What happens when most children are in school?

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It has been recognized that some states in India have been successful in bringing most children to school and in ensuring reasonably adequate infrastructure and other facilities for school education at a relatively close distance from most inhabitations1. This is the situation in Kerala, which has been possible through governmental efforts to not just provide schooling but to also set off the social changes which create the demand for schooling (Santhakumar et al, 2016). In addition to the work of the Christian missionaries, the pro-active role of the Travancore princely state (which became a part of Kerala) from the middle of the 19th century has been valuable in this regard. The social mobilization of all caste groups (including the middle and the lower) was focused on the development or upward mobility of the people through education (Nair, 1976). The mobilization of tenant farmers and agricultural workers by the Communist Party and the implementation of limited land-reforms also facilitated the creation of the demand for schooling (Raj and Tharakan, 1983; Ramachandran, 1997). Though the patriarchal discrimination against girls limited their access to schools, in the beginning, there were several other enabling factors for girls’ education, like the influence of Christian missionaries and the prevalence of matrilocal and matrilineal traditions among some castes.

However, the state now faces the second-generation issues with respect to schooling for all’. This includes issues of the (lower) quality of education and the learning achievements of students. There is a growing demand for private schools even in the localities where government schools are functioning. This leads to the wastage of public resources and creates other problems, such as the disparity in the quality of schooling received by the children from affluent households and those from poorer families.

These problems are not unique to Kerala; most parts of India face similar challenges. However, it is interesting to study these challenges in Kerala since it achieved schooling for all’ ahead of the other states. Do the factors which have facilitated this achievement, enable or do they impede quality’ schooling for all? Are there other factors which work against improving the quality of learning? The insights from the experience of Kerala may be useful for other states which are currently grappling with the first-generation problems, like the retention of students in schools.

Why Some Students Are Weak’: A Field Study

The paper draws on the experience of the authors as residents of and researchers on the development issues in Kerala. We have conducted short-period, field-work in three schools (two government-owned and the third government-aided) in three districts namely, Trivandrum, Ernakulam and Wayanad. These districts are located in different geographical zones – the coastal area, mid-land, and high-land – representing different occupational patterns and covering a variety of social groups.

The field-work was to gather information about the socio-economic background and other characteristics of students who were identified as weak’ by the teachers in terms of learning the subjects taught in school. One section of class IX was selected and the class teacher was asked to identify five students who are the weakest’ in learning. In order to have a control group, the teacher was asked to identify five others who, according to her, were the most proficient in terms of learning in the same class. We visited the homes of these ten students for discussions with them, their parents and other family members on their schooling experience. We also held discussions with the teachers regarding their perceptions about and the efforts they had made with respect to the weak students. The insights based on these field-visits are discussed here.

Socio-economic conditions of the two groups were the same

There was not much difference between the socio-economic circumstances of the two groups of students. If most of the weak students came from the so-called backward communities and scheduled castes, the same was true for the better- performing students. For example, in one school in the Ernakulam district, all the weak students were from the middle caste (Ezhava) or Hindu, fishing community (Dheevara) and so were the better-performing students. Similarly, there were the upper-caste (Nair) students among the weaker ones in the school in Trivandrum district and there were also the proficient students with parents who had only received modest levels of education.

Most of the houses of both groups had concrete roofs, cement-block structures, electricity connection, LPG for cooking and some had Cable TV. Only in Wayanad some differences in the socio-economic background of the two groups was noted. All the weak students came from the ST and SC communities, while the proficient ones belonged to the backward communities. Most of the parents of the proficient students had completed ten years of schooling. Although, even in this school, there was a perception among the teachers that poverty and lower incomes of the households that were significant barriers in the past are not relevant these days. Moreover, children from the ST and SC communities have several schemes that benefit them. These include a stipend, free transport to school and the provision of notebooks. In addition, their families too get support from various government schemes. Some of the weak students owned mobile phones too. So, it seems that even when social conditions are different for the two groups (in terms of whether they belong to an ST/SC household; or the educational status of the parents), they may affect the learning of children not necessarily through the income/​poverty route but through other ways discussed in the following sub-sections.

It may be noted that in Kerala a major section of children from the relatively better off sections of the society – the middle and upper class, especially in urban areas – may have moved towards (fee-paying) private schools. Hence, the government or the aided schools in these areas attract students from the middle and the lower castes and classes or those whose parents may not have received higher education and are not in formal-sector jobs. Also, they are not from households with remittance-income from the countries of the middle-east2.

