Access during monsoon, prevalence of child labour are the reasons
P. Ranjitha walks for nearly an hour and a half to reach school every morning. “It takes little longer when it rains,” says the class VIII student of Government Tribal Residential (GTR) School, Ponneni.
Her matter-of-fact response about at least three hours’ walk to school and back home made it seem like a common practice among students like her who go to GTR schools.
Her classmate T. Prakashraj says, “I walk two hours every morning to reach school,” as if to highlight that his feat outdoes Ranjitha’s.
While many children stay in tribal hamlets around the area, some children such as Ranjitha and Prakashraj stay in localities far away and go to the nearest GTR School.
Their plight during monsoon is miserable. Most parts of Gudalur, including Devala, Ponneni, Kappala and Ayyankolli, get rainfall for about six months every year. Devala is, in fact, referred to as the “second Cherrapunji.”
This often leads to students missing classes for weeks together to avoid travelling long distances when it rains. Student absenteeism is a common problem that heads of all the 15 GTR schools in Gudalur are grappling with.
V. Janaki, headmistress of GTR Primary School, Kottatty, has roped in the services of elderly women in the community to go to the tribal hamlets, pick children and drop them back after school. “Otherwise, attendance is very poor.”
Access during monsoon is often cited as the reason but clearly, it is not the only one.
Prevalence of child labour is another major cause. “Parents among the tribal families see little value in sending children to school. They would rather have them help out at the plantations,” says O.A. Valsala, a teacher at GTR Middle School, Kappala. Some children even climb trees to hide themselves at the sight of a teacher.
As someone from the local Scheduled Tribes community, she says it takes a lot of convincing to get parents to send their children to school everyday. “We go to their homes and ask them to send their children, but even then they are sceptical and think we do all that just for money and that their children may not really benefit.”
A good number of children are engaged in labour at coffee or tea plantations, plucking kuru milagu (pepper) or areca nut. They become valuable labour, as their small frames and agility help them climb trees with greater ease and speed. Other than the usual irregularity of students, there is thus an additional ‘seasonal’ absenteeism in large numbers.
Given that access and regularity of students are persistent issues, one would think the residential nature of the GTR schools should help. However, that is hardly the case.
Government Tribal Residential schools, in most cases, are residential only in name. A majority of students go back home after school every day. The absence of female wardens or caretakers makes it impossible for girls to stay back on the school premises, given the safety constraints in forest areas.
The students are entitled to three meals and snacks everyday, but since they do not stay back for dinner, most kitchens serve dinner as early as 5 p.m. Children eat rice soon after school hours and leave.
A few schools have a small group of boys staying back, but the dormitories on campuses of the GTR schools seem far from adequate. Crammed with old, damaged cots and a few rugs, at best they seem claustrophobic. The bath areas and toilets are also inadequate in some cases.
“For children who are used to the pleasant weather and openness of the forest, this dormitory can be suffocating,” says a teacher who did not wish to be named.
What remains is a not-so-desirable level of learning among students. With no systematic review of learning outcomes, those teachers, who spend a lot of time and energy ensuring that students come to school, seem satisfied with the little progress some students in their class make. Some of them manage to barely pass and a few score well.
“If you take the class as a whole, each one will be at a very different level of learning. As a teacher, I am not assured of even 10 students attending classes consistently for a considerable period of time. That is the real challenge,” Ms. Valsala notes. The inadequacy of teachers only makes the situation worse.
All the same, some students come to class, nurturing dreams of becoming a teacher or a doctor one day.