In a quiet residential neighbourhood in Pudupariyaram, Palakkad, it's possible to 'hear' the Mannadiar Memorial Upper Primary School much before seeing it. The sound of chattering children winds down the road, drawing attention to a low-roofed, red-tiled structure that resembles a small house much more than a school.

It's from this unlikely setting that stories of ordinary children with extraordinary courage unfold every day. Ayesha*, a seventh standard student, speaks to her teachers of being ill-treated by her stepmother and beaten by her father, who's almost always drunk. Rajesh* does odd jobs in the mornings to earn money to support his ailing mother, and comes rushing to school, inevitably a bit late daily. A. Shobhana, an English teacher, recalls a boy who would sit for his seventh standard lessons with a knife stashed in his bag — to prevent his drunk father from using it to "kill" his mother, a threat the father made all too often. Yet, like most of the other students battling poverty and domestic violence, none of these children has ever missed a day at school. Watching the smiling faces of children at lunch, it's impossible to trace their worries as they stand patiently in a queue for their share of rice and payar (a kind of beans), part of the mid-day meal scheme.

Of the 623 students in this school, most are children of daily wage workers. But, as the principal A Govindankutty points out, "The enrolment rates are high - a majority of the parents want their children to study. The dropout percentage is very low too. At the most, about three children actually leave school before the end of an academic year." The principal attributes this to a higher level of awareness among the parents about education. Besides, unlike in other states, schools in Kerala do not have infrastructural problems, he says. "Even in government schools, there are toilets, there's water supply and electricity," he adds.

Perhaps that explains why the Mannadiar school is always choc-a-bloc with children eager to learn. It's also the reason why, in Kerala, the aims of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) - a scheme to achieve universalisation of elementary education and to ensure that for all children in the 6-14 age group, education is a fundamental right - do not seem lofty at all. Under the SSA's plan, all children are expected to complete five years of primary schooling by 2007 and eight years of elementary schooling by 2010.

A report prepared by the Kerala Government's General Education Department in 2004, titled Educational Statistics since Independence indicates the dropout rate in the 12,271 schools in the state, where over 48 lakh children study, is just 1.5 percent. According to the document, in lower primary schools (classes I to IV), there is one teacher for every 30 students, while in upper primary (classes V to VII), there is a teacher for every 29 students.

With such impressive figures, 'Education for all', as envisioned under the SSA, already seems a reality in Kerala. Yet, academicians point out that a round of applause may be premature, for there are several factors that require careful consideration - the quality of learning and teaching being one of them. Also of concern are the poor pass percentages and high dropout rates amongst the tribal and fishing communities, for whom access to schools is a problem.

School's the limit

Historically, there has been considerable support for education in the state, and as the document Educational Statistics says, "The progressive educational policies of enlightened rulers of the erstwhile states of Travancore and Cochin and the educational activities initiated by the Christian missionaries and other social organisations yielded development in the field of education even before independence."

Schoolchildren at Agali. Picture by Deepa A.

Madhusudhanan C, a state executive member of the Kerala Sashtra Sahitya Parishad, an organisation that has worked actively in the state's literacy movement, says parents are aware that "social mobility" comes from education. "Parents send their children to school at any cost, they don't hesitate to borrow money for it, and this is also one reason why education has become such a commercial enterprise in Kerala," he says, pointing to the booming private school sector in the state. "There are primary schools within a 1 kilometre radius in all parts except tribal areas," adds Madhusudhanan, who's also a member of the Parishad's Education Research Unit, which conducts frequent studies on academic issues in the state. Almost all schools have sufficient infrastructure, and most of the funding under SSA is being used to beef up construction work, he adds.

Indeed, it is this focus on construction, on setting up more buildings, without giving corresponding attention to academics and curriculum, that's now worrying educationists. K M Ramanandhan, state project director of SSA, Kerala, admits, "Our main concern is quality — there have to be changes in methodology, in teacher training, and curricula, all of which are now not up to the mark." A recent National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) study on the 'learning achievement' of schoolchildren found that a majority of students at the elementary level scored less than 60 percent marks in English and Mathematics, he adds. This meant that their performance was well below the optimum level in both the subjects.

Lessons not yet learned

Under SSA, teacher-training programmes are organised by Block Resource Centres (BRCs) created to regulate the scheme's implementation in the schools. The training of teachers assumes significance in the wake of recent curricular changes, wherein a participatory method of teaching is required. Students are encouraged to ask questions and learn through projects and tours, while teachers can no longer finish the syllabus through monologues — the involvement of the students is required to complete the activities prescribed in the syllabus. This change has been widely welcomed by educationists, who say that it has made schoolchildren more enthusiastic about learning. Teachers are also expected to follow up on a student's performance with remedial classes if necessary, and a process of continuous evaluation has to be adopted as well.

However, the method is proving to be less effective than hoped for, say educationists, pointing out that the teachers are unable to understand its importance and use suitable pedagogic methods. "There are no qualified resource persons to conduct such training," says Madhusudhanan, who is himself a trainer under the SSA scheme. "In the Mulassery BRC, where I work, there are two resource persons for training when there should have been 10." In Palakkad district, there are 13 blocks, with each block expected to have at least 10 trainers. However, altogether there are only 65 trainers, says T S Rajan Varier, SSA district project officer, Palakkad.