Another reason could be the general economic conditions, which are better in Kerala as compared to the other states due to the higher wage rates for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, and; the government-supported social security schemes which keep the levels of poverty low. Moreover, when students from all sections of the society continue to be in school for ten years, a section from the vulnerable socio-economic background too may develop an interest in learning, which may be another reason there is little difference in the socio-economic conditions between the weak and the proficient students.

Poor learning outcomes are higher among boys

The five students who are identified by class-teachers as the weakest in each class were all boys3. On the other hand, the set of proficient students in two schools included both boys and girls, and; in one school, they were all girls. It would seem that the apparent weakness in learning in higher grades is more prevalent among boys than girls. This could be due to a number of reasons which we discuss in the following sub-sections and could also point to factors that may be more relevant to boys than girls in the current social context in Kerala.

Learning disability issues are more noticeable when all children are in school

Teachers and parents note that some students have learning disabilities, and these could be a reason for their weak performance in school. In a situation where all children go to school, the concern about the learning disability of some children may become prominent. Whereas, where non-enrolment or dropping out of a section of children is usual, the group that does not enrol or drops out comprise children who according to the perception of the teachers and parents, face difficulties in learning. There could be multiple dimensions to this. It could be a socially constructed view, wherein difficulty in learning specific subjects may be attributed (without any attempt to improve teaching those subjects) to a learning disability. Although it is not unusual for a set of children to face such type of disability in any context, the share of children facing learning difficulties could be higher in sections of the population that have encountered challenges in terms of nutrition and health-care during mothers’ pregnancy and infant-care. The issue which is identified as a learning disability could also be partly due to a rigid and inappropriate structure of schooling wherein facilities for improving proficiency on certain dimensions are missing. For example, students who have (apparent) learning disabilities may do well in other spheres, like painting, music or sports which may not be considered or assessed as learning proficiencies.

A few of those identified as weak students do seem to have one or the other type of learning disability. One such student, according to the parent, cannot read long sentences but can read the shorter ones. Teachers consider him to have a learning disability and they have asked his mother to visit a psychologist and get an IQ certificate. According to his mother, the psychologist has identified that the student is weak only in academics but is otherwise good in communication and other responses. She pointed out that her son could perform certain activities as well as any person his age, like going to the bank to deposit money; purchasing items from shops, and; collecting the correct balance amount, to name a few.

It seems that the Kerala Government has put in place a mechanism whereby students like this can pass standard X examination. The schools have also set up an IED (integrated education for disabled) room, with appropriate resources and have an additional part-time teacher for supporting such students. There are also non-governmental initiatives for the education of children who face different kinds of learning disability. However, the adequacy of these initiatives needs to be evaluated. In summary, addressing learning disabilities could be a second-generation problem of education especially, in localities where most children are in school.

Disinterest in school subjects but proficiency in others

There are a few students who are recognized weak in studies, but they are busy with and proficient in other activities. This may be partly due to their interest but also partly due to the compelling circumstances they come from. One such student earns money by using his percussion skills; by participating in local festivals where he holds idols while sitting on the top of elephants; and by working as an assistant to a temple priest. He is able to earn as much as an unskilled worker on the days he undertakes these activities. He is also a drummer and a key member of the local music band. A weak student in another school also has an interest in percussion and music and earns small money through it. Yet another student, according to his mother is very good at drawing and interested in repairs of serial bulbs and other electrical items. He has made a small Chinese fishing net on his own, which he uses for fishing. Some of these students are irregular in attending school4. A boy in the second school likes and has read poems and literature; he writes stories in Tamil (the language he has studied in the primary grades) and is fond of drawing. He is adept in the use of advanced mobile phones and apps and spends time using Google, WhatsApp and Facebook. He sometimes works as an assistant in a shop owned by a relative and uses this money for recharging his mobile phone. Teachers have noted the versatility of a few students (identified as weak in studies) in the use of mobile phones. According to them, one of the students is often contacted when someone wants to understand new features on their mobile phones. This child repairs old gadgets, according to his mother. Four out of five students who were identified as weak in studies are notably proficient in something other than academics, in the school in the Trivandrum district. Two of these have been successful in aquatic sports. Teachers also note that external distractors’ play a role in the case of certain weak students, though they had not analysed if these were due to family issues or a genuine interest in skills/​proficiencies which are not taught in school.

