Feature story

Back in through the out door

School dropouts in five districts of Assam are heading back to class — and learning anew that it can be fun

Harrowing and oppressive — that was what Abul Kalam Azad thought of school. Making matters worse for the nine-year-old from Behulapara village in Assam’s Bongaigaon district is the fact that he lives with a slurred speech condition. Faced with taunts and ridicule, Abul dropped out of school.

Three years later, Abul was coaxed into returning — to a new way and a new world of learning. School has become a welcoming and fun-filled place for him. Not surprisingly, he has been attending classes regularly now.

Abul is among 300 children in Assam who have rediscovered the joys of learning. The reason is the Assam State Initiative-Education, a programme that aims to bring dropouts back to school.

Launched in September 2019 by the Centre for Microfinance & Livelihood (CML), an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts, the programme is operational in four districts other than Bongaigaon: Goalpara, Nalbari, Baksa and Kamrup. Its objective is to get 1,200 kids in the 7-14 age group back into classrooms over a three-year period.

Giving up on schooling

Children dropping out is a common phenomenon in India’s government schools. Poverty, lack of knowledge about the benefits of a proper education and the sheer struggle involved in accessing those benefits — long walks to distant schools, truant teachers, pathetic infrastructure and low-quality pedagogy — often lead to children and parents from poor communities viewing schooling as low priority.

“These children are first-generation school goers and their parents are, typically, agricultural workers or brickkiln labourers,” explains Kandarpa Kalita, a senior programme manager with CML. “It makes more sense for such families to put their children to work [in farming or elsewhere] rather than allow them to go to school.”

The school dropout rate in Assam is worse than in other states (the elementary school dropout rate here was 7.4% compared with the national average of 4.3% in 2014-15). Much of the blame rests on the abysmal quality of education on offer in some government schools. According to the Annual Status of Education Report 2018, only one-third of Standard V students in Assam were able to read a Standard II textbook.

Education, in the context, has become an important facet of CML’s broader scope of work in the state. “Improving educational outcomes is essential for the long-term success and sustainability of any social intervention,” says Mr Kalita. That provided the impetus to the Assam school initiative, which has succeeded in bringing more than 300 ‘reborn’ students back to school within eight months.

The going has not been easy, though. Parents had to be convinced about why educating their children outweighed the monetary benefits of putting them to work. Social backwardness was an issue that had to be addressed as well. For instance, the prevalence of child marriage in the Bongaigaon region has meant that girls almost always miss out on a school education. In addition, there was no peer pressure to put children in schools. The CML team found apathy towards education common in the community.

Identifying students who had dropped out was an unexpectedly tricky affair. The CML survey of dropouts coincided with the Assam government’s efforts to map those residing in the state illegally. This prompted many families, especially from minority communities, to view the pinpointing of dropouts with suspicion.

“In the insurgency-hit Baksa district bordering Bhutan, rebels even threatened families with ostracism if their children were sent to school,” says Hirakjyoti Barman, the project lead for Nalbari, Baksa and Kamrup districts.

A yoga session for returning students in Raikona in Goalpara

Camp class rings a merry bell

Motivating school dropouts through games and fun activities has been part of the strategy adopted by the Centre for Microfinance & Livelihood (CML) to win the hearts and minds of school dropouts from Assam’s rural regions.

Eight camps — three of them residential and five nonresidential — have been held so far in the five districts where the programme is being implemented: Bongaigaon, Goalpara, Nalbari, Baksa and Kamrup. Designed to ease the trepidation with which students used to view school and studies, these camps are, first and foremost, places of fun.

“Through games, craftwork, puppet-making, music, dance and physical exercises, children are encouraged to overcome their fear and inhibitions about schooling,” says Manoj Talukdar, an education facilitator in Tamulpur in Baksa.

These camps, held over 15 days, help change the minds of previously recalcitrant kids such as Sujit Barman, a 12-year old from Nagrijuli in Baksa. “At first, he was not keen to even join the camp, but when he heard about the activities from his friends he was quick to sign up,” says Mr Talukdar.

Thirteen-year-old Thomas Tirki from Simarbasti in Baksa says his memories of the camp are about cricket matches and dancing and singing sessions with his friends. “I enjoyed it a lot; there was no pressure of studies, only games and fun activities,” he says.

To address these concerns, house visits and community meetings were organised in the targeted villages to identify children who had dropped out and those who had never been enrolled in school. Community elders and religious leaders were roped in to convince parents and dispel their fears.

Feet in the field

CML’s implementation partners — Gramya Vikash Mancha in Nalbari, Ajagar Social Circle in Goalpara and Jubayer Masud Educational & Charitable Trust in Bongaigaon — provided the much-needed feet in the field to run the programme.

The task of reorienting the children towards a formal education started with a 15-day motivational camp in their area. “We encouraged the kids to participate in a variety of fun activities at the camps,” adds Mr Kalita. “Academics figured low on our list of activities; our emphasis was on opening their minds and changing misconceptions about school and studies.”

Even as the children were kept engaged in fun and games, the CML team and teaching facilitators were busy ascertaining their education levels. Many of the dropouts lacked foundational literacy and numeracy skills. A baseline study revealed that 85% of the students were below the Standard III-level benchmark in reading Assamese, while 80% were below the benchmark in mathematics.

Once their education levels were ascertained, the children were officially readmitted to age-appropriate classes as per regulatory norms. They were initially kept in a separate group and provided support so that they could resume their education without being overwhelmed. For example, 11-year-old Banikantha Rabha from Ketakibari village in Bongaigaon was admitted to Standard V but provided support in the Standard II group. Rather than hindering his progress, this has helped him cope better with studies.

What makes the impact of the programme greater is that the team continues its association with the returnee students once they are back in school. The children are provided with remedial teaching support so that they don’t lag behind in studies or quit again. This support is also provided to laggard performers to prevent them from falling into the dropout trap.

Remedial support is part of CML’s larger education objectives. Around 1,540 children, including the 300 dropouts, are helped with such teaching across 70 schools in the five districts. “Education facilitators visit the children every alternate day to understand their problems and provide support and counselling,” says Mosaddique Hussain, the project manager for Bongaigaon.

Going native

The children also get to use audiovisual aids and other learning material in Assamese. Children from the Garo and Bodo tribal communities are provided course material in their native languages.

While it is early to gauge the change brought about by the education initiative, signs of improvement are visible. Children in the programme have been attending school regularly and their attitude towards studies has turned positive. “Earlier, they had to be forced and cajoled to go to school; now they look forward to it,” says Kuldeep Das, CML’s project manager for Goalpara.

As with much of India, and the world too, the education programme hit a rough patch when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and Assam went into lockdown. The CML team came up with ways to keep continuity. “Our education facilitators have been in touch with the children over phone,” says Mr Kalita. “There have been storytelling sessions, reading activities, quizzes, etc, so that they don’t forget what they have learned.”

The CML programme serves a vital role in the Assam government’s efforts to provide education to all. “In far-flung villages, children often fall behind and fail to complete their education. The focus on school dropouts helps mainstream these children,” says Karendra Barman, a district programme officer with Samagra Shiksha, the Indian government’s initiative to enhance elementary schooling.

While children have benefitted, the programme has also been an uplifting experience for their parents. Doubt and apathy have been replaced by confidence and optimism. Abul’s father, Saizuddin, says he wants his son to learn to read and write “so that he can stand on his own feet and fend for himself”. Abul is back on track to do that and much more.

A 'back to school' community meeting at Nararbhita village in Bongaigaon district