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Bringing schools and children together

By Vimala Ramachandran

Thirty per cent of India's population lives in urban slums. Getting children in these slums to school is a difficult task. Keeping them in school is even more difficult. But several organisations, including Pratham in Mumbai, Cini Asha in Kolkata and Baljyothi in Hyderabad, are succeeding in bringing education to these first-generation learners

The teeming millions who live in slums, on the streets, near railway lines and in the most uninhabitable parts of the urban conglomerates in India tell a distinct story. A majority of these people -- who form 30 per cent of the Indian population -- are poor migrants who have moved to cities in search of work. While the adults do any work that they can find, most of the children spend their days not in school but doing things like picking rags, hanging around with their parents or simply wandering the streets.

And the irony is that most slum colonies in the metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata have several schools within walking distance where these children could study easily.

For instance, the inhabitants in Kolkata's Dhobiatalab and Kapalibagan settlements are mostly from Bihar and Bangladesh. While many children in these settlements work for a few hours picking rags, breaking batteries, cutting scrap, making paper packets and doing some domestic work, a study done by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Cini Asha reveals that these children spend half their time playing, watching movies or doing nothing at all. Studies done in other urban slums also reveal a similar picture: While most small children do some work, they are free for most of the day.

The reasons for them not being in school, however, have more to do with the society that they live in. Our schools are not particularly friendly towards very poor children -- especially if they do not have proper clothes, are not clean, not familiar with the dominant language of the area and, most importantly, if they are first-generation learners.

For instance, if you walk into any municipal school in the resettlement colonies of Delhi in the month of July you will see Class I overflowing with children; and more often than not they will be totally ignored by the teacher who will at best mind them for some time and then leave them to their own devices. Explore a little further and the teacher will tell you that he or she is waiting for the class to 'stabilise' -- meaning waiting for children to drop out.

Studies have also shown that children who drop out at such a young age are by and large first-generation learners whose parents are not in a position to sustain the enthusiasm for schooling. The experience of Pratham, a network of institutions working in the field of primary education across India, has shown that sustaining enthusiasm and letting children experience the joy of going to school, learning and playing is quite important. Children who participate in Partham's pre-school education programme, for instance, not only cope well with the chaos of school in the first few weeks (or even months in some areas of Delhi) but also have a head-start over other children.

Similarly, children who participate in bridging courses that help them reach their age-specific levels before they enter formal schools also cope well. Without such support, the risk of dropping out is much higher. Pratham's experience also reveals that the problem of out-of-school children is most acute in areas where municipal schools are already overcrowded. The reality is that if all the children in these areas were to enrol and stay on in school, the physical infrastructure would be inadequate. Nor would there be enough teachers to cope with the demand.

Surveys also reveal that a disproportionate number of out-of-school children are girls. The issue of proper clothing and visible progress is far more critical for girls than it is for boys. Parents of girls who have been pulled out of school admit that the girls are "more useful" at home and the opportunity cost of sending them to school is high -- especially if they are perceived to be learning little in school.

Realising this bleak scenario, a number of NGOs and partnerships have been working with out-of-school children in urban areas for the last seven years. For instance, Cini Asha pioneered this kind of work in Kolkata in 1993 and Pratham, Mumbai, came into being in 1994. The next year saw Baljyothi coming up in Hyderabad and over the next few years, the Pratham network spread to Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Allahabad and Bangalore.

Positioned as a societal mission for the universalisation of primary education, Pratham has based its work on three basic principles. These are: Partnership with the government with a view to strengthening and enhancing children's access to quality education; forming partnerships with corporates and businesses to harness local resources to ensure sustainability; and working with the community to build a sense of ownership. Except where absolutely unavoidable, Pratham has refrained from creating alternative structures and systems.

Starting with balwadis' -- pre-school centres for children in the three- to six-year age group -- Pratham today works with municipal schools through a range of programmes that prepare children for school, enable the weaker ones to catch up through remedial classes and create opportunities for out-of-school children to enter the mainstream. At another level, it also creates training opportunities for teachers through local resource centres located in municipal schools and provides supplementary teaching and learning material to both teachers and children.

The Cini Asha model in Kolkata has three additional components: Drop-in centres and night shelters for street children (including children in difficult circumstances); halfway homes for working children moving into formal schools; and sickbay and medical services. These components were inspired by the M V Foundation of Hyderabad, which pioneered the residential bridge course camp to provide an accelerated learning programme for child workers with the objective of helping them make the transition to formal schools.

These 'partnership' initiatives have had a significant impact on the larger school environment. The mere presence of these programmes and the close contact with the formal school system gradually helps in building pressure on the administration to ensure that the schools function and that the teachers teach. It has also made the teachers more accountable to both the children and their parents.

Testing children, identifying slow learners and running coaching classes and remedial education programmes have turned the spotlight from enrolment to learning and transition from one class to the other. Interestingly, many teachers in Mumbai and Kolkata admit that their own perception of teaching and learning has changed. Many of them maintain that they now understand the problems of first-generation learners.

The most distinctive aspect of these programmes, however, is their resolve of working together with the formal system. Hence problems with government-run schools are discussed with concerned officers and teachers and sorted out. There is little denying that working within the system involves patience, discretion and self-control. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson for voluntary organisations and educational experts who are quick to dismiss the mainstream and spend their energies in unsustainable parallel programmes and structures. 

Women's Feature Service