What do these examples indicate? Though not many students drop-out of school in Kerala, some of them participate in work and earn an income, probably to support their family or to meet their own expenses. The fact that the father of the student who works as a drummer has been unwell and bed-ridden for some time may have encouraged him to do so. However, it is also interesting to note that students pick up other skills some of which are valuable for their adult life during school days but not necessarily from the school. Whether the lack of proficiency or the disinterest in school subjects is due to inadequate learning in the lower grades or because of the focus on other interests, needs to be examined. Some of these boys have done well in studies, according to their parents in the primary grades but have lost interest in the higher ones5. However, we will come across these students in schools especially because most students continue to be enrolled in higher grades. How to encourage them to acquire minimum learning in general subjects without limiting their interest or acquisition of skills which are of interest to them is a matter that needs careful consideration.

External academic support readily available

Some of the better-performing students in two of the schools get extra academic support from home either from the mother (if she has passed standard XII) or from elder siblings. Some of them also go for paid tuitions. The weaker students also go for tuitions or at least their parents are interested in sending them to. This could be a reflection of the fact that these tuitions are not that costly6 and that there is no significant difference between the socio-economic conditions of the weaker and the better-performing students. However, those students who are recognized as weak, either lack the willingness to attend private tuitions or discontinue these after some time. Though one such student has not gone for tuitions, one college-student in their neighbourhood tried to support him academically but the former did not show interest in continuing it after a few days. So, there is a provision of getting unpaid or cheaper, extra academic-support in the locality if a student is interested and their weakness’ need not be due to the lack of access to it. Their lack of interest is also evident from their disinterest in the programs organized by the school to provide additional academic support to them – an issue that we discuss in a later section.

Parental disinterest or inability to monitor the child’s education

Though certain conventional socio-economic factors do not seem to be different between the weak and proficient students, there can be some differentiating factors in the case of the former. Out of the five students who were identified weak in one school, the parent of one was deceased or three of them had parents who were suffering from some form of illness. There are other cases from other schools where the father is either less interested or unable to monitor the studies of the child. These cases include a ‘ father (who) has never shown interest to go to school to meet teachers in the last few years’, according to the mother of the student; a father who is unwell (paralyzed); where both biological parents are dead, and; a father who spoke a language different from the medium of the school. Cases with fathers who are unskilled and working outside the state; separated parents, and; deceased father, constitute the majority of the weaker students in the third school. The absence of both biological parents in the same household seems to be a hurdle in learning. The fathers’ inactive or passive role is also recognized as a factor here. It is mostly the mothers of the weaker students who attend the PTA meetings and raise issues, like the poor quality of teaching of specific subjects; fathers of the weak students rarely attend these meetings.

In that sense, weak students in general, seem to face the lack of a strong interest on the part of the father in their studies. The teachers also note this lack of interest on the part of parents as a major constraint. According to one of them, there are rare examples where children perform better in class even if their parents are not bothered about their studies’ and they do not see any such case there.

Though there are also cases where the father is not present in the household among the students who are recognized as better-performing, but these are girls. Though single parenthood (or the absence of fathers) is recognized to affect the schooling of girls in the developed world, probably the issue is not yet very relevant in India due to the restrictive social norms imposed over the girls regarding their movement, freedom of having friendships/​relationship with students of the opposite sex, or in deciding the contours of their adult life. They are relatively under greater control of the parents or not allowed by the society to divert their attention to other aspects. So even if the father is absent, the gender norms imposed by the society, work in the same way.

How can schools deal with these second-generation problems?

People who are not directly connected with schools (such as academics), managers and teachers of private schools and parents in general talk about the lack of quality teaching in government schools. Though there are teachers whose teaching is interesting for children7, there are others who are not able to enthuse the children8. One student who is better-performing talked about the inability of certain teachers to clear their doubts because they simply repeat the same sentences and don’t explain’. Parents of weaker students complain about the lack of personalized attention by teachers9. Some of the ideas of good teaching’ internalized by the students and parents can be problematic. Some of them may expect a bit of spoon-feeding10.

It is important to note that teachers are making additional efforts to improve the learning of the weak students. They have been conducting remedial classes in school for grades V‑X (these are called Akshara Deepam11) for the last three academic years. These provide additional academic support to weaker students in Malayalam, English and Mathematics after school-hours12. There is a process by which students are identified for this extra-academic support.13 On an average, there could be a minimum of five students from one section of a grade. This extra session is used to teach students portions of the syllabus from the lower grades (for example, grade VI textbooks may be used for coaching a grade IX student). There is a test of reading and writing after three months, and those who perform reasonably well, are asked to discontinue the extra session.

