By Priyanka Sharma:
Being a school social worker, I managed to bring a 12-year-old student back to the walls of the classroom. Hailing from a tribal village of Udaipur and belonging to a family which earns its daily bread through rag picking, Gopal has been regularly coming to school for the last five days. On my every visit to the school, I make sure I talk to him personally for at least ten minutes. To make him feel comfortable and cared for, I had convinced the headmaster of the Government Upper Primary School, Dhol Ki Paati, to individually teach him the basics of Mathematics and Hindi and also counsel him on a regular basis to build his motivation of coming to school regularly.
After reading this short story of Gopal, the immediate conclusion we draw is that it is easy to bring back dropout children to school. But then the question is why do our government schools still have a high overall dropout rate?
In the year, 2010-11, the dropout rate among Scheduled Tribe (ST) students in elementary education stood at 55%, as per the Statistics of School Education.
One of the goals of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has been to achieve universal retention by enabling children enrolled in Class 1 to achieve at least eight years of elementary education.
So what is the story behind these dry dropout figures? What personal narratives bind such young children and their parents from getting associated with schools? How are our government teachers failing in capacity, in retaining dropout children?
To know the exact reason of Gopal not attending school, I left for the village at 7:30 a.m. in the morning to meet his parents. Udaipur, being a tribal belt, having to meet parents of government school students is a difficult task as most of them leave early morning for their work and return late. Whether it is rag-picking or daily wage labour jobs, the nature of these livelihood options leave little or no space for parents to treat education of their children as one of the priorities in their life. Meeting the basic need of two square meals a day becomes the first and the only objective. And they work hard for it.
Gopal used to spend a typical day by roaming around in the village, playing with other children who had dropped out and he used to wait for his parents to return in the evening. However, for the last five days, he has been spending six hours a day in the boundary walls of this school, with 250 other students. Living a life of complete freedom, with no one to guide or chide, Gopal has been used to living his life on his own terms. Gopal’s father, a ragpicker by profession, didn’t sound aware of free education being provided by the government upper primary school, situated two kilometres away from his house. After telling him about the Indian government’s initiative to provide free and compulsory education to all the children up to 14 years of age, Guddu ji, sounded convinced and asked only one question, “Will the school provide the uniform or [will] I have to buy it?”
Most of the time, teachers in government schools succeed in bringing back dropout students. However, in capacity, they lack in retaining these children. Gopal is his own master. His needs, interests and perspective of seeing the world are different from other regular students. The challenge, hence, which arises for the teachers is how to meet the needs of children like Gopal who are their own masters.
In order to improve retention rates, government issued circulars for awareness generation and increased community participation in the school, apart from investment in infrastructural facilities. However, Guddu ji wasn’t aware of the free education being provided by the nearby government school. Next day, when Guddu ji, along with Daya Lal ji, another parent of children who had dropped out, came to school, they weren’t treated warmly. Despite telling them to sit in the staff room, both the parents sat on the floor at the entrance while I went to call the headmaster. The school staff, with a harsh and superior tone, informed them of the required documents and the conversation ended. There was no sincere talk on why it is important to send children to school, or what their exact problem was because of which they have not been sending their children to school.
The parents of such communities do not get much respect from the school staff. Continuous and follow-up visits to the community by teachers are avoided, as they sit with the assumption that the community’s mindset is plagued and village folks don’t want to develop and hence, their job ends with one or two name-sake ‘community visits’.
When children like Gopal start coming to school, they don’t get individual attention and care. They are treated like other regular students, with the assumption that they will catch up on their own. Continuous counseling to make children like Gopal feel needed and cared for and individual attention from teachers to raise the learning level of such drop-out students, along with respectful treatment of parents from such marginalised backgrounds, in my opinion, are two key needs to retain drop-out children.
Unfortunately, at the moment, this does not exist as a practice in our government schools.