have proper windows and doors, ceiling fans, proper desks and seats for all students and teachers who are motivated, caring and supportive. Corporal punishment is strictly banned and our teachers maintain discipline without it.”

Joanna has been spending time with the girls who are keen to try out their English on her.

She said: “I was surprised and delighted to hear a little girl named Payal, in our upper kindergarden class, reading fluently and clearly from a newspaper in Hindi, not stumbling over any of the difficult words.

“She is a real star of the future and we have high hopes for her. She and all her fellow students have remarkably good writing in Hindi and English.”

Joanna says spending time with the pupils has opened her eyes to their hopes and dreams.

“Nearly half the girls want to be teachers, almost another half of them want to be doctors, with the remaining three wanting to be a singer, a singer and dancer and the president of India respectively!

“Less than half the girls said they want to become wives and mothers. The sheer force of their ambition and dreams really shocked me. All this time I thought that we were essentially just educating our girls to become better, more aware citizens, wives and mothers and farmers. But it turns out that they have far larger ambitions.

“I now feel even more strongly than before that we owe it to them to hold up our end of the bargain, and keep growing and improving so that we can support them as far down their paths as we can.”

The school lost a few pupils because their families said if they became too clever they would not get husbands, but it has nevertheless expanded, with two more classes due to begin next year.

Now Joanna and Gaurav want to build two new classrooms and one more bedroom in the teachers’ accommodation block.

“I was hoping to ask the Cumbrian people once again to renew their incredible generosity,” she said.

Pressing needs include £1,500 to finish off part-built sections of the school and accommodation and to buy a school sign and security gates to protect the female teaching staff at night.

Another £5,000 is needed over the next 18 months to build the new classrooms, she says, plus £7,000 to cover running costs.

“Last year my husband and I loaned the school our life savings. But we have needed to pay ourselves back over the year because of my studies and now for the first six months of the coming year I have begged an interest free loan from a kind supporter.

“But this really can’t go on for ever,” she says. “This school means the world to the area because no other school can even come close to it in quality, and it means the world to the 170 girls who go there. It also means a lot to the people for who we are creating employment,.”

To find out more about Free Schools for India see www.free-school.org – you can make a donation or sponsor the school for £5 per month by telephoning Rosemary Harma on 01228 510362 or email joanna@free-school.org

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