According to the teachers, those who are regular in these extra-support sessions improve their performance but there are many students who are irregular, and they continue to be academically poor. The reasons for irregularity may include involvement in other activities like sports, NCC and household related tasks. According to one teacher, the basic reason is that they don’t want to sit after school hours, they want to play or go home early’. Though the schooling during normal hours has a provision for transport14, such a facility is not there for this extra session, which is another reason for the lack of interest by some students, especially those living in distant locations. In summary, the teachers identify the lack of enthusiasm in attending remedial practice regularly as a serious issue for those students who are identified as the weakest15.

This, however, does not mean that such support programs organized by the schools are ineffective as they continue to be of help to many. In summary, teachers are not insensitive to the issue of weak learning and they take additional steps especially in Kerala. This could be due to the general interest in schooling and the social pressures on government schools to respond to such issues. However, these efforts are not adequate to motivate a section of parents to use government schools for their children and hence there is an exodus to private schools and we discuss it in the following section.

How can government schools attract more students?

An important issue regarding schooling that is being debated currently in India is with the regard to the role of private schools. On the one hand, all accounts show an increase in the use of private schools in most parts of the country (ASER, 2014), there is a debate whether private schools provide better-quality education. Though the recorded learning achievements in private schools are better than those in government schools, as noted by a number of researchers, this difference could be due to the difference in the socio-economic and other conditions of students using these two kinds of schools. This was also evident from the randomized control trials which have shifted children randomly from the government to private schools and have observed their performance over time (Muralidharan and Sundararaman, 2013; Karopady, 2014).

In general, the dependence on private schools is higher in Kerala. The use of private schooling by girls is marginally higher than that of boys in the state. This may be due to the relatively less biased use of household resources against girls in this state. Though more than half of the children (around 62%) go to private schools, the majority of these private schools are financially aided/​supported by the government (just 15% are unaided). This would mean that the formal qualifications of teachers and their salaries are the same as that of the government-school teachers. Moreover, the cost of education in both type of schools is almost the same.

However, there is a growing trend to use private schools. Even in villages where government schools function reasonably well, we have seen private schools cropping up in the recent years. The reasons cited by parents are documented in literature, English-medium education; motivated teachers; the practice of homework; a perception that students have higher learning achievement and so on16. The dependence on private schooling poses a number of problems. On the one hand, many government schools do not have enough students considering the number of teachers and the facilities that these have. Despite these, the closing down of government schools may not be feasible and desirable. There could be students who cannot afford to use private schools, and any reduction in the availability of government schools near their inhabitations may work against the access to schooling for these children. The outflow of children of middle-class backgrounds from government schools has increased the class difference between the teachers and parents and has reduced the ability of the latter to influence school management so as to receive better treatment for their children. On the other hand, most private schools do not have enough qualified teachers and other required facilities. All these may lead to a significant wastage of public and social resources (including those spent by parents for the education of their children). Moreover, there is a need to strengthen government schools to meet the access and social needs of education, and this cannot be met by private schools or through financial incentives17.

There are attempts by the government schools to attract more children (or to reduce the move towards private schools) in these states. This could be partly driven by the policies of the state but partly due to the career interest of the teachers. Even if teacher’s jobs are protected when there are not enough students in government schools, they may face problems related to transfers. In order to minimize these problems, teachers may make efforts to attract and keep more students in their schools. They may do campaigns during the time of admissions18, or contribute money to organize transport for students and so on. Since one of the reasons cited for the movement of students to private schools is the availability of English medium instruction, a number of aided and government schools in Kerala have started English medium divisions (in addition to those in Malayalam). In the schools that we visited, there were both English and Malayalam medium divisions for all grades19.

There are some government schools in urban areas in Kerala which attract hundreds of students despite a growing tendency among children to move out of government schools20. There are interesting experiments being carried out in government schools to make these attractive with additional infrastructure (computers, better classrooms, facilities for sports and extra-curricular activities) so that there is less attraction towards private schools21. One such experiment is going on in an urban school in Kozhikode. The contribution of money from altruistic/​charitable sources is very helpful in this. The success of this experiment has also encouraged the state government to plan such additional facilities in other government schools. It has allocated rupees 10 – 20 million per school to improve the infrastructure. Will such experiments decelerate the flow of children to private schools is an issue most of us will be watching out for.


  1. For a recent documentation, see Santhakumar et al, 2016.

  2. Such an income is an important source for a significant number of households in Kerala. There are more than two million Keralites working in the Middle-East. See Zakharia and Rajan (2012).

