Raj, a class 7 student of Bashirhat Town High School missed school for almost a month due to persistent fever. But he made sure he didn't miss his private tuition classes. Tania, a bright student in Class 9, also goes for 'tuitions'. She takes extra coaching in Science, Math and English. She even takes English coaching at two different places - one each separately for literature and grammar as the literature teacher taught only ‘theory’ and not basic grammar rules. Titli, a class 8 student, spoke of how she began reading basic words in English after receiving help from her private tutor.
Almost all students who had availed education loans on Milaap were doing so to pay for private tuitions after school. This spoke volumes about their school classrooms. The ubiquitous enrolment in private tuitions by children of rural West Bengal seems necessitated by circumstances. A single classroom had at least 70 students on average and individual attention was not something they ever received. If the family can afford it, enrolling kids in private tuitions right from Class 1 is norm. All students I met on field visits were at home, missing school for the day for minor reasons. ‘Noisy’ or ‘crowded’ are the words most often used to talk about their classes.
Then again, these were cases of relatively well-off families who wanted their child to have an education. Many times, children drop out of school to join the mother or father in income generation. Rajiya Bibi, a Milaap borrower, who had availed a loan for her daughter, admitted that all three of her sons were now out of school and made a living. Amena Bibi’s son, who dropped out of school after Class 10, was now fully engaged in her tailoring business after learning the trade from her. Many parents don't see the point of school if they cannot afford private tuitions. No tuitions are synonymous with poor grades and low scores in school exams.
This was the case in the village of Atliya, in North 24 Paraganas, West Bengal. Most families here did agricultural labour and the children don't go to school because they can't afford tuitions. The setting up of a learning centre by Belaghoria Jankalya Samity (BJS), a local microfinance organisation, came as a blessing to the village. They have set up a centre offering training and guidance for school children before and after their school hours for a very nominal fee. It started with one teacher and about 10 students in January 2017. In less than a month, more than twice the number of students enrolled at this centre.
The day we arrived for a visit, early in the morning at 7 a.m., classes for children in Class 3, 4 and 5 were going on. Jesminara Bibi, the teacher, was handled this motley group by herself. She gave math sums to the Class 3 students while she engaged the rest of the kids in a Bengali lesson.
I sat with Priya, the only girl in the class who spoke fluent Hindi. She had lived in Bombay for a year previously. Her parents worked there as daily-wage workers. Now they were back in the village because her mother had fallen ill, Priya explained. She was cheerful and confident as she introduced me to the other kids in the class. They worked hard on their math sums but when they opened their English texts, they were unable to read out the words or letters. However, the blank spaces in the books were neatly filled and corrected.
I did not want to interrupt the session, but I sat for a while to talk to their teacher, Jesminara. She was a young and confident woman, who gave detailed replies to all of my questions. Surprisingly, Jesminara herself had not completed her school education. She had always been an enthusiastic student at school. Her parents couldn’t afford to send her for tuitions so she stayed back after school to have the lessons explained to her again by one of her teachers at school. Once she reached class 8, she started giving taking classes for other students. History had been one of her favourite subjects and she had always wanted to be a teacher.
But life had other plans and she was married off at an early age. She studied only till class 12. Within two years of marriage, she lost both her husband and father-in-law and was left alone in the house with her toddler son. She then came back to her parents' home with her child. Now, the onus of taking care of the family now fell on her as her father who used to work as a mason, had fallen ill. Her two brothers are still in school and her sister has been married off. A grant from BJS enabled her to buy a sewing machine and a few goats to start her own business. A better opportunity called, when she was offered the responsibility of teaching the students at the BJS learning centre. This was her chance to claim her teaching dream. After a month-long training session by BJS, she was ready to take on this role.
She sat there in a corner of the classroom, speaking to me, her eyes keenly watching her charges. I asked her if it sometimes got too much - teaching such a diverse group of students, who had very poor grasp on their school work. She replied in the negative. She considers it a matter of pride to help all these children catch up to the necessary academic proficiency for their age and class. In fact, this task was the most motivating part of the challenges she faced as a teacher. Jesminara is now in the process of evaluating their current level of subject understanding and setting targets based on these. She uses interactive teaching methods that she learnt from the training sessions with BJS. She also plans to give monthly tests to evaluate the student’s progress. She has begun to enjoy this new role as a teacher so much so that she has scaled down on orders for her sewing business. She is supported by her mother who runs a chai shop next to their house.
It is inspiring to see women like Jesminara who work so hard to provide for their students the kind of education they never got. The students in Ataliya village and other such places have had their academic playing field distorted at an early age. Initiatives like these are definitely a step in alleviating this issue. But the problem of substandard education at government schools still remains the elephant in the room.