A couple of years ago I visited a school in one of the many fishing communities that form the hinterland to the beaches of the Trivandrum region of Kerala. Whilst some of the classes in the school were crowded with children cheek by jowl in orderly ranks of desks crammed across the width of the room, others appeared to have much smaller numbers present. Curious to find the reason for this disparity in class sizes, I was informed that every class should be full, but that a significant number of children who were enrolled were only occasionally in attendance. When I asked what actions were taken to remedy this situation, it became clear that this was not perceived to be a matter of great importance.
An hour or so later, walking through the village to the beach, I was aware of the large numbers of school aged children who were playing cricket, or sitting around in groups talking together seated on the sand or on the fishing boats pulled up after a night’s labours. My Malayalam speaking colleague with whom I was visiting the village asked the children why they were not in school. They were not reticent in their replies, declaring that a day on the beach was far preferable to one in the classroom, a sentiment that I feel sure would be shared by children around the world.
As a teacher I could obviously not condone the truancy of these children; though I confess to enjoying a brief game of cricket with a group who were keen to demonstrate their prowess as bowlers intent on dismissing an English batsman (which they did without too much difficulty!) However, I could not help feeling that the attitude of some of the teachers in the school, who appeared to be lacking in concern for the absence of their pupils, was somewhat lax.
Yesterday’s Times of India confirmed my suspicions that my experience of reluctant school attendees in Kerala is replicated elsewhere in India. The newspaper carried a story highlighting the gap between school enrolments and school attendance in the Bhopal district of Madhya Pradesh. An example was presented of a boy named Mohit, described by the principal as one of around twenty children in his school who attend only once or twice a month. Of the one hundred and eighty on roll, around one hundred and twenty are generally in attendance.
The 2013 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey, suggests that the average attendance rate in rural areas of India on any given day is just under 72%, which is a drop from the 73.4% recorded in 2010. The worldwide average attendance rate in schools according to UNICEF is around 91%. In India there are estimates that suggest that there are probably more than 500,000 children engaged as labourers, but this certainly doesn’t account for the whole scale of school absentees.
In many instances, when a child is enrolled in school, they remain on the register until they reach the age of fourteen. It is possible for some children to be technically on the school roll, but virtually unknown to their teachers, a situation which most of us, understandably find appalling. However, the complexities surrounding this issue need to be more carefully considered.
In some instances, without the income brought in by their children, families would suffer such levels of poverty that they would be unable to survive. The pressure to send children into employment is significant, and even though this situation is both unacceptable and illegal, apportioning blame requires a certain degree of caution. We might reasonably expect that teachers would show greater concern and pursue regular truants in order to get them into classes. But perhaps if I was expected to teach a class of sixty or more pupils, I might also be pleased to have a few absentees. In many instances when the children do attend, there are insufficient teaching resources to ensure effective learning, it is therefore hardly surprising that some children lose interest in school.
I am sure that there is no easy solution to this situation. The relationship between poverty, poor quality resourcing, inadequate teacher training and school attendance is obvious to anyone who spends even a small amount of time in the poorer communities of India. Whilst education is often seen by politicians and policy makers as a means of tacking poverty, it is clear that there is a broader ecology that needs to be addressed if this situation is to change. Being swift to condemn those who work in the schools in poor communities will not assist in overcoming these challenges. There needs to be a greater commitment to a co-ordinated response built upon a respectful partnership between those who are charged with responsibility for developing and delivering education, and the communities to whom they are providing a service. The children I met on the beach were bright, enthusiastic and eager to learn about who I was and where I was from. This enthusiasm needs to be harnessed in order to ensure that future generations of learners are not lost.