Case studies

Preventing school dropout

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In rural communities such as the village of Khamariam in the district of Mungeli in Chhattisgarh, many children drop out of school when their parents migrate to other areas for work. PACS and its local partner organisation, Shikhar Yuva Manch, have addressed this issue, generating awareness around the importance of education and possible alternatives to migration.  

In Khamariam village, Chhattisgarh, PACS worked to retain children in school.

Why children drop out of school

In 2012, a survey of out-of-school (OOS) children was undertaken in the village of Khamariam, in Mungeli district n the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh.

Surendra Kumar Lahare, Field Facilitator for PACS partner Shikhar Yuva Manch (SYM), explains: ‘We were carrying out a village-level survey of OOS children in the 6-14 age group, and were struck by the fact that there were 30 OOS children in the village. Some would simply leave school for a time, only to appear again.’

It turned out that, of the 30 OOS children, 15 had migrated with their parents to places as far away as Allahabad (UP), Bilaspur (Chhatisgarh), Raipur (Chhatisgarh) and Pune (Maharashtra). These children dropped out of school, without any warning, when their parents decided to leave in search of work, and it was very difficult to stop them leaving or counsel them to staying for the sake of their children’s education. 

Pritam Prakash Jhangde, PACS Coordinator for SYM says: ‘To understand why parents were migrating so we could intervene to stop them, we conducted various focus group discussions with parents, family elders, school principals and teachers. It turned out that most parents were forced to migrate because of a lack of livelihood opportunities in the region – there were no factories or industries for year-round employment, no regular Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) work in the village to support livelihoods. 

'Among other barriers to school attendance was lack of parental encouragement to attend school regularly. In many discussions it was revealed that children of migrant parents who had been left behind were burdened with family responsibilities including cooking, taking care of younger siblings or sick grandparents, which was as good as migrating with their parents, because they often came late to school or stayed away because of the burden of work.’ 

Families faced barriers to accessing social services in the areas to which they travelled for work, and thus went out of their way to retain links with their ‘home’ village, however tenuous. Thus, families often ‘circulated’ between their village and the ‘destination areas’. Wherever they went their children went with them.  

While migration can open new economic possibilities for some families, it can also cost some children their education. Others are affected indirectly, forced to take on most of the household responsibilities in their parent’s absence. ‘Unfortunately, the issue of migrant children is still not a priority for governments, who are, at best indifferent to the vulnerabilities of such children, at worst, negligent,’ says Surendra.

Two-pronged strategy

To address the issue locally, SYM developed a two-pronged strategy: the first involved bringing about behavioural change in communities by emphasising the significance of education. This was done through one-on-one counselling and community meetings. The second was to generate awareness of children’s ‘Right to Education Act’ (RTE) of which most parents were unaware: free education, textbooks and uniforms, participation in extra-curricular activities and sports in school, hot midday meals (MDMs) for all children and so on.

Pritam says: ‘It turned out most parents were ignorant of RTE and the provision of free – and compulsory – education for children 6-14 years of age. We told parents that ‘free’ meant no child had to pay any fee to complete elementary education; that any OOS child could be admitted to an age-appropriate class and continue his or her education. At the same time, we also told parents about the drawbacks of migrating for work, both for them and their children, such marginalization and discrimination in the city to which they migrated, barriers to accessing social services, loss of their identity, insecurity and the social and cultural disorientation of their children.'

He continues: ‘Most migrating families belong to Scheduled Castes (SC) - mostly from the Satnami caste – and depend on migration to make ends meet. They seek work in brick kilns, construction sites and agricultural labour. Our strategy was entirely village-centric: to prevent families from migrating from the village – rather than worrying about migration at the destination areas.’ 

Due to high poverty levels, female participation in migrant labour is high, with many families confirming that both parents migrate for work at least once every year. Most either own no land or hold landholdings too small to support them economically. There is little, if any, access to irrigation, which means people cannot harvest more than two crops a year (if the rains are normal) of paddy and tivra dal (tuar or pigeon peas). These factors spur migration. 

Parents said they had little choice but to take their children with them because there was no-one in the family to look after them. For many, income from migration was the only way they could build homes back in the village, though most remained burdened with economic insecurity and indebtedness to local moneylenders. 

Work under MGNREGA

MGNREGA has done little to check the migration of families. While some parents reported that they had gained employment under MGNREGA, only a few said it had impacted their migration patterns; in fact, many reported they had migrated after working in MNREGA.

Pritam comments: ‘Parents tell me they don’t have anyone to leave their children with; I tell them to ask the grandparents to look after them so they can continue going to school. But often, when both parents migrate, most or all of the household responsibilities fall on the children who have been left behind. Children as young as 12 must manage all household responsibilities and care for younger siblings, leaving them little to no time to attend school. As a result, attendance dwindles as the academic year progresses, especially when the migration season begins immediately after the monsoons.’

