Community Volunteers Ensure Children’s Attendance in School: Lessons from Anandshala

To encourage children to attend school, the Anandshala program used a group of boys and girls from the locality who had completed grades X and XII as community champions’.

The Need for community volunteers

It is well-known that schooling for all’ cannot be achieved only by providing reasonable quality school facilities close to all habitations. There is a need to encourage parents belonging to certain socio-economic groups to use schools fully and effectively for their children, that is, there is a need to create the demand (Santhakumar et al, 2016). There are various ways of persuading parents and children to use schools regularly. These can be financial or material incentives, such as scholarships and mid-day meals. However, these may not be enough to convince parents or their children about the importance of learning or participating well in the classroom processes. The earnings of these children may add more than the value of these scholarships and meals to their families. Hence, there is a need for other strategies to persuade children to use schools. However, these are easier said than done.

One may argue that the educated people within the community, its elders or the teachers in the school could play a facilitating role in this. But it will work only if the community is collectively and strongly interested in the education of all children and has enough persuasive capacity. However, as noted elsewhere (Santhakumar et al, 2016) the importance accorded to education by the community, in general, could be lower in villages where many children drop out. Or the community’s interest in schooling could be endogenous and expecting the local community leadership to take an active interest in education for all’ could be unrealistic. Hence, there may be a need for other mechanisms.

The Experience of some organizations

Several organisations interested in ensuring that all children go to school have utilized local community volunteers for the purpose. For example, it was attempted by Pratham in the urban slums of Mumbai and other cities. These local volunteers were trained and supported by the organization. There are many advantages in using local youth who have successfully completed school education, exude confidence and are employed, as role models. Their involvement in the program may encourage children from similar backgrounds to utilize education more effectively.

The Azim Premji Foundation, too, has carried out a small-scale experiment to engage community volunteers in the Yadgir District of North-East Karnataka. One girl from each village, who had completed school education, was recruited from the 15 villages where the dropout rate was around or more than 30% (among children between 6 and 17 years of age). These girl-volunteers were given an honorarium of Rs 3000/- per month and encouraged to continue their education in pre-university or undergraduate colleges. The expectation was that these girls would visit the school and households in their villages, identify children who are likely to drop out or do not go to school regularly, persuade these children and their parents, with the help of school teachers and if necessary, the resource persons of the Foundation, to go to school. They were also encouraged to take up literacy classes for adult women in the village since it was found that the literacy of mothers had a positive impact on the educational achievements of their children. In essence, these volunteers functioned as educated mothers or elder sisters for all children in the village on issues related to their school education. They ensured that all children got enrolled in schools. This is important since nearly one-fourth of the children in these villages have never been enrolled in schools. Hence, the volunteers worked with Anganwadis and parents. The key lessons from this program are documented in Santhakumar et al (2016). Some of these include:

There are some villages where a number of children could be brought back to school within the first year itself. On an average, more than 10 – 20% of such dropped out children could be brought back through this process (Santhakumar et al, 2016). Many children drop out not due to any serious reason and a little bit of effort on the part of a concerned person can make a difference here. However, there is a need for continued efforts to see that these children continue to be in school, which is why the role of a local volunteer is crucial. However, this process has taken substantial time in a few other villages despite several rounds of interactions between the volunteers and parents.

There is another group of children that faces serious difficulties in coming back to school due to the absence of caring parents or they already have a long gap in terms of schooling. They may require special efforts and attention. Or some of these children may never be able to come back to school and hence, there can be efforts outside the school to improve their literacy and numeracy.

There could be yet another group of children who are not sent to school due to the intentional decisions of the parents (due to lack of interest or the need to keep them at home for work). Some of these parents are adamant and for them, persuasion alone may not work.

An Anganwadi can play an important role in promoting interest in learning in young children and their transition to school. Hence, making Anganwadi functional and improving its performance have to be seen as important in ensuring total enrolment in school. Community volunteers play an important role in this.

In general, school teachers of these villages (barring a few) cooperated well with community volunteers. Some of them were involved in the identification of the volunteers.

