Why do children drop out of school? Is the cause poverty or a family problem, or simply the lack of parental awareness? These reasons have been discussed and debated often enough.
However, one cause that is often not factored in is the unsuitable environment at school. After all, can you fault a girl for not being keen on attending school if the school does not have a separate toilet for girls? Says Archana Sahay, a Bhopal-based social activist who has been working in the area of child labor: "More children than we would like to believe drop out of school simply because they are not happy at school. While middle and upper-class parents push and cajole their children to study even if they don't like it, working class parents, who do not have the requisite time, skills or economic prowess to find solutions, give up easily. Eventually, their children find their way into the workforce."
With this in mind, Sahay and her NGO, Arambh, took up the task of putting the slum children of Bhopal back into school. Ever since 2000, when the Arambh team commenced on the project, first through a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) project and then in collaboration with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a large number of slum children have taken to letters instead of tools. Between 2004 and 2007, 358 children were admitted to school.
At the Arambh multipurpose centre in Hatha Sikandarquli (a slum area), Shashi Devi, who runs the centre, is sitting at her low desk, bending over a notebook that a reserved girl of about nine years in age holds out to her. On a rug there are about a dozen children, busy with exercise books, flipping pages of picture books, playing with toys or snipping patterns out of paper.
"We help them to do their homework here," explains Shashi. "When the children turn up at school without completing their work, they get scolded, beaten, abused and even thrown out of the classroom. But with the homework done, they do not have to suffer persecution by teachers. This is a crucial factor in keeping a child in school."
Arambh runs five centres in the city at Aishbagh, Dulichand ka Bagh, Bajaria Thana, Shaheen Nagar and Ahata Sikandar Kauli. Here, 450 children - between the age groups of eight and 16 years - come regularly to study. Of these, 230 are boys and the rest, girls.
Recalls Parveen Jahan, who runs the centre at Aishbagh, "When we started, children would come only during holidays. Gradually, we started meeting parents and communicating directly with the kids. Parents were interested, but insisted that their children 'did not have the brains', or were not interested in studies. However, over time, children started visiting the centre out of sheer curiosity. And, of course, most of them decided to stay."
Out of the 117 children who visited Parveen's centre, 31 were admitted to school in the academic year 2003-04, while 22 were admitted the following year. The centre also helped some of the older children appear for private examinations. In fact, many have also decided to pursue higher studies.
The Arambh centres are modelled after open schools. They have a flexible schedule, and there are no fixed hours. The centres remain open from morning till evening, and the children can come and go as and when they have time. Little Rashida, for instance, goes to school in the morning, comes to the centre at noon and stays on till evening - unless there is 'adde ka kaam' (metallic thread embroidery, also called 'zardozi'). Then she has to stay at home after school to help her mother. "I like going to school now, because my homework is complete and my teachers do not scold me. Earlier I used to get scolded every day," she says.
Rashida's mother, Ehsaan Bi, says, "I feel good about her going to school, because she will have better prospects that way. Otherwise, like me, she would have been stuck all her life with this ill-paying embroidery."
Sikandar and Munavvar, aged 12 and 13, respectively, work as mechanics' assistants. However, they make it a point to visit the centre for at least two hours a day - with the permission of their employers. Says their employer, garage owner Abdul Quadir, "Since the time I spoke to the Arambh people, I have started giving the boys two hours off to visit the centre. It was inconvenient earlier, but now I see that they are in a better mood and work harder for the rest of their working hours."
This is another point unique to Arambh's approach - the accent is on getting children back to studies, but not out of work. A sizeable number of the 43 children that attend Shashi's centre have continued with their work. "The boys mostly work as mechanic's assistants, or in restaurants, factories, and shops. The girls work at home helping out in 'zardozi' work," she says.
"It is neither always possible nor fair to take the children out of work," explains Sahay. "Many work because the adult members of the household are sick, or there are large families to support." While on the one hand this approach has helped Arambh carry out its work of helping educate such children without antagonizing parents or employers, the happy fact is that the children who had dropped out for reasons other than economic - though very few in number - have actually stopped working.
The team conducts regular follow-ups with both parents and employers. Employers are counselled against mistreating, abusing the children and overworking them. "We also insist that they call the children by their actual names, not by generic terms like 'chhotu' (little chap)," says Parveen, "This has a tremendous impact on the child's self image."
There is a regular check kept on the schools as well. In order for children to want to go to school everyday despite all odds, it is crucial that the atmosphere is conducive. Arambh's field workers talk to the teachers, sensitize them about the background of their wards, and keep up a regular follow-up on the children admitted.
"In government schools, teachers can be very insensitive or violent, especially with poor students whose parents do not have the power or know-how to question them," says Shashi, "We play the role of parents for these children in their schools. Apart from interacting with the teachers, it also sends a powerful message that there is someone who is keeping an eye on the child. So, teachers are careful about the way they treat the child."
Arambh's efforts have paid off. Hamidia School, which is located near the Bhopal railway station and where a large number of Arambh children have been enrolled, recently organized its first annual function. However, as the school had no funds for the function, Arambh activists invited the headmaster, Rajeev Dixit, to visit the community, where a meeting was arranged to find means to arrange for the money. But apart from that, he also got to see the circumstances in which the children live. The first-hand experience was an eye opener. Dixit says, "When children drop out of school, we are not able to trace them. Arambh has helped us bring a large number of drop-outs back into the system. We are also keeping in touch with parents, which is usually not possible with children from lower income groups."
Today, most of the children in the five slums where Arambh centres function go to school regularly. Those who are not in school receive informal education at the centres. "At one time, these children used to mouth bad language and threaten us," recalls Parveen, "Parents would complain that their children didn't
study. Now, the same parents tell us that their children study even when there is a power failure - by candlelight."