Rashmilata Ekka, Head Mistress of the Government Primary School in Khamaria adds: ‘Because migrating families take at least one child with them, we are now seeing a new phenomenon: OOS children ending up working with their parents in brick kilns or other work sites. These children begin by helping their parents at the construction site, since the piecemeal wage system encourages parents to enrol their children for work, leading to child labour. This is in spite of the risk of injury or illness, and the fact that the child is missing out on an education that could have helped them escape the clutches of poverty.

‘Also, often, we find that parents leave home early in the morning for work and don’t know if their children have gone to school.’ 

However, Rashmilata says that awareness of the importance of children’s education is increasing. ‘We are now hopeful of turning the tide,’ she says. ‘In this effort, SYM has extended invaluable help to us: they have reached out to families and counselled them on the need to keep their children in school. This convergence of interests has shown encouraging results: of the 15 children who had dropped out of school because of migration, seven have rejoined school.’ 

Her colleague, teacher Suresh Kumar Raj, agrees that working with NGOs such as SYM has helped to reduce the number of children dropping out of school. ‘Of the 223 children enrolled in school, more than 150 attend school every day,’ he says. ‘Parents are also under pressure from others in the community to send their children to school regularly; realising the value of free education offered by the government, parents are beginning to send their children to school even if they have to migrate for work. Migration is a compulsion they face, and we have to work with the reality that families face. We are, however, confident that enrolment of more and more OOS children will increase with each passing year.’

Children’s parliament

The school is going all out to ensure that parents attend School Management Committee (SMC) meetings and contribute to the overall development of the school and their ward. Teachers are also holding extra classes for students who have rejoined school after a gap, so they can be brought up to speed with their peers in class. 

Suresh says: ‘We are looking to bring about improvement in the learning outcomes of these children, not by isolating them, but by including them in the larger classroom transactions. When we divide children in classes into groups, we make sure these are mixed groups so children don’t feel vulnerable or singled out.’

The school has also encouraged the formation of bal panchayats (children’s parliament) so that children are productively and creatively engaged. The teacher in charge bal panchayat, Nand Kishore Vaishnav, explains: ‘Bal panchayat has emerged as an effective medium for empowering children by involving them in decisions about their issues. Modelled on the concept of gram panchayats, each bal panchayat comprises 8-16 members, and is led by a president and secretary elected by children from classes 6-8 (since the school only goes up to class 8).’ 

Rachna Gendre is a class 8 student and a bal panchayat member: ‘The purpose of bal panchayats is to make children conscious of their rights and encourage their participation in addressing issues such as child marriage, education, cleanliness of villages and health facilities,’ she says. ‘The participation of both boys and girls in leadership roles gives them confidence and self esteem to lead their community and school.’ 

Her fellow class 8 and bal panchayat member, Sabina Bansal, explains that the bal panchayat is divided into four houses – green, blue, red and pink – each of which is led by a boy and girl. These leaders are elected for a period of two months, after which bal panchayat members either re-elect the students for another two-month term or vote for new house captains. Voting is held on paper chits like regular ballot papers and each bal panchayat member gets to vote. The house captain is elected only from class 8, their leadership potential having been judged from class 6 onwards. 

Bal panchayats (children’s parliaments) ensure that children are productively and creatively engaged.

Every Saturday, the school bal panchayat organises competitions such as carom, chess, making rakhi, gedi (stilts), football, kabbadi and cricket. ‘Each week, a different competition is organised, and the first Saturday of each month is set apart for prize giving, not only for sports activities but also for ‘student of the month’, ‘best leader’, ‘best captain’, ‘ best house’, ‘best marks in English’, and so on,’ says Sabina. ‘We have 25 categories of prizes for these children; we even have prizes for ‘best manners and etiquette’. 

Bal panchayat children have been instrumental in making adults aware of their responsibilities, according to Sabina’s classmate Arjun Dhruv: ‘We are working to save the environment, plant more trees and monitoring the administration of polio drops. Bal panchayat members have also taken steps to discourage children from consuming tobacco, gutka or alcohol and even discourage shopkeepers that sell these products,’ he says.

And Ram Khilawan Yadav, who has been a bal panchayat member since class 6, believes that ‘bal panchayat children have played a crucial role in reducing drop-out rates in school and helping enrol OOS children back into school. 'We also have played a role in improving education standards besides making children aware of child rights,’ he argues. ‘Members have advocated with the education department to get the school building expanded to accommodate newer facilities. We are also very particular in encouraging girls to attend school. 