However, it has been noted (Santhakumar et al, 2016) that the most important transformation from the point of view of social change is happening in the attitude and confidence of these volunteers. These girls were timid and unwilling to interact openly with outsiders in the beginning. However, most of them became very active, motivated and took initiatives on their own, over time. Some of them have emerged as role models for other girls and boys in the village. Six of them could complete undergraduate education successfully, and four of them pursued postgraduate education in social work with the support of people from the Azim Premji Foundation. On the successful completion of this education, all of them became full-time resource persons at organizations, such as the Foundation.

It is interesting to note that various Pratham Educational Initiatives, which run primarily with large numbers of young women with similar profiles, also consider the personal transformation of its volunteers as one of its big successes. In this context, it is interesting to observe the use and transformation of such community volunteers by other non-governmental organizations with the purpose of bringing about educational change in underprivileged social contexts.

However, the dynamics of this program of engaging community volunteers can face several challenges. Given that these youngsters may start with minimal educational achievements (grade X and XII) and that too from schools that do not offer very good quality learning, it may be difficult for NGOs and foundations which usually employ well-educated people to consider them for long-term employment. Whether these volunteers who work full-time for community mobilization for two to three years will be able to acquire higher levels of education required for better employment options is also doubtful. This may result in some of these volunteers getting frustrated with or even, adversarial to their organizations towards the end of their service, which may lead to a difficult situation. Hence, there is a reluctance on the part of many NGOs to engage community volunteers.

Community Champions of Anandshala

It is in this context that we look at the work of Quest Alliance with the government schools in the Samastipur district of Bihar. This intervention was started as part of the School Dropout Prevention Pilot (SDPP) program, a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in four countries during 2011 – 15. The details of this program can be read here. From 2015 onwards, Quest Alliance has focused on a district-wide education program called, Anandshala in partnership with the state government of Bihar, reaching one thousand schools in the Samastipur district. As part of this program, the organization combined a strategy of using an Early Warning System (EWS) for dropouts. It identifies students who are at the risk of dropping out by looking at school records and by taking certain response actions. Different activities are tried out to make schooling attractive and prevent dropping out.

The Anandshala program also utilized the services of a group of boys and girls from the locality of the school who had completed grades X and XII as community champions’. These volunteers (who received a nominal honorarium) worked with children and parents in the community, and with teachers to facilitate the school-community connect and through the process, tried to reduce the possibility of students dropping out. This program ended in 2015 and the services of these community champions were terminated. There was some unhappiness among these community champions when their services were terminated. We interviewed one of them who is currently working as a school teacher. Though the experience of working with Anandshala has not helped him to become a teacher, it is enabling his performance as a teacher. He noted that most of the challenges encountered in schooling were known to him as a community champion of Anandshala. A few other former community champions have secured similar teaching positions and some others are preparing for recruitment tests for various other jobs. The organization has provided them with a series of trainings on different themes, such as soft skills, before the termination of their services.

It may be interesting to look at the experience of using community champions as part of the Anandshala program. It had nearly 220 volunteers and continues to stay in contact with them. Hence, we suggested an understanding of this experience and the opinion of these community champions on working with the Anandshala program and afterwards. A questionnaire was prepared and circulated among these volunteers. Some of the salient points from this survey are the following:

  • Unlike the experiment by the Azim Premji Foundation, the Anandshala program has used a combination of boys and girls. As part of this survey, the data was collected from 50 such volunteers (14 female and 36 male).
  • Participation in the program has not discouraged them from pursuing higher levels of education. The majority (60%) of the participants have improved their educational qualification after joining the program. Around 40% of them have completed graduation or post-graduation after joining the program.
  • The organization has encouraged these volunteers to continue higher levels of education. This was confirmed by the participants too. Around 58% of these volunteers have noted that they got encouragement to study further.
  • The employment-level of these volunteers has risen after the termination of the program. The percentage of people employed has gone up from 40 to 58 after the program. Around 30% of them who have been unemployed before the program is currently employed.
  • The employment has reflected in their income status too. Only 8% had any income before they joined the program. However, currently, 50% of them report to having some income.
  • The organization has provided training and soft skills to these community volunteers to support their job-search after the termination of the program. Around 30% of these volunteers reported having got help in getting a job wherein 12% of them recognize such help for their current job.
  • However, there is a difference in the post-project achievements in terms of education and employment of these community volunteers between men and women. This, despite the fact that the equal number of male and female participants have expressed that they have got encouragement from the organization to study further. Though a total of 58% of the participants are currently employed, only 29% of women are employed. The corresponding percentage for men is 69%. Not surprisingly, about 56% of men are earning an income currently whereas only 36% of women seem to be doing so. Though 30% of people reported that they got help in getting a job, only 14% of women gave a similar answer.
  • The underperformance of women as community champions may be a reflection of the prevailing social conditions. The factors that keep work-participation rate among women very low in the country may be operating here too and that may be affecting their search for, and readiness to take up employment wherever/​whatever is available. This may indicate the need for motivating girls to complete education and take up employment. There is a need to create more role models and champions among girls. (They would be in a position to encourage younger boys too to be in schools). In that sense, it is important to enable them to acquire not only higher levels of education but also sustainable employment.

