Can lessons from Covid help bring Tamil Nadu’s children back to school?

Can lessons from Covid help bring Tamil Nadu’s children back to school?

Can lessons from Covid help bring Tamil Nadu’s children back to school?

Representational Image (Picture credit - Flickr/Rob Oo)

Schools have reopened in Tamil Nadu, but plenty of benches are empty. Many children have dropped out of the education system for work even as the state aims to eliminate child labour by 2025. What is needed are urgent tailor-made solutions to tackle the problem.

Chennai: Thirteen-year-old Arthi* from Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu enjoys the simple pleasures of reading comics during breaks at school and playing tag with her friends. At home, however, she mostly keeps to herself. Her neighbours rarely get to see her outside her house, and quite apparently, she does not open up easily to strangers.

After a bit of coaxing, she confessed: “I want to become a doctor someday.”

It is a common ambition among children, yet, the statement was met with faint, incredulous gasps from her family members and neighbours. 

Perhaps, this is because she has not been to school in 18 months and would likely never go to school again. Ever since the Covid pandemic struck, she has not been able to attend online classes because no one in her household owns a phone, let alone a smartphone, for the Class 6 student to continue her online education. 

Since then, Arthi has been helping her mother in making garments. They earn a paltry ₹600 to ₹700 per week at the rate of 50 paise apiece. And thus, Arthi has joined the long list of four of her siblings who dropped out of school.

Her widowed mother Thilaga* cannot afford her education because of the financial state of the family, precipitated by the pandemic and her own poor health after getting a hysterectomy. “I want her to study, but we won’t be able to manage the household expenses,” she said.

Even though schools reopened for classes 1 to 8 on November 1 in Tamil Nadu, no teacher at Arthi’s government school has attempted to contact the child, said Thilaga. At any rate, attendance has not been made mandatory yet.

Arthi* has not been to school in 18 months and would likely never go to school again (Picture credit - Hariprasad Radhakrishnan)

Many other children have been dealt a worse hand during the pandemic.

Less than 100 kilometres away in the Kaniyur block of Tiruppur, Kannan*, 11, and his sister, Anitha*, 15, had to go with their family of bonded labourers to a brick kiln for work during the pandemic. To make matters worse, the boy was subjected to physical abuse by the owner before being rescued. 

Today, the children have not been enrolled back in their school yet, although the Standard Operating Procedure for Effective Enforcement of the Child & Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, requires the government to admit these children to schools. 

Meanwhile, some other children, whom this correspondent met, have grown disinterested in studies and decided to drop out of school. Their teachers also seemed to discourage them. “My child was not good at her studies. So the headmaster asked me to take her to an industrial training institute where she can learn skills like embroidery,” said a parent of a dropout in Tiruppur. The child is currently working at the unit. 

In many other parts of the state, children have been roped into farming over the past two years. “During the pandemic, there was a revival in agriculture and rearing of livestock,” said Dr K Krishnan, Secretary, National Adivasis Solidarity Council. “Although this is a welcome development, parents involve their children in the work.”

Can TN eliminate child labour?

According to the 2011 Census, Tamil Nadu had 2.49 per cent of children in the age group of 5 to 14 involved in labour, as against a national average of 4.5. Earlier this year, Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) conducted a study that found that the number of child labourers in the state had increased by a whopping 280 per cent. 

In 2019-20, the percentage of dropouts in Tamil Nadu at primary, upper primary, and secondary levels (1.1, 0.4, 9.6) remained lower than the all-India average (1.5, 2.6, 16.1), according to data from Unified District Information System for Education. "While the statistics clearly indicate positive steps taken by the Government of Tamil Nadu when compared to the indicators at the national level, the State is yet to see a more robust improvement in some of its child protection indicators like child marriage, child labour, crimes against children and the number of children in conflict with law," the recently released Tamil Nadu State Child Policy 2021 conceded.   

Currently, Samagra Shiksha (launched by the Ministry of Education in 2018) has identified 4.99 lakh potential dropouts in Tamil Nadu, the Hindu quoted State Project Director R Sudhan as saying. “As of September 1, the department was in the process of reaching out to 83,000 children to bring them back to schools. We are yet to analyse data pertaining to around 60,000 students. But we have verified that the rest have either shifted to private schools or migrated,” he told the daily.

The School Education Department has managed to enrol a section of the potential dropouts. Earlier this month, Tamil Nadu School Education Minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi said that 1.3 lakh dropouts had been enrolled back in schools over the past five months. 

A majority of children returned to school when classes 9 to 12 reopened in September, and classes 1 to 8 reopened on November 1. A senior education department official said that about 80 per cent of children had returned to government schools in the Coimbatore district. Sources in several other districts also reported similar figures. “But it is difficult to find out how many of the rest are involved in labour or have dropped out (for other reasons),” the official said. Following the recent spate of intense rains across the State, the number of school-going children is expected to further go down at least in the short term.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if the Illam Thedi Kalvi (education at doorstep) scheme, which aims to compensate for learning losses during the pandemic by hiring volunteers to handle classes after school hours, would be effective. 

The six-month programme is being piloted in 12 districts with over a lakh volunteers who would hold classes for six hours a week. Students of varying ages would be put in two groups comprising classes 1 to 5 and classes 6 to 8.  

Criticising the scheme, Dravidar Kazhagam drew parallels with RSS ideology, while educationists such as Prince Gajendra Babu claimed that it would discourage rural students from attending formal education.

Bespoke solutions need of the hour

While being underprivileged is a common thread linking dropouts, the problem manifests in different ways like in the case of the children mentioned above. From child labour and marriages to migration and plain disinterest in studies, many reasons are contributing to the problem of dropouts. And so, these problems need bespoke solutions and would require various departments to join forces.

“There is a need for an integrated approach to solving the underlying problem that leads to dropouts,” said Andrew Sesuraj, State Convener, Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch. “For instance, if the parents are suffering financially, steps must be taken to provide livelihood support to ensure the child does not drop out of school.” 

He further said that the ‘State Action Plan for Eradication of Child Labour and Eradication of Adolescent Labour in Hazardous Occupations and Processes’ envisions an integrated approach to rid Tamil Nadu of child labour by 2025. But, he added, the plan has not been implemented fully.

Activists said that there is a need for greater accountability in education department staff at the grassroots level. "It is important to shift the onus of enrolling children back to education from parents to teachers, as many parents are preoccupied with making ends meet," said M Thangavel, director of Vizhuthugal, an NGO which has been running education centres for underprivileged children. He pointed out that most of the dropouts happen when children have to shift between primary, middle, high, and higher secondary schools. 

As the Right to Education Act mandates compulsory education for children only below 14 years of age, dropouts among older children often fail to garner attention. “Today, a Class 8 education cannot get a person a decent job. To retain children in school, the Right to Education Act should be amended to make education compulsory for all children until the age of 17,” he said. 

According to C Nambi, Executive Director of the Centre for Social Education and Development, students should be traced on the lines of the contact-tracing strategy employed during the Covid pandemic.

The vaccination campaign may also hold some lessons. “We all see healthcare workers going door-to-door to vaccinate beneficiaries,” said Karuppasamy. “Similarly, education department staff should also reach out to every student who has been left behind.”


 *names of minors changed to protect their privacy

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