By Patricia Mukhim
The Unified District Information for Education (UDIE) reported that in 2021-22, in Meghalaya out of 5,30,390 students enrolled in Classes 1-5, 9.8% of them or about 53, 000 dropped out. From Classes 6-8 out of an enrolment of 2,42,417 the dropout rate for the same year is 10.6% meaning that about 24,241 fell between the cracks. In all, about 78,764 students were invisibilised and therefore forgotten. Once kids drop out of elementary school the system forgets them. They face a bleak future and one has to walk in their shoes to know the pain of a life without hope.
This can be a depressing scenario but this article does not wish to be an incubator of disillusionment. We need to overcome the setbacks, rise from the ashes and think afresh on how we can do better in the coming years and also re-admit and welcome those that have turned their backs to the schools through better retention strategies. For too long the people of Meghalaya have made the Government the scapegoat for everything. Now it’s time to get our act together. We are all stakeholders in education and ‘We’ here means – parents, students, teachers, community leaders and political leaders. But before launching into what is a massive exercise in soul searching we need to know why our kids who should be in school and have their first exposure to the world outside their homes are unable to do so.
Poverty the biggest enemy of education
The primary reason for children’s schooling being disrupted is ‘Poverty.’ Parents don’t see the bigger picture of what their kids stand to gain when they go to school. But even if they did, poverty is a cruel master and unsparing. About 32 % of our population live below the poverty line (BPL) and the reality is that many of us don’t understand what that means. It means to live from hand to mouth one day to the next with no money to spare for education which to the poor is a luxury only the wealthy can afford.
In the rural areas of Meghalaya, most schools function in the breach. There are single school teachers with children of different age groups and learning levels. How does one teacher cope with such a situation? An SSA teacher I met at a village said that she had to engage one more teacher to manage the class since there were too many students and she was the lone teacher. She had to pay the teacher out of her own salary. Hence even if a school is within walking distance it may not be the best school. Sometimes if the school is functioning well, the fees are high and the cost of purchasing books and uniforms at the start of the academic year makes it difficult for most parents.
Tough curriculum and out of sync with local
A child in the rural outback sees farming from very close quarters and can relate better to a curriculum that can teach better farming practices; teach them to recognise medicinal plants, edible leaves, fruit etc. To have the same curriculum for students across the state is to make education inequitable. Equity means that everyone starts from the same vantage point and no one has an unfair start. But is that the case with students across Meghalaya? Think of those that come from privileged families where the language of communication at home is English. Then think of the kids in rural Meghalaya for whom English is an insurmountable mountain. What’s needed are reforms in the curriculum framework. The State should have this much liberty to be able to address its unique problems. Also concepts in Arithmetic and Science are best understood in the local language.
Our examination system measures children with different learning abilities, different economic backgrounds, family situations that disadvantage children such as those brought up by parents who are both not educated, or a single parent family or a family where one parent is violent. Kids from such backgrounds already carry an emotional baggage that they cannot share. How then can we have an examination system that measures everyone with the same yardstick as if they all started from the same starting point. And then when the results are out at the end of term the child that “Fails” is distraught and feels guilty that the parents have sent him/her to school at great cost but he/she has failed them. Surely there is a better way to measure learning outcomes.
Need to build a coalition of stakeholders
One way of addressing school retention and to make it work is to build a team comprising parents, teachers, community members (dorbar shnong) or other bodies such as the seng kynthei/seng samla and it would be best to rope in the local MLA and MDC too. This body should exercise some kind of oversight over the schools and the quality of teaching that children get. Some of the members of the Dorbar Shnong are in the school managing committees. Do they really take a keen interest in the teaching-learning outcomes? Do they know how many children failed in a particular year and why? Do they take interest in how many of the students who fail, actually come back to school the next year or what happens to them? Every village has elders who can be called to be mentors and who should be given the right to speak to students every once in a while. Studies have shown that drop-out rates decrease when the community takes active part in the functioning of the school.
How friendly is the school environment and what meaningful relationships do kids have with their teachers or their peers? Are they being guided into such relationships so that they learn social skills early in life? How engaging is the teaching for the child to want to be in school? This is where teaching pedagogy matters. We need teachers who have enough passion to innovate and stir up the child’s reasoning powers by rewarding those students that ask questions. Most often teachers think that a student asking a question is being impudent and shuts him/her up. And that’s it! That student would learn that questioning is wrong. Yet critical thinking which is the sine-qua-non of education means asking questions and clarifying doubts. This never happens in our classrooms. No wonder the poor learning outcomes and the boring lessons. In fact, the contrary happens. The teacher asks questions and dumbs down a student that cannot answer the question. I was having a conversation with a former teacher colleague. She told me that in her village there is a school where teachers hit the students when they cannot answer questions or don’t do their homework. Isn’t corporal punishment outdated?
the school textbooks:
Textbooks are mere guide posts. So much more learning happens through storytelling and role plays and also through visual arts or music. The video of a teacher who uses innovative methods such as through music to teach his students and because of which they are eager to come to school every single day, has gone viral. These are the kind of teachers we need. They are teachers who choose to teach as their first love and not because they can’t find any other job. Remember the infamous phrase, “Those who can’t…teach?” Most textbooks are written with the larger Indian context as the framework. They are not culturally nuanced to our tribal context. They seem distant and unrelatable. This is an area that needs focus.
Classes where students discuss issues that affect them outside the classroom and where they can have healthy exchange of ideas without being judged and where they don’t feel threatened would be emotionally healthy classrooms. The students should be given some credits for engaging in such conversations because this is how they learn communication skills.
Flexible school timings
Students that need to do part time work should be able to check in a little late or come in for morning or evening classes. This is one way of integrating those that have fallen between the cracks back into the system.
Teaching must necessarily be student-centred
In B Ed classes teacher students are taught this one dictum – JOHN teaches Maths to alister. In this sentence, the student doesn’t matter. The teacher John is the most important factor; the subject Maths is the second most important factor; alister doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things and once the teacher JOHN has taught Maths he doesn’t really help alister recall what was taught just to check if the student has understood what was taught. This is how education happens in our State and this is how it has been happening for aeons. If things don’t change and ALISTER does not become the most important part of the equation and John the teacher realises his role, mathematics will remain outside ALISTER’S cognitive domain. And mind you, ALISTER will then have to take extra tuition from John the teacher.
On this note, one hopes that our Education Minister, Rakkam A Sangma, takes note of these suggestions.