The Experience of Community Champions

The participation in the program has enhanced the capabilities of these volunteers, and hence, a majority of them seems to have benefitted personally, though the program was terminated after a few years. Most of these people would not have received higher education and post-project employment in the absence of this program. The contributions of the program in building the capabilities of these individuals could be both tangible and intangible. Small financial help may have helped them in pursuing education. Interaction with the managers of the program (who came with higher levels of education, and probably from urban areas) may have enhanced their aspirations in terms of education and employment. These may have encouraged them to pursue education against all odds. In summary, participation in a short-term volunteer program has not affected their education and employment prospects and has only enhanced these. However, the most notable contribution seems to be their experience in encouraging children from underprivileged backgrounds to continue schooling. That has also given them certain social or community recognition and almost all of them cherish it.

This is also evident from the qualitative narrations of their experience in encouraging children to go back or be regular in schools. Moti Kumari, a female volunteer, has this experience to share:

Sumit Kumar’s father is a carpenter. Both the parents are illiterate and Sumit used to help in his father’s work. He was not going to school when I visited them. Though the parents were illiterate, I could convince them to send their son to school. Seeing him going to school encouraged many other children from the same village to go to school. Sumit is still continuing his education about which his parents are also feeling proud. I am happy as I could make a difference to Sumit’s life.”

There were also girls who were not going to school. Pramod Kumar, another community champion, shared this experience:

The family of Prativa Kumari is poor and unable to support her education. There was an apprehension that she would drop out of school. I continuously visited the family and kept meeting her parents to convince them to continue her education. Her parents were planning her marriage which was stopped with my intervention. I feel proud that I could convince her parents and through that, they allowed her to continue education. She is now in intermediate and the family is seeing this as beneficial. I have earned the respect of their family.”


There could be other cases where girls are engaged in household chores due to the family circumstances, as evident from this description of Rajesh Kumar:

Suman Kumari’s family was poor and she was not going to school but was engaged in household chores. I regularly visited the family and tried to convince them, and because of that, she went back to school. She is now in high school and is continuing her education. She never misses her classes. She respects me for my efforts. She is happy that I have persuaded her to continue her studies.”

The lack of interest in schooling or classroom transactions could be another reason. This is evident from the case described by another volunteer, Subodh Das:

Ashok Ram was not interested in studies and used to roam around with friends. I visited his house and convinced his parents to persuade Ashok to join the school. With continuous efforts, he joined back. I engaged with him through multiple sessions of activity-based learning and these helped him to continue his schooling. He is in grade X now and respects me for my efforts.”

There are many such examples. In certain other cases, the issue could be one of lack of aspirations and the role of the community volunteer could be the creation of it. One of the volunteers, Ganesh Kumar, has encountered and narrates one such a case:

There was a boy who did not go to school and if he was forced to, he would return mid-way from school. His parents were also not very eager about his schooling. I started visiting his house and tried to convince the parents to send him to school which would help him become educated and get a better job and enjoy a better life. Also, as he was a minor, he would not find employment. With constant following up, he is now going to school regularly. He has appeared in the matriculation exams and he respects me for my intervention.”

There can be cases where the lack of parental supervision/​monitoring may encourage children to be irregular in school. A community volunteer, Dharmendra Kumar, narrates one such case:

Nandan Kumar and Chandan Kumar were brothers and admitted in the same school. Both of them were not regular and used to miss classes after half-day. Their father was working somewhere outside the village, so only the mother was at home. When I tried to persuade their mother to send them to school regularly, she was not very interested. I continued visiting her and finally, she agreed to send both her sons to school. Now both are going to school regularly without missing classes.”

