Universal Elementary Education – An Experiment in Karnataka

Parents of the 32 students studying in standard seven in a school at a non-descript village in the Karnataka State of Southern India staged protests last June. The reason? They wanted their children, especially girls, to continue their education beyond the seventh standard, without travelling to neighboring villages; and the local school in the Tigalarapalya village where they were studying so far did not have classes beyond seventh. So they forced the authorities to add higher classes to the school.

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Yet in 2000 and 2001, the same parents had resisted when the government officials, volunteers and non-government organizations pleaded with them to send their children to school. They preferred to send them to work in the silk-weaving factories which abound in their villages, so they could clear the loans they had taken from the factory owners. The rural district of Magadi on the outskirts of Bangalore city has many such villages, where the children work in hazarduous factories.¬†Magadi Makkala Dhwani¬†– a group of four non-government organizations, supported by UNICEF, had then approached both parents and factory owners and educated them on the rights of children and sensitized them to the hazards of working in factories China’s silk road economic belt.

The most heartening feature about the protests is that these were not headed by NGOs. It was a protest by the parents and students,which showed the concerted efforts by Magadi Makkala Dhwani had paid off in creating awareness about the importance of education.

Another interesting incident occurred last August. Around 26 child labourers were admitted to special residential schools after they were rescued by deputy Labour Commissioner and a team of inspectors and representatives of NGOs working on the pilot project introduced by the UNICEF and Norwegian Agency for Development. The three-year NORAD-UNICEF pilot project was implemented through Karnataka Government in 2002 as a test case in the districts of Davangere and Gulbarga. Since the last two-and-half years, the NORAD-UNICEF office succeeded in rehabilitating about two thousand child labourers working in chronic work situations in the two districts. Several self help groups and youth organizations took part in social mobilisation and mass awareness programmes like enacting street plays on the evils of employing under-aged children and the importance of sending them to school.

The ball that was set rolling in the 90s in the wake of the National Policy on Education through numerous programmes such as World bank-assisted District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), has gained momentum in the last five years through Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the integrated national programme for Universal Elementary Education, which aims to provide quality education for children between the ages of 6 and 14 years by 2010. The drive, launched in 2001, aims to reduce the number of children who are out of school, narrow gender and social gaps and improve the quality of education.

Education is the only hope for India to change its current status of a “developing country” into a “developed country”. And she cannot make this change happen unless she ensures that the 59 million children out of the 200 million children in the age group of 6-14 who are currently out of school enrol in proper schools and learn.

What is keeping these 59 million children outside the school? Problems of access, poor quality in school processes, lack of participation by the community in the school affairs and poverty are among the key barriers to universal education. In Karnataka alone, over 300,000 out-of-school children have been mainstreamed during the past three years. But what is causing concern is the national average drop out rate for children in 1-8th standard, which stands at 57% and an alarming dropout rate of 60% for girl children for the same standards.

Once children reach school, a variety of factors determine whether they will learn and acquire the skills to pursue formal education or drop out. In many cases, a child from a poor/rural family is unable to comprehend and cope up with the pace of other formal school children. Teachers are not able to identify or diagnose the competencies that a child lacks and provide him/her with supplementary teaching. It is not uncommon to come across children who have been to school but remain functionally illiterate. Disillusioned youngsters, who may have completed primary schooling and are unemployed, act as a disincentive for education of other children in the community. Younger children and their families see the writing on the wall – primary education does not always improve the situation of the poor unless what they learn is perceived as being relevant to their life situation.

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