You know your school life is officially coming to an end when you actually want to go to the school every single day. I studied in a local private school in Mulund, under Maharashtra State board. I always wondered what if I had studied in CBSE or ICSE Board. Kids from those schools could speak way better English. Even though I was from the same city, I got a culture shock entering Junior College. Everyone spoke fluent English as if they were born with it. They were from IB and IGCSE boards, which I had never heard of. Few kids mocked at me, because of my English. The language became a barrier for me to approach anyone. During graduation, I decided that I will learn and dust it. Today, it has become like any other familiar language.
For me, there was always a status associated with English. I still see that feeling among people who aren’t comfortable with the language. Everyone who feels so, should learn the language and come out of their mental block. The same happens in the chase for other materials associated with wealth, status etc. You can only calm yourselves after you’ve achieved it. But meanwhile, hate the game, not the players.
Today, I am thankful that I studied in an English medium school. In the interiors of Rayagada, Odisha, most of the students who cannot afford to study in private schools have the language of instruction as Odia till grade five. Afterwards, they have an opportunity to qualify the exams to get into government English medium schools. The competition is high. Only the brightest and smartest kids get in, and many of them are left out. They have to continue their education in Odia till grade ten.
After that, a student can opt for Science or Commerce. In either case, the language of instruction changes to English. If one chooses Arts, one can continue in Odia till graduation. Many of them opt for Arts due to the fear of English. In some of my interactions with students who had completed their graduation in English, they shared that grade eleven and twelve were the most difficult. They had to learn English, almost a new language at this stage, along with studying for their exams and preparing for competitions to get into good institutes for graduation in their preferred streams.
Picking up English took at least six months for the brightest ones. For others, even two years was a short period. They had to translate the technical terms from grade ten textbooks to make the current syllabus relevant. It was a common problem across the state. The bigger problem was that no one told them that they are going to face it.
Many students from science fail to score decent grades to qualify the competitive exams. Hence, they are left with B.Sc as their only option. English makes them fearful of education. It’s only after B.Sc that they realise their degrees did not mean much. So, they go for another degree or work in any job they could get, from carrying bricks on construction sites to office administration jobs that hardly need any educational qualification. A few continue in arts only to study in Odia. The rest consider that grade twelve was enough.
The situation of schools is not the best. An average school in rural Rayagada has a single teacher that manages a group of around twenty students from grade one to eight, all in one classroom. It becomes challenging for them. There is another teacher who would never turn up. This is because they are often involved in other jobs/businesses and teaching is a side hustle to get monetary benefits. The attendance of teachers as well as the students is varying.
Most students are First Generation Learners, i.e. they are the first generation in their families to receive any kind of formal education. Hence, as compared to second or third generation learner, they have lesser motivations to attend school. Kids are also involved in household tasks regardless of their age. 9-10 year old boys help in farming activities and take their animals for grazing. Girls support with cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. The elder sibling automatically becomes the parent of the younger ones. Some of them enjoy these activities more than sitting in a classroom. The nationwide closing of schools due to the pandemic has led to a rise in dropout rates, among other issues. While the Odisha government has started online sessions for the students, not everyone has a smartphone.
Even if a student completes his/her education in Odia, against all odds, the career opportunities are limited. They have to move to cities far off, for job opportunities. There is almost negligible exposure to entrepreneurship ideas and business models. More often that not, the only options left are to stay in the village and get involved in construction or to work as a wage labourer on farms or to take up their family occupation.
The local leaders are opposed to learning centers as social distancing is not being maintained. They point this out while they are not wearing a mask. Anyone hardly does it these days!
Kumbharsila is a small village in Kashipur block of Rayagada district. It has two learning centers. The village is divided into two parts, on the basis on caste. Let’s call them Part I and Part II. The teacher in Part I quit taking classes as he was earning more money doing construction work. After all, he had to take care of his family. A new teacher had to be appointed. In Part II, a few local leaders asked to stop the learning centers. There was a robbery in the school and hence, the school had to close down. All 45 students could not be accommodated in the learning centre as it is run by the teacher in their backyard, and so, there’s limited space. Ultimately, the learning center was asked to close.
The families did not want to send their children to the neighbouring part of the village, as the people living there, belong to a different caste. When I asked why such restriction, they credited it to the age-old tradition that’s being followed and that they have to follow it as well. In fact, I also got asked as to which ‘Gotra’ I belong to, for which I had to consult my grandmother!
In spite of all such hindrances, children are attending schools and learning centers. It is a way to meet their friends and have fun along with receiving Education. Many children of grade five and above cannot read and write in Odia. Hence, Agragamee’s focus has been on reading and writing. Along with this, students are taught basic mathematics. The numbers are written in English but spoken in Odia.
The learning centers are a great way for children who have dropped out but still want to read and write. The sessions are held everyday in the evening, from 4 or 5 PM, depending on whether the children have completed their work. Each session is usually two hours long, going up to 6 or 7 PM.
The focus right now is to bring children back to school after the longest school vacation they would ever have.
From my perspective, these are some of the issues in the Education system in Kashipur block of Odisha. If you ask the children or even adults in the villages, they might not point out any one of these. Unlike a kid in grade seven in Mumbai, kids here are not into coding, state level tournaments or into pressurizing their parents to buy an expensive item to show off in front of their friends. The kids here play in the nature, eat pesticide-free food and stay fit. They do not have to post anything on social media to get rapid dopamine hits when they are sad. They grow up learning life skills just how the kids in the 90s and before, used to do.
They seem much at peace. Even the adults are calm and not running around places. Everyone has time. At least it looks like that. Oh! The beauty of Kashipur!