In addition to their personal interactions with the parents of specific children, a few volunteers have encouraged community action to address the problem. The case of Saurabh Kumar is such. According to him:

Jyoti, Sandeep, Lalita, Priyanka and many other children were not going to school as their parents were not interested in sending them and instead were making them work. I kept meeting the parents to convince them. The parents argued that they couldn’t spend on education from their limited earnings and they would have nothing to eat if their children did not work. I convinced them that sending their children to school won’t cost them anything as they will get uniform, books, and food for free. Slowly, many children started going to school. I also practised what I had learnt from Anandshala about forming a forum of villagers. The forum helped all children to go to school. Each member of the forum contributed Rs 200/- that was used to sponsor the educational need of any child.”

Some of the children who are disinterested in studies may develop an interest and do well through the intervention of community volunteers. Babita Kumari, a volunteer, tells us of one such case:

Laxman Sahni was, academically, a weak boy. He used to miss classes to play outside with friends. I used to meet and counsel him not to bunk school. I had to scold him a few times and kept pushing him to resume schooling. Then he started coming to school regularly, took part in all activities and made friends. He continued his studies sincerely and scored first division in matriculation. I feel proud of him and he also shows a lot of respect towards me.”

Some children who are interested in studies may become irregular due to other reasons, and they may need the support, from someone like these volunteers, to be regular. There is one such case narrated by the volunteer, Preeti Kumari:

Kajal Kumari was a very meritorious student but due to some reason, she used to come to school irregularly. I went to her home several times and motivated her. And now she is coming to school regularly. She participates in all activities.”

It may not be that all such children who are brought back to the school by the community champions would complete schooling successfully. Some of them may drop out in higher grades. However, even if they can be in school for 7 – 8 years (grades), it can make a difference. A community volunteer, Mamta Kumari, narrates:

Rina Kumari was a shy girl who was not going to school and was busy in household chores. She had no friends to play and talk to. She hardly went out of her house. I visited her house frequently and kept meeting her parents to convince them to put her in school. After multiple visits, I was able to get her enrolled in school. As her father was staying outside, I had to convince her mother a lot. While in school, she made her friends and engaged in all activities. She studied up to grade VIII and left studies. She is now married.”

Girls like Rina Kumari may have gained something from schooling — probably a greater interest in educating their own children.

Epilogue

There are a few notable features in these and many other experiences of the community volunteers. Boys tend to drop out and take up work to assist parents. Or it could be that they are simply not interested in schooling under the given conditions. On the other hand, being engaged in household chores or early marriage could be the reason for girls to drop out. Interaction with an external (concerned and motivated) person can make a difference in a number of such cases. Since the choices made by their parents are not intentional or well thought out, a concerned person can make them see reason. The change in the behaviour of one child may have some demonstration effect too. If the child could continue education, parents may see its benefits over time (this strengthens the argument that they were not considering long-term consequences in their decision-making). Poor people recognize the advice/​services of community volunteers. The latter derives happiness from the success of their interventions and respect from others.

The experience of utilizing the services of community volunteers by different organizations mentioned here indicate that if properly planned and supported, the use of such volunteers can not only contribute towards the schooling of children who are likely to drop out or be irregular but can also be beneficial for these young people who may need encouragement to acquire higher levels of education. In fact, the interaction with an organization which has several educated people may enhance the educational aspirations of community volunteers, and if properly supported, they would do better in education than otherwise. Such education may enhance their chances of getting employment after the termination of the volunteer-program and there can be some special support (in terms of training) for this purpose too. Through this process, the short-term nature of the volunteer program, and the inability of the NGOs to provide them with long-term employment need not work against these volunteers.

As we have noted earlier, there may be a need to encourage girls as community volunteers. However, their personal development may be hampered by the gender norms prevailing in these villages. Hence, there may be a need for an additional effort to see that they overcome gender norms that work against their higher levels of education and participation in employment. If some of these volunteers are able to break the conventions that exist in these villages regarding the education/​employment of girls, it may make them role models for other children. Then, the community-volunteer program can also provide a push to the much-needed gender reforms even as its main purpose remains schooling for all.

References

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

Authors

Members of Quest Alliance
Sharad Sure, Faculty, Azim Premji University
Subrat Mishra, Program Manager, Field Practice and Students Affairs, Azim Premji University
V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University