The Hindu, 10 August 2003

Snakes and ladders
The findings of a recent study to explore the factors that facilitate or impede successful primary school completion among the poorest households in three States, by VIMALA RAMACHANDRAN and her team, have been revealing. The first is the undeniable importance of the government school in the lives of poor children. The second is the gender division of work, she says, looking at the larger issue of why first generation schoolgoers in particular require an extraordinary amount of care and attention. 

WE are prisoners of myths and ideologies of our own creation sometimes we are so vehement about what we think is right that we refuse to listen. This is what we discovered about ourselves and about the larger education community during a just concluded qualitative study to explore the factors that facilitate or impede successful primary school completion among the poorest households in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Among the research tools we used were a series of structured activities with children in school and out of school to understand their point of view. What emerged was a fascinating matrix of snakes and ladders (see table on page 7).

As we entered the house of one of our "sample households" we saw bags hanging neatly in a row on a kutcha wall. This was not a classroom but the one-room tenement of a Muslim family in an urban slum in Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh. The breadwinner, the father, is a rickshaw puller who obviously believes in the value of education and ensures that his children (two boys and four girls) go to school a local, private one. The eldest daughter does all the housework, a bright child all of 12 years, who is overworked and shoulders a significant amount of responsibility.

Being the eldest girl is indeed the big issue; Similarly, not having sisters was described as a big snake that eats up a lot of time! The flip side was that being the youngest sibling was a small ladder.

During our activities with the children we hummed a tune and the children wanted to copy it down. We wrote down the lyrics on chart paper, but most of them could not even copy it correctly! Teachers were aware that children in standard five cannot read, but they blamed the parents and the community! The parents were also aware of this. One of them said: "Look at this girl! She has been going to school for four years. Ask her whether she can read a line without making mistakes or if she can write a letter."

Hardly any of the school-going children we interacted with could either read or write, though not due to a lack of motivation on the part of the child. Pankaj of Uttar Pradesh, a nine-year-old and the seventh child in his family, missed school for a month as he was on holiday, to visit family. Upon his return, he was severely punished. Pankaj stopped attending school and his name was struck off the rolls. After a few days, he made an attempt to rejoin school, but the teacher said it was "too late". It was September and not even half way through term-time. However, Pankaj has persisted in his efforts to get back and now sits "un-enrolled" in standard one. What certainly fuels the dropout rate in school is a teacher's harsh treatment of and negative attitudes towards students and their families. It is not just the poor infrastructure available. What continued to surprise us was that despite the odds, children wanted to be in school. In Karnataka, the best school the one most liked by the children, functions in a temporary building! A teacher who is liked attracts children to school and this has emerged as the single most important factor in a child wanting to study.

Many children above the age of six attending government schools reported that they work before as well as after school. The burden of work was most severe for the first-born especially if she is the eldest daughter. Apart from caring for siblings, they also have to look after milch cows/goats, fetching fuel wood/fodder, water, running errands and looking after sick family members. As a result, children are either late for school or miss class altogether. The gender division of work and the added responsibility of household work on older girls in the family was marked in the three States.

In Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, we met boys who were in temporary bondage to pay off a loan taken by their parents. Engaging in full-time work during weekends and holidays is a fairly routine activity among children. 

If this is the situation with respect to children and work, what implications does this have for primary schooling? The community is aware of the need for educating its children yet they are burdened with work before and after school and during holidays. This obviously impacts on the learning abilities of children especially when they have put in long hours every day. Most children in poor households do not even get the time to revise/read their books especially girls who are higher up in the birth order. Given the nutritional status of most poor children, energy levels are low and impact upon the child's ability to concentrate in school. Despite compelling evidence, there are those who believe that sending children to school solves the problem of child labour!

The centrality of the government school in the lives of poor children is undeniable. Across the three States, between 70 per cent to 80 per cent of children from poor households are enrolled in government schools. This is why the overall functioning of the government school, (in particular, the quality of teaching) becomes critical. Pushing children into dysfunctional or poorly functioning schools is making a mockery of the right to education. First generation schoolgoers require an extraordinary amount of care and attention, and if we are serious about guaranteeing every child the right to education, then we have to transform our work culture and attitudes.

Children are not passive but active participants in the process of their development and education. Throughout our research it was the interactions and activities with them that gave us an in-depth understanding of the functioning of a school, teacher attitudes/practices, physical and verbal abuse in the classroom, household nutrition/food practices and the negative impact they have on a child's self-esteem/dignity. Listening to children and giving them a voice/a forum is of great importance. But is there any way children (and their parents) can monitor the learning and the performance of teachers?

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