  3. The sixth and the seventh weak student in one school were girls.

  4. According to teachers, one of them attends class only twice a week.

  5. As in the case of the second student mentioned in the previous paragraph (who does electrical repairs).

  6. The reported range of cost of tuition is between rupees 100 to 500, per month. This is around 20- 100 % of the daily wage of an unskilled worker in Kerala. Given the availability of educated girls who are not otherwise employed, to take these up, the cost of a private tuitions may not be high.

  7. According to a better-performing student, who enjoys English, Biology and Chemistry classes in school, the teachers teach these well, and; their classes are interesting with lots of fun, examples and simple ways of explaining. These teachers mingle freely with the children.

  8. Some teachers may not attempt to ease the anxiety of students regarding certain subjects. According to a student, her mathematics teacher says that the subject is difficult for even the teachers and hence there is no surprise if it is so for the students.

  9. The mother of a weak student said that the personal attention is missing in school. She thinks that children will study if teachers motivate children personally, which is missing.

  10. A better-performing student blames her Hindi teacher for not giving written question and answers’ like other teachers do.

  11. There is a new remedial program under the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) for class IX students called Navaprabha’ for Malayalam, Science and Mathematics.

  12. For one hour (45 pm) every Monday to Thursday from June- March.

  13. First, there is an oral test – students are given a passage to read in the early weeks of June. Then there is a written test — based on the proficiencies expected in grades lower than that of the students. For example, grade II-III proficiencies are tested in grade VII students. Based on these two assessments, weaker students are identified and they are asked to attend the evening classes and their parents informed in PTA meetings or on phone calls.

  14. The school has arranged bus and auto rickshaw facility for the pick-up and drop of children for which they have to pay a minimum amount as per distance and rest of the cost is shared by school teachers on a monthly basis. However, free transport has been provided to a few students because of their difficult financial situation. It may be noted that the teachers have an interest in seeing that the number of students does not decline.

  15. One of the weak students rarely attends Akshara Deepam; another started attending it regularly only after nearly six months; yet another student discontinued after attending it for a few weeks. The teachers in the second school also note the lack of interest among the so-called weak students in the extra academic support provided to them by the school.

  16. An NSSO survey conducted in 2014 asked the respondents the reasons for preferring private schools. 58.7% of them note better environment for learning’; 22.4% report that the quality of education in government schools is not satisfactory; 11. 6% mention that the medium of education in private schools is English; only less than 4% of respondents have used a private school due to the non-availability of a government school. However, 12 – 26% of the respondents have used a private secondary school due to the lack of a government school nearby. This data is reported here: http://​mospi​.nic​.in/​M​o​s​p​i​_​N​e​w​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​/​n​s​s​_​r​e​p​_​575.pdf

  17. A detailed argument is given in Santhakumar (2018).

  18. According to a student who was planning to seek admission in a private school, one of the teachers of the government school visited their house and promised that she would be given all support for her education so that she could score good grades in grade V.

  19. The situation in one school is as follows: In grades V‑VII there are three sections of which two are Malayalam medium and one is English medium. In grades VIII – X there are four sections of which one is English medium. In grade IX there are five sections of which one is English medium.

  20. The Cotton Hill Girls High School which is a government model school for girls, is an example.

  21. One such successful experiment is going on in the Kozhikode city with the active participation of a philanthropist and the local MLA. Similar efforts are being tried out in the Alappuzha constituency represented by the Finance Minister of Kerala (T. M. Thomas Isaac).


ASER. 2014. Annual Status of Education Report (rural) 2014. New Delhi: ASER Centre.

Nair, P.R.G. 1976. Education and Socio-Economic Changes in Kerala, 1793 – 1947. Social Scientist 4 (8): pp 28 – 43.

Ramachandran, V. 2014. Can we fix the persisting crisis of learning? Note, ASER Report. 2014. New Delhi: ASER Centre.

Santhakumar, V., Gupta, N. and Sripada, R. 2016. Education for All: Can We Neglect the Demand in India? Delhi: Oxford University Press

Santhakumar, V., Singh, I. and Kumar, N. 2018. Inter-Linkages Between Education and Development, A Case Study of Himachal Pradesh. Bangalore: Azim Premji University.

Zacharia, K. C. and Rajan, S. I. 2012. Nflexion in Kerala’s Gulf Connection. Report on Kerala Migration Survey 2011, Working Paper No. 450. Trivandrum: Centre for Development Studies.


V. Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University
Vargheese Kochattu Antony, Azim Premji University