“Branding a child as intelligent or not so intelligent is not right. It is really the system’s failure.”

His office space, in many ways, indicates how passionate he is about education. With piles of books and learning material surrounding him, M.P. Vijayakumar, State Project Director of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in Tamil Nadu, speaks with admirable poise, with measured pauses. The senior official retiring from service soon, shares his experiences with Meera Srinivasan.

He defies the stereotypical image of a bureaucrat in most respects. His constant urge to innovate and make a difference seems to keep the student in him ever thirsty for more.

“I did most of my schooling in Malaiyandipattinam, Pollachi. I failed my second form there,” he laughs. Later, his parents put him in a boarding school in Coimbatore. He completed his schooling there, pursued his bachelor’s degree there and later, came to Chennai to do his Masters in Economics.

“I was a very average student, I must admit.” Academics was not particularly a pleasurable activity for him. Not too confident about finding a good job with his academic records, he thought he could give the UPSC examinations a shot. “I managed to clear the interview in my third attempt in 1974. From then onwards, it has been a lot of meaningful learning for me,” he says.

After assuming responsibility as an I.A.S. officer, he felt the need to equip himself further professionally. “I pursued cost accountancy and later, law.” Though he has served in many departments, he cherishes his stint as Collector of Vellore. “That was the time when the Arivoli movement was on. I got the opportunity to look at many issues in depth.”

While analysing the causes for several issues that prevailed then, his team found out that everything boiled down to lack of basic education. “We found that 60-70 per cent of the children dropped out of school not because of economic reasons. The system had failed to retain children who had enrolled,” he notes.

Elaborating on how the system failed, he asks: “How do children learn?” Children almost automatically pick up their mother tongue. Many learn to operate gadgets such as the television remote, cell phone and instantly learn from songs. “If they can learn so many things outside the classroom, what prevents them from learning inside the class?” Branding a child as intelligent or not so intelligent is not right. It is really the system’s failure, he adds.

His contributions truly began with acknowledging that children’s capacity to learn is universal and natural. “And that is when I attempted revamping the teacher training modules. Gradually, teachers started showing a lot interest.”

Mr. Vijayakumar has meticulously bound the feedback forms given to him by teachers over a decade ago. He turns the pages, wearing a smile.

“Later, I started looking at pedagogy. I visited the Rishi Valley School while in Vellore. I used every single opportunity to learn more about teaching and learning,” he says, reminiscing those exciting days.

This experience came in handy while he served as Commissioner of Chennai Corporation. He was instrumental in implementing several schemes, including door-to-door collection of garbage, revamping parks and many more in the area of women’s health. It was during his tenure there that he introduced child-friendly learning techniques that were extensively drawn from the Montessori system, in Corporation schools.

After this tenure, he chose to work in the area of education and assumed charge as director of the SSA wing. He introduced a series of massive projects, including the Activity Based Learning and Active Learning methodologies.

“As SSA’s director, my salary was meant to ensure children learn. If 50 per cent of the children don’t learn, I don’t deserve half my salary. I learnt a lot in this capacity and tried my best to put them to practice,” he says.

Post retirement, he is planning to go back to his village and is determined to identify two blocks there and develop them into national model in terms of health, education, sanitation and environment. “Community development is my strength. I want to put it to use,” he says.