As a result, many of the training programmes, says Madhusudhanan, have today become exercises where teachers turn up only to sign on paper. The efficacy of the revised curriculum and teaching methods, is therefore, being undermined. "Now that the curriculum is more child-centred, there is a requirement for onsite teacher training, for more support for teachers," says an activist and a teacher based in Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad, who requested his name not be used. "Instead, many of the teachers still follow the earlier methods of teaching," he adds.

The focus on construction, on setting up more buildings, without giving corresponding attention to academics and curriculum, is worrying educationists.

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Similarly, while many schools have incorporated architectural changes necessary for making education accessible to students with disabilities, similar changes in curriculum or teaching methods have not been made, points out Madhusudhanan.

Project director Ramanandhan explains that the state's SSA arm is trying to improve the teacher training process as the current methodology used is inadequate. "The teacher has to be empowered in both content and methodology," he emphasises. There is also a growing focus on workbooks that supplement the learning process for children in various subjects. "Workbooks are basically activity books for children, which encourage them to do work outside the classroom, such as conduct science experiments at home, with local materials," says Ramanandhan. "This widens their knowledge base." The physical environment of schools is also being enhanced with dust-free classrooms and provisions for more teaching-learning materials, he adds.

A different state

One of the biggest challenges before SSA lies in making education accessible to children in the itinerant coastal communities and in tribal areas such as Attappady (in Palakkad District) and Wayanad, where forests and hills make commuting to school difficult. In addition to providing for the establishment of "appropriate schooling facilities" in "unserved habitations", the SSA envisages that the curriculum should be "adapted" to suit the tribal communities' needs and that "locally relevant teaching-learning materials" should be provided to students. It also says that "local languages and dialects may be used for teaching, especially in lower classes." Textbooks and uniforms, among other things, are provided free of cost to students from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes under the SSA.

To work towards these goals, 450 Multi-Grade Learning Centres, which are single-teacher schools for children up to the fourth standard, have been set up in various tribal areas in the state; these now cater to about 12,000 students. These centres are in areas where there are no formal schools, and where the tough terrain makes regular schools inaccessible to children.

However, the situation is still far from perfect. At the Government Vocational Higher Secondary School, Agali, in Attappady, 11-year-old Manoj Kumar depends on one bus to get him to school from home and back. He was staying in a hostel thus far, but after the lone bus service was started, his family decided he could commute from home instead. He leaves home at 7.30 in the morning, reaches school at 8.30 AM and leaves at 4.30 PM to reach home an hour later. Biju, a fifth standard student who uses only his first name, stays in a hostel in Agali, as his home is three hours away by road. The hostel is run as part of the Integrated Tribal Department Programme (ITDP); 35 children share one room and there are only four bathrooms in the entire hostel. So horrific is the condition of many of the hostels for schoolchildren that outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and other diseases have become frighteningly common here.

Sindhu Rajan, a teacher at the Agali school, says that at least one-third of the school's 1,350 students stay in the hostels, most of which are crowded and lack toilet facilities (run under ITDP programmes). All this despite the fact that under the SSA, hostel facilities are expected to be provided to SC/ST students.

The Government Vocational Higher Secondary School, Agali. Picture by Deepa A.

Accommodation isn't the only serious problem, either; teachers report that the dropout rate in schools in tribal areas is higher than in other parts of the state. "The school atmosphere is completely different from what they are used to at home," says Sindhu. "Students are not regular - if there is a festival, or if they go home, they disappear for weeks." Cicily Sebastian, a science and English teacher, adds that as students come from far-off places, with poor bus connections or none at all, absenteeism is high. Moreover, many of the students speak a local dialect (a language that's a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam, without a script) and are unable to follow Malayalam, which the teachers use. "Many students drop out by the seventh standard, and very few make it to the secondary level. Most of the boys end up grazing cattle while the girls help out at home," says Sindhu Rajan.

James George, who has been working as a primary school teacher at the Government Tribal Higher Secondary School in Sholayur for 20 years, says that the best way to tackle the language barrier is by incorporating tribal customs and culture into the daily lessons. "Schools should use the songs and games of tribal communities, and teachers should change the medium of instruction to the local language. Locals themselves should teach," he suggests. However, G Karthikeyan, a Malayalam teacher at the Agali school, says that many people are simply not interested in teaching in tribal areas. Ramanandhan concurs that the SSA has had trouble finding local teachers in tribal areas. "We have posted local volunteers at the multi-grade centres, but most of the schoolteachers are from outside," he says.

Some initiatives under SSA, such as the Earn and Learn programme, in which children make various products for sale, have been well-received. "In our school, the children made soaps and flower vases, and they were very happy when they sold it and made some money," says George. Several programmes to encourage learning, such as Akshara Deepam, which consists of holding classes to teach students who are not regular at school the alphabet, are also being organised under the SSA.

The way forward

Thus far, the manner in which SSA has been implemented in Kerala has not shown a cohesive vision, laments Madhusudhanan. By the admission of SSA officials themselves, "There are hardly any out-of-school children in Kerala", as Rajan Varier puts it. SSA's emphasis, therefore, has to be on providing a more equitable, quality education to children.

Many of the projects under SSA do have the potential to help in achieving that goal. As Varier explains, "There are neighbourhood classes, where children in the same neighbourhood get together to study in the evenings, after school. The Earn and Learn programme imparts work skills to students. We also encourage schools to organise cultural camps and tours so that children gain more exposure and self-confidence." If there's a corresponding improvement in teacher-training methods and in the educational practices followed in tribal areas and amongst members of the coastal community, the State could then be well on its way to the next level in public education.