If you’re from a poor family, there’s a lot more to life than just attending school! Siblings and domestic animals have to be cared for, parents have to be helped, essentials such as water or firewood have to be fetched, birds and animals kept away from the farm, you may need to migrate with your parents…. It’s not necessary that all this is a waste – in fact, despite the shadow child labour, a lot of this is also learning for life. Children who are in a position to attend daily too might learn a lot if they spent a day or two every week doing things other than school – such as tending to gardens, pursuing a passion, trying to earn something by putting their learning to use, solving a neigbhourhood problem, helping their siblings and parents, making things…. Or helping their underprivileged classmates so that they can spend more time in school.
The kind of focused (and therefore limited) scholastic learning our ‘advanced’ children end up doing has resulted in several luminaries pointing out that (even from institutions such as the IITs) our graduates are ‘unemployable’. One might add they haven’t developed many other aspects of their personality – including civic consciousness.
However, what this requirement of daily attendance does is to marginalize great numbers of children, since the teaching-learning process tends to be sequential (rather than re-iterative). If you miss out an earlier part, you can’t ‘keep up with the class’ and slowly head for being left out or pushed out or dropping out. Effectively, the school is saying: if you are poor and cannot attend regularly (as the we require), you shall not learn. Instead of: attend when you can, we’ll find a way to support you and make sure you learn (which is what the business of the school really is).
There are a few walk-in centres in the country (though of course only for poor and/or working children) and some of them do manage to attract and keep children for a long time even though there is no compulsion to attend. That kind of flexibility is perhaps too much to hope for in the school system. Enabling the school to be more responsive to children’s real living situations, though – that’s both possible and desirable. It needs a spiraling rather than linear flow, a variety and range of materials, and providing children engaging activities in many of which they will work on their own, and the use of a tracking system to keep record of progress. This gels with every provision of the RTE, with expectations put forward in our National Curriculum Framework, and much that contemporary understanding of pedagogy tells us. However, to make it happen what we need is not methods and materials but a way to get rid of this myth and the fear that everything will fall apart if the school seeks to respond (by adapting to children’s needs) rather than coerce (by making children adjust to its needs).