‘Most importantly, we have learned to work as a team and to look upon our school as our own. In fact, if any child from the school so much as picks a flower, the entire house the child belongs to stands to lose points for the misdemeanour! All this motivates us tremendously in coming to school and makes us proud we study here.’

Headmistress Rashmilata is very aware of the special role the school plays in the community. ‘Our teachers attend cluster-level training every first and third Saturday of the month,’ she says. ‘We are also making efforts to work with NGOs like SYM, to bring more and more parents into everyday school activities and functions. Local teachers, who live in, or near, the village, also make it a point to meet parents of children at every opportunity to build rapport with them. 

'Sometimes parents are not able to prioritise the education of their children, but that is not so much because of lack of interest but about feeding and clothing them. This makes us even more conscious of the trust placed by the community in us.’

Alternative local employment

The message is getting through, as exemplified by Chandra Kumar Gandale, an SC agricultural labourer who used to migrate to cities like New Delhi and Bilaspur for up to three to four months a year in search of work.

He says: ‘My wife and I were compelled to work outside the village since we do not own any land and whatever little work we got here barely helped put food on the table. I have four children and they were too young to be left behind with anyone. As parents, we could not bring ourselves to leave our children in someone else’ care and go away for a long, uncertain period. So, whenever we decided to migrate, we picked up the children – often from school in their uniforms – and left the village.’

Whenever there was work available under MGNREGA, Chandra would gain employment for around 10-15 days a year at Rs. 160 per day, hardly enough to feed his large family of six. On other days, he would work as a manual labourer for Rs. 60 per day. Previously, as a labourer in Delhi, he earned Rs. 40, while in Bilaspur he earned Rs. 100 per day. ‘Because we worked on housing construction sites, we lived in the half-complete homes at no cost. The only cost was food and medicines (in case of illness), which we managed by pooling our resources. This way, I managed to save some money to send home to my family, who otherwise had no financial support.’

It was during one of the outreach meetings in the village organised by SYM that he met Prakash, who impressed upon him the necessity of sending all four of his children – one boy and three girls – to school, rather than taking them with him when he migrated for work. ‘I listened to him and we decided to meet again,’ says Chandra. ‘After several such meetings, I realised that while I was migrating in the name of my children, I was actually doing more harm than good to them by pulling them out of school. It was then I decided to look for alternatives to migrating so that the children could stay in the village and complete their education.’ 

Chandra succeeded in finding alternative employment. ‘Since I was already working as a migrant labourer on somebody else’s land, I thought “why not labour for myself instead”? So I took four acres of land on share cropping and cultivated it through the year. This way, all the sweat and toil was for myself and I did not have to leave home and travel elsewhere for work. More importantly, my children began to attend school regularly,’ he explains.

Chandra found a viable alternative to migrating for the sake of his children and family. He now earns Rs. 40,000-50,000 annually from agriculture, in addition to his earnings from MGNREGA, and as a manual labourer, in his free time. 

‘I am just a class 10 pass and my wife studied till class 5,’ says Chandra. ‘But both of us understand the value of education for our children. All my children are in school and I want to make sure they complete their education. Today, when I run out of money, I sell my stock of paddy – which I keep for our own consumption – in the market to raise money. I also work for SYM disseminating information on various issues in the village, for Rs. 500 a month. I am a SMC member in this school, which has helped open my eyes to the value of education.’

Community-driven work

Bhupesh Vaishnav, Chief Functionary for SYM, explains that most of the advances in education are largely confined to urban areas. Factors like poverty, remoteness, terrain, lack of pedagogical resources, cultural barriers, poor infrastructure and even poorer implementation of government schemes and policies, creates an environment almost hostile to education in rural areas. ‘It’s not that children here don’t go to school – it’s just that they simply don’t stay long enough for it to significantly matter.

‘Thus, a large proportion of children in schools are either badly educated or uneducated. Poor nutritional quality of midday meals keeps many children underfed and undernourished. Education of girls, who remain mostly uneducated due to cultural hindrances to education, is another issue here.’ 

He adds that the slack is being picked up by programmes like PACS, which support NGOs such as SYM to work on issues related to education, despite ‘cultural backwardness’ and all the logistical, infrastructural, pedagogical and geographic problems that comes with providing education to rural and remote communities. 

‘The most important aspect of PACS programme is that it is community-driven, inclusive and mindful of cultural and socio-economic contexts of the state,’ he says. ‘PACS acknowledges the reality that one programme, or one NGO actor, cannot bring about change – it has to be teamwork based on convergence of commitment, strengths and expertise. 

‘PACS has facilitated this very effectively, as a result of which, government schools and NGOs have come together to bring about change that schools here need,’ he concludes.

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