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Getting children into school: Flexibility is the key

By Shantha Sinha

All government interventions in education are based on the assumption that child labour cannot be abolished and that the poor do not wish to send their children to school. In fact, the poor make enormous sacrifices to do just that. It is time the administration responded with strategies that help children enrol and stay in school


Today, millions of Indian children are joining the labour market where they are subject to exploitation and drudgery with little hope of ever realising their dreams and aspirations. They are engaged mostly in unpaid domestic work and in the unorganised sector. Girls succumb to the pressures of early marriage, which harms their overall growth and development. Being out of school, they lose their childhood early, are denied basic rights and live in a world of fear and anxiety.

Even children who are physically and mentally challenged are badly neglected and face enormous difficulties in getting any kind of schooling.

At the same time there is a growing demand for education, and the past decade has witnessed many poor parents making huge sacrifices to send their children to school.

This important fact goes largely unnoticed by the authorities whose planning is based on the understanding that the poor cannot and will not send their children to school, and that it is impossible to abolish child labour. This attitude fuels the government’s indifference in providing the necessary infrastructure to enable every child to go to school and to continue to do so without disruption. And so, in spite of six decades of independence, an estimated 100-120 million children between the ages of 5-15 have either never been to school or have dropped out.

Although the Indian education system is one of the largest in the world, it is wasteful and inefficient. Almost 54.6% of children (56.9% are girls) drop out before they finish Class VIII, and 66% (68.6% are girls) drop out before reaching Class X (GoI, MHRD website, provisional data for academic year 2001-02). (1) The percentages in tribal areas, backward districts and among scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are appalling. What’s worse is that even after five years of being in school, only 60% of children are able to read, write and do basic calculations.

The system is structured on the premise that almost one-third of children entering primary school will drop out before they reach the upper primary level, and another one-third before they reach high school. Indeed, given the situation on the ground, a child entering Class I in a rural government school or urban municipal school reaches Class X more by accident than by design. Even a marginal increase in the number of students passing Class VI or VII and Class X would expose the incapacity to absorb them at the next level.

The government must make a concerted attempt to ensure that every child enjoys the right to education. This would mean:

  • Making institutional arrangements to cater to 100 million more children in the school system, preparing not just the education system but the welfare, labour, police, development and revenue bureaucracy to ensure that they coordinate to make it possible for every child to be take out of work and allowed to join school.
  • Making arrangements for older children to join school and get into age-appropriate classes.
  • Ensuring that first-generation learners and poor children are treated with respect and supported to overcome barriers in accessing and staying in school.
  • Preparing all sections and classes of society to join the campaign for universalisation of school education, and ensuring that their areas are free of child labour. Simultaneously, the government must recognise such achievements and provide all the necessary infrastructural support.
  • Investing in building a social norm that children must not work and should instead be in school, in places where social mobilisation is weak and where there is no clear support for a child’s right to education. The role of gram panchayats and local bodies must be seen as indispensable to all government efforts.

There are many barriers in a child’s access to and continuance in school until Class X. Although the solutions lie at the macro level, in terms of policies and investments, there is also a need to address day-to-day issues that the child confronts at the micro level.

Getting children back to school

Based on the M V Foundation’s experiences, over the past decade, of taking around 400,000 children out of work and getting them into schools in Andhra Pradesh, the following points were highlighted.

It is important to understand that the main responsibility of ensuring that children learn and are put into classes appropriate for their age is that of the school. No other institution can take the place of the school. It is the school that has qualified teachers, infrastructure, an atmosphere for disciplined learning and a system of evaluation to help children improve and grow. Therefore, schools must be prepared to accept children from Residential Bridge Courses (RBC) without insisting on standards of performance. Once children are mainstreamed into regular schools, it should be the responsibility of the school to prepare them for an age-appropriate class.

Identification of children for eligibility to Residential Bridge Courses (RBC)
Only those children who have been identified under a survey conducted by the education department are deemed eligible for RBCs. Further orders have been issued to the effect that “only those children listed as ’out-of-school’ may be admitted”. Any other admissions of “out-of-school children may be done under proper certification by the concerned headmaster and Mandal Education Officer”.

Most attendance records kept by the school authorities are linked to issues like the provision of midday meal schemes, teacher recruitment, maintenance of teacher-to-pupil ratios (TPR) and other structural necessities of the school system. Under these circumstances, it is cumbersome and impractical to get an ’out-of-school’ certificate.

School surveys show that many children recorded as enrolled have never been to school or have dropped out of school and been absent for two-three years. Some of these children’s names appear in the attendance registers because of enrolment drives. Some, whose names are in the register, attend private schools; some are married; some may even have left their village.

There are also anomalies in the out-of-school list, especially with regard to girls. Several names are missing and do not appear either in the school-going or non-school-going lists.

