Meet the Ryedale couple bringing education to India’s ‘untouchables’

By Stephen Lewis, Feb 02


THE sight of grubby-faced street urchins begging at the side of the road when they should be at school, or young teenagers working down stinking open sewers wearing nothing but loincloths, does something to you. Or at least, it did to Ian and Sue Bretherton.

The pair, both hugely experienced teachers and head teachers whose home is in Yearsley, near Helmsley, were in Rajasthan in northern India for the summer.

Sue, a former Bootham Junior School head who now runs a large school in the Middle East, had volunteered during the summer holidays to work at an animal rescue centre in the city of Pushkar, in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan.

It was the kind of thing she had been doing all her life. In a career which has seen her working as head of no fewer than five different schools, she has often spent the summer holidays volunteering overseas – teaching street children in Africa, or working with rural students in Malaysia.

When her Indian co-workers in Pushkar found out she was a teacher, however, she was quickly invited to set up a rabies prevention programme to take around local schools.

“India has the highest rates of rabies anywhere in the world,” says Ian. “There are thousands of deaths every year.” But no health programmes in local schools to warn about how to avoid the disease, as there would be in this country.

Setting up the rabies programme involved travelling round schools in the Pushkar region.

Ian, a former head teacher of Alne Primary School who has also taught prisoners at Askham Grange and run educational programmes for homeless people at Arc Light in York, went with Sue.

“And as we travelled, we became aware of all these children who were not at school, but instead were begging in the streets, or doing really difficult, dangerous work, like collecting rubbish,” he says.

Ian and Sue also saw two slightly older teenagers, almost young men. “They were cleaning a sewer wearing nothing but loincloths.”

The children and teenagers they saw were all dalits, or “untouchables” – members of the lowest, most impoverished caste in Hindu India. They’re effectively excluded from whole areas of Indian life.

“They can only get to do the jobs that nobody else wants to do, like cleaning the sewers,” says Ian. To their horror, Ian and Sue found that many dalit children were not even able to get a place in mainstream school.

What they saw haunted them. They began to wonder what they could do to make a difference. So when, in 2016, they heard about an American man, Brett Cole, who had set up a rudimentary health centre for dalit people in Pushkar – a town of about 20,000 people in the shadow of the Aravalli mountains near the border with Pakistan – they were determined to find out more.

Brett, they were told, also offered some basic teaching at his Vikas centre. They decided to pay him a visit.

They found him to be a man in his forties who had spent most of his working life as a photographer for prestigious international organisations such as National Geographic magazine, the BBC and the World Wildlife Fund.

He had been taking a sabbatical in India and, just like Sue and Ian, had come across dalit children begging on the streets. He, too, decided he wanted to do something about it. He hired a one-room building, where he employed a teacher and a nurse to come every couple of days to provide rudimentary health care and some basic education for dalit people who lived in tented ‘desert camps’ around Pushkar. The Vikas centre was born.

As soon as they met Brett, Sue and Ian realised that here was someone they could work with. “And we decided that, rather than set up our own small school, we could help him turn Vikas into a fully fledged school. We had the experience in education to do that,” Ian says.

That’s exactly what they did. Money earned in the West goes a long way in poorer parts of India, Ian says. They were able to hire a proper building, and three fully-qualified Indian teachers.

Two years on, the Vikas Centre now provides basic literacy, numeracy and IT education, as well as art programmes and dance and music classes, to about 45 children from Pushkar’s desert camps. It is, says Ian, a ‘joyous little school’.

But their efforts didn’t end there. They could only spend comparatively short spells of time in India – Sue still works full time and Ian, 66 and now retired, divides most of his time between the Middle East with Sue and the couple’s home in Yearsley. But to help raise funds for Vikas, they set up a charity, the Dragonfly Schools Foundation. “The dragonfly nymph turns into a beautiful dragonfly, hence the name,” Ian says.

Before long, in one of their regular visits to Pushkar, they heard about a local Indian head teacher, Ved Prabha, who had set up a school in her own home to teach children with a range of disabilities.

Disability is taboo in much of India, Ian says. “People believe locally that if you get caught in the shadow of one of these children, you will have bad luck for the rest of your days.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, most disabled children in areas like Pushkar never get a chance to go to school.

They visited Ved, and found her trying to teach as many as 30 to 40 children – children with conditions ranging from cerebral palsy, Down’s Syndrome and learning difficulties to varying degrees of visual impairment – in her own home, with the help of volunteer teachers.

Again, they were able to help. They rented a building (“So she now has her home back!”, Ian says) and began the search for a part-time physio and two fully-qualified special needs teachers.

Today, the RICHA rehabilitation centre provides a basic education together with therapy and care for between 50 and 60 poor children from all backgrounds who have learning or physical disabilities.

And then Sue and Ian heard about a young Danish student, Trine Obel, who had set up a small project to try to sponsor dalit children from the desert camps so that they could afford to go to a mainstream school.

Again, they threw the support of the Dragonfly Schools Foundation behind it. The Pushkar Children’s Trust House, as the project is known, now sponsors 12 children (with the number growing all the time) to go to school full-time.

It also provides out-of-school hours support and education to prepare younger children so that, when they do get sponsorship, they are ready for the challenge of a mainstream education.

Going to a mainstream school is vital, because such schools are accredited, and the education they provide opens doors, Ian says. The problem is that many mainstream schools in Rajasthan won’t take dalit children. So Ian and Sue have had to find a private school that will take them instead.

And how much does it cost to sponsor a child? It is surprising how far the money goes, says Ian – £150 will pay for a full year of education for a child, as well as for expenses including a school uniform, books, transport, and a school meal every day.

That’s an astonishingly small amount of money to offer a child a chance of a proper life. Dragonflies indeed. Credit

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