Making a difference with catch-up education
by Harasha Gunewardene
“With two brothers and seven sisters at home, I had no choice but to help my family in various ways at home. My mother is paralyzed and she needed help to move here and there. Meals too had to be prepared and so it became impossible to continue in school” explained 14 year old Ismail Lebbe Farmila, Grade 9, of Samanthurai AL-Arsath Maha Vidylaya in Ampara district , on Sri Lanka’s east coast.
12 year old A.R. Fahim, grade 6 in the same school, like other children in his village, also had many obstacles standing in the path of regular schooling. “My father is dead and I have two sisters and five brothers. For all of us to attend school was impossible. We had no money for school uniforms or school books. Life was so difficult for my family that I had no choice but to assist my brother in his daily work in a stone quarry, since he now had to provide for the family. So what could I do. I had stopped going to school for one whole year.” Both Farmila and Fahim were drop outs from Al- Arsath Maha Vidyalaya.
While the island is proud of its high literacy and school enrolment levels, the impact of the regular periods of armed conflict, as well as poverty, have led to high drop-out rates. In Sri Lanka’s eastern province, Sammanthurai is considered to be a remote area with a larger number of school drop outs. According to a Baseline survey conducted earlier this year, 1151 students have dropped out from 35 schools during the last five years with AL./Arseth Vidyalaya Sammanthuri recording the highest rate. 290 students have dropped out from this school during the last five years.
“Many factors have contributed – poverty, lack of parental care, parent migration, lack of education of the parents, lack of awareness of the importance of education , no parents, and dependant grandparents. However, the overriding consideration was the abject situation of poverty caused by the internecine military conflict in the region over the years, which has made employment opportunities very scarce,” said Abdul Cader Alim Mohamed Ismail – Vice-Principal in Charge of catch-up education at AL-Arsath Maha Vidylaya .
In 2004 a three month survey was carried out by education authorities, village officials and parents, supported by UNICEF, to find out why children were dropping-out of the school system. 25 children, including Fahim and Farmila, were identified for the catch-up education programme in the catchment area of Al-Arsath Maha Vidyalaya in Sammnathutrai Education zone. 85-90 % of the drop outs in the area were between the ages of 5-14 years.
For children such as Farmila and Fahim, unable to complete their basic education ,catch-up education presented an alternative, especially since it was impossible to ensure the re-schooling of these children through the normal channels. Catch-up education provided the best solution to help bring them up to speed in their basic education.
Coaxing the students back to school was not easy. The dedicated teachers of the catch-up programme faced a number of challenges: establishing a routine for the children after a long break from the school habit and environment; as well as sustaining interest, and providing uniforms, books and shoes for the children. The innovative teachers successfully canvassed the support of the local community to get these children back to school. For instance local shop owners in Sammanthurai were contacted and encouraged to involve themselves in community issues, such as the need to get the drop outs to join the learning process once again. Shop owners willingly donated school books, stationery, school uniforms and shoes.
“Teachers came to our house several times and spoke to my brother about how important it was for me to continue with my school going. I was very happy that they were able to convince him. I really wanted to go back to study and fulfill my ambition of becoming a doctor. But it was not easy. We had no money to buy the school stuff. But somehow the teachers found a way of getting it, which enabled me to attend school,” recounted Fahim.
Catch-up classes were held after normal classes in the evenings from 3-6 during the week and on Saturdays from 9-12 in key subjects such as English and Tamil (the children’s mother tongue) for the 14 year olds.
18 primary students were taught for a ten month period and eight secondary students for six months. Experienced and qualified teachers enlisted for the programme and it was possible to identify the individual needs of the students. One-day seminars were held for the teachers by the Education Department, to introduce new methodologies of catch-up education to the teachers.
“The results were more than positive. Although resources were limited, we were able to maintain a balance between the formal demands of the schooling system and the child’s interests. We were able to bring 65 per cent of the children who were outside back to school because of programmes such as this,” observed the Vice Principal.
Today, thanks to catch-up education, both Farmila and Fahim are happily reintegrated in the school process once again. “I feel very interested in my school subjects . This kind of education must go on as there so many like me who are still outside,” says Farmila.
“English is my favourite subject and it will be very useful to me when I become a doctor one day” Fahim smiled as he ran to play with his schoolmates.
Catch up education campaigns in Sri Lanka saw 61,700 students enroll in primary schools in 2004, up from 44,200 students in the previous year.