Typically, children are identified as a consequence of social mobilisation and intense campaigning. Several conflicts, either of bonded labour or child marriage, have been resolved before the child decides to join school. It is unfair to deny such children admission to RBCs on grounds that their names are already on the school list. Instead, we should try to send such children to school because they are already on the list of enrolled children.

Besides, our schools are ill equipped to deal with children who are 9+ (Standard IX?) and have never been to school. The child is therefore at risk of dropping out. Also, many children who are 12+ and willing to join RBCs are discouraged from doing so. They are told they are too old to be in school.

Admission to regular schools is non-negotiable
All RBCs are closed by June 30. Children are to be admitted to schools and residential programmes based on eligibility tests conducted by schools. But what happens to a child who does not pass the test? Where do these children go? And what are the arrangements for the continuance of the bridge programme?
Several children are denied the right to take the Class V and VI examinations because they are ‘over-age’, that is, above the age of 13. We need a grievance cell to take up such specific issues and provide practical solutions in favour of the child.

First-generation learners: Need for appreciation of language, social and cultural barriers
Children speak different dialects and need time to adjust to a standardised language. They are not dull because they do not speak the language of the texts in the classroom. They cannot be insulted or excluded because their cultural expressions do not match those of the school system. Given time, and a little patience, they will be able to master the language and culture of power and authority. These issues must not act as barriers when children are being mainstreamed or subjected to scrutiny through eligibility tests and subsequent unit tests and examinations.     

Flexibility in admissions
Children must be allowed to enter school at any time during the academic year; they cannot be denied admission on any grounds. This must be true for all classes, not just for primary school. There must be provision for a Class VI, VII, VIII or IX dropout to rejoin school.

Need to orient upper primary schools and high schools
There is a lack of sensitivity among upper primary and high school teachers regarding older children who seek admission to schools from Class VI onwards. Under tremendous pressure to show a good pass percentage and good examination results, even under normal circumstances, teachers are compelled to exclude a many children from the school system. Further, lack of infrastructure, number of teachers and adequate classrooms add to the teachers’ unwillingness to admit children aspiring to enter the school system.

It is necessary to integrate schools into the entire planning process. In the transitional phase, a good school must be gauged by the number of children it has been able to retain, not by the number of children who have passed out of it.

There must also be a re-look at the internal evaluation system so that children who have been mainstreamed are given enough time to adjust to the academic sessions before they are subjected to the rigours of assessment.

Payment of school fees, examination fees and other school-related expenditure
The government must issue strict instructions to the school authorities against charging school fees and other maintenance charges. If a school has insufficient facilities, it must be encouraged to bring this to the notice of the government and quickly resolve the problem. Putting the pressure on poor students contributes towards pushing them out of school. Also, children who enter schools through the process of social mobilisation and RBCs, tuitions and coaching classes must be exempt from payment of examination fees as private candidates. They simply cannot afford it.


  • Provision must be made to ensure that children are integrated into the school system and not excluded.
  • If children are not up to the required standard, it is the responsibility of the school to ensure that they are.
  • Adequate flexibility must be allowed to help children overcome all barriers in order to participate in school as students.
  • Children must be enrolled as students at regular schools even as they study in RBCs on a full-time basis. The RBC programme must not be seen as a substitute or even an alternative to school. The bridge is meant to enable an ’out-of-school’ child to become a student. It is also meant to enable schools to set up facilities for all such children, and get prepared for the backlog of children who are waiting to be mainstreamed.
  • Schoolteachers in middle and high schools must be oriented to accept children and establish systems at each level of governance within the education department to make it easy to include every child in school.
  • Officials at the state and district level must listen to the children’s voices on the ground and respond to them by creating flexibility in governance at schools.

We have failed to universalise education because of a lack of political will. Consequently, in planning for education there is no sense of urgency that children must not work, and that every child should be in school and remain there until Class X. It is almost as if the system were designed to cater to a small percentage of children who come in at Class I and get to Class X. This half-hearted approach determines all our policies and programmes, as a result of which millions of children who aspire to join schools are neglected. Those who have gained the most from the system are often blind to the conditions of a vast majority of children in our country and to the aspirations of their parents. It is by building a social norm in favour of the child’s right to education, and providing every support to the poor in their fight to get into school, that education can become a reality for every Indian child.


  1. Dropout rate, primary (Standard I-V): Boys: 38.4%; girls: 39.9%; total: 39%. Dropout rate, upper primary (Standard I-VIII): Boys: 52.9%; girls: 56.9%; total: 54.6%. Dropout rate from Standard I-X: Boys: 64.2%; girls: 68.6%; total: 66% (Source: DOEEL, MHRD, GoI website, provisional data for academic year 2001-02)

(Shantha Sinha is Founder and Secretary Trustee of M V Foundation, Hyderabad. She was recently appointed Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007