Bringing Child Labourers Back to School in Bihar
By Alistair Ingi Gretarsson
NALANDA, India 3 September 2010 – Wearing a clean, navy-blue school uniform with a sky-blue shawl draped over her shoulders, 14-year-old Khaushaliya Kumari is sociable and relaxed as she goes through her daily routines.
Special training programmes, currently called Residential Bridge Centres (RBCs), such as this one in Nalanda district of the eastern Indian state of Bihar, help former child labourers enter the school system and gives them the support they need in their first crucial steps towards fulfilling their basic right to an education.
Here, children who have either never been to school before or who have dropped out of school early are given the space and support they need to reach the necessary levels of academic competence so they can be integrated back into the general school system at a level that is appropriate to each child’s age.
Khaushaliya is a strongly built 14-year-old with a strong character to match, but she smiles shyly when asked how her life was before she arrived here. “Every day, after doing my morning chores at home, I would go and carry baskets of coal till the evening,” she says. “Unloading coal from the truck was always difficult. Sometimes I cut my hands,” she adds.
Positive trends but challenges remain
The trend in education in India is positive. It is estimated that the number of out-of-school children between the ages of 6 and 14 years in the country dropped from 25 million in 2003 to 8.1 million in 2009. This is great news.
Also, with the recent introduction of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009 all children in India are legally guaranteed their right to quality elementary education.
The challenge now is to ensure that each one of those remaining 8.1 million children is not only enrolled in elementary school but also completes at least eight years of child-centered, child-friendly education.
In order to achieve this, special efforts are needed to reach out to the children in the most marginalized communities and the most disadvantaged social groups.
Reaching the most marginalized and excluded
Khaushaliya and her family belong to one of the most socially excluded and economically disadvantaged communities in Bihar. Mostly landless labourers, families in Khaushaliya’s community are forced to get by on a very meager income.
With a family of nine children, Khaushilya’s father, Jakhar Manji, spends much of his time working in construction in the far-off city of Delhi in order to bring in much needed extra income.
Forced by her circumstances to contribute to the family’s income generation, Khaushilya was unable to go to school. But now, thanks to this Residential Bridge Centre and the innovative teaching methods being introduced here, Khaushaliya has the opportunity to enter into the formal school system and to complete her elementary education, including the learning she may have missed when not attending school.
“Before this, my life was very difficult,” says Kaushaliya. “I did not have time to even sit and rest. Now I study. I play. I do a lot of things.”
Introducing innovative teaching methods
UNICEF is working with the Government of Bihar to introduce a new system of learning to these RBCs that will soon be implemented across the state.
Like Khaushaliya, the children who come to these RBCs have often been engaged in hard labour or in domestic work. Arriving with highly varying levels of academic competence it is important that each child is given the individual support that he or she needs to make those first, most crucial steps towards completing elementary education.
First introduced in Bihar in 2009, the Vertical Competency Based Learning (VCBL) child-centered approach gives each child the opportunity to develop at his or her own pace.
Along the way, each child marks his or her own progress on a chart on the wall. Every time a card is completed, the child’s mark moves one step closer to the finish line on the chart.
The VCBL system provides individual learning support and concrete, clear-cut objectives for each child along with a visual representation of each child’s progress.
Looking forward to a brighter future
Kaushaliya’s teacher, Ms. Suman Kumari, also says that she has seen the change in how the girls who come here think about their futures. “Many of the girls now want to be teachers or social workers. But some of their dreams are so big that I pray to the gods that they are realized.”