Learning outcomes & well-being of children in public schools: Some reflections

A discussion on strategies to improve access, enrolment, attendance, retention; and improving learning outcomes and wellbeing of Adivasi children.

The University-Practice Connect Initiative of the Azim Premji University has been engaging with practitioners, organizations, government officials and academics working in the area of tribal education. Taking this association further to collectively arrive at a better understanding of a variety of issues, a knowledge-sharing workshop on Elementary Education of Adivasi Children in India’ was organised at the University on March12, 2019. This report documents one of the panel discussions among a group of participants and a reflective conclusion on the same.

You can read more on the Workshop on Adivasi Education here.


Learning outcomes and well-being are aspects of education that have been increasingly emphasized in discourses around school education in an attempt to focus on what schooling is doing to the learners. However, measuring outcomes is not easy, particularly, the aspect of well-being, which cannot be defined in specific terms. Nevertheless, there are studies and data regarding learning outcomes and well-being that indicate the levels or categories of learning at which the learners are. The following aspects were highlighted in the background note of the workshop.

  • In spite of the EFA (Education for All) campaign (UN, 1991) mandating free and compulsory education for all children; and literacy and elementary schooling being important constituents of human development (UNDP, 1990), the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population fares poorly.
    • As per the Census 2011, STs in India have a literacy rate of around 59% which is 14% less than the national average of 73%.
    • Learning outcomes of Adivasi children have significant scope for improvement.
    • Although after the launch of the Sarva Sikshya Abhiyan (SSA), enrolment of ST children has gone up substantially, the dropout rates remain very high; between grades I to IX approximately 70% of these children leave the school which is 20% higher than the national average for the whole population.
  • Low rates of school completion prevent the Adivasi youth from accessing opportunities that the mainstream society enjoys.
  • The reasons for this dismal performance have also been debated in various policy documents and specific strategies to address these challenges have been proposed for many decades.
    • A culturally responsive pedagogy that recognises Adivasi languages and cultures, and recruitment of Adivasi teachers.
    • Provisions for residential schools and the inclusion of mid-day meals and other welfare measures in day schools.
  • Many of these policies have been implemented and continue through many policy initiatives. However, the achievement of access, retention, attendance, and learning outcomes of Adivasi children has continued to be low.

The facilitator shared data points on learning outcomes of Adivasi children from sources, such as NCERT’s National Achievement Survey (NAS) and Pratham’s ASER. Though these are different kinds of assessments — NAS being a grade-level assessment and ASER a floor test’ — viewing both together, provides an overview of learning outcomes in the country at various levels of schooling. Following are some highlights from these data sets.

  • There are significantly less numbers and percentages of Adivasi children in education.
    • At the primary level, the numbers match the national average.
    • At the upper primary level, this begins to drop.
    • In spite of RTE, all Adivasi children are not enrolled in schools; it is still at 95% for the elementary level which is the RTE focus group.
    • In terms of dropouts in grade X, the national average is 10% as against the Adivasi average of 27%.
    • The grade X drop-out rates affect higher secondary enrolment (XI, XII); wherein the national average is 55%, that of the Adivasis is only 39%.
  • A glance at the subject-wise learning outcome presents a curious picture.
    • In the English language, there is little gap between Adivasi children and others. Though the average percentages are not good, the gap is not large.
    • In Indian languages, the gap between the scores of Adivasi children and the other children is large; clearly indicating the advantage of mainstream home languages that the other children have, and the disadvantages Adivasi children face in learning their respective State languages.
    • In the core subjects of maths and science, the gap in learning outcomes between the two groups of children, is also large, which is not surprising because the medium of instruction is the State language, which is foreign to the Adivasi children.

Discussion Agenda

1. Strategies for improving access, enrolment, attendance, and retention and improving learning outcomes, particularly in literacy and numeracy, and board exam results.
2. Well-being of children in government schools.
3. Role of residential schools in the achievement of access, learning outcomes and children’s well-being.

Since the list of issues to be discussed were closely interlinked, so, the group decided on a round-robin format for the initial round wherein each participant presented their views on the overall theme and then the discussions moved into a free-flowing format wherein participants supported or countered the viewpoints presented by the other group members.

Strategies for improving access, enrolment, attendance, and retention and improving learning outcomes

1. Learning deficiencies

  • No learning is taking place in schools, particularly where Adivasi children are enrolled.
  • Referring to the fact that the government’s mid-day meal (MDM) program is in operation across all schools; and given that it has operated at acceptable efficiency levels, a group member remarked, People call giving of rice as schooling’.
  • Children, particularly the Adivasi children, still cannot write their names; even in grade V, they cannot read or even speak the State language well, in which all their books are.
  • No detention policy as the reason for poor grade-level learning was pointed to, but bringing back detention could also lead to an increase in the number of dropouts was also mentioned.

2. Department /​expertise misalignment

  • Most special schools set up for Adivasi children are being run by the Social Welfare Department instead of the Education Department.
  • Notifications have been issued to some states to hand over these schools to the Education Department, but this has not been adhered to. A group member believed that this is because it allows the Social Welfare Department officials to indulge in corrupt practices, like siphoning off funds allocated for education.
  • There are other bureaucratic and political issues that create unnecessary barriers for long-term progress, for example, in most cases when officers change, particularly at the higher levels of bureaucracy, everything starts from scratch; similarly, political agendas also change.
  • Monitoring systems are weak and poor performers continue to function in schools.
  • There is insufficient funding for education, hence, small schools are economically unviable for most education departments across the country; but the nature of Adivasi habitats are small.
    • There are many small schools with an enrolment of around 20 children. With a teacher costing, on an average, Rs.30,000 per month and a minimum of two teachers required per school as per RTE, the per-child cost is more than Rs.35,000 per annum (Rs.7.2L as salary for two teachers divided across 20 children).
    • Hence, without consolidating, it is difficult to operate the system. But in consolidation and scaling-up, an appreciation of the diversity is lost to a large extent.
  • Some of the programs have become business models, for example, given that the majority of the population in some states/​regions are tribal, residential schools have become a business.

3. Teacher-related issues

  • Most teachers are either unqualified or underqualified. These schools are in disadvantaged regions where recruitments have not taken place, so, contract teachers continue to teach, or haphazard recruitments are made with only the aim of having an adult in the classroom.
  • Teacher qualification is poor, and consequently, teachers are paid low salaries (Rs 4000 – 5000 per month) which, in turn, leads to a poor classroom environment — it is a vicious cycle.

4. Societal issues

  • Trafficking of girl children continues in spite of laws in place; extreme levels of poverty feeds this.
  • Given the poor standards of schools and the attraction of traditional occupations and lifestyles, children are happy to be out of school.
  • The Adivasi population do not consider the school as their own as it is alien to their culture and tradition, given its focus on western education. It does not seem to provide children with any short- or long-term benefits.
    • Examples of cultural conflicts are: children are expected to sit in one place and follow a structured time-table in school, which is not something the Adivasi children learn in their own culture; the school calendar is not aligned to the Adivasi festivals.
    • Given the inappropriate orientation of teachers towards education and the emphasis on syllabus completion, teachers do not welcome parent-visits, which further alienates the community.
  • Some even argued that this model of education is designed to kill the Adivasi conscience and spirit, while keeping the human’ for labour.
    • Schooling removes the Adivasis from their culture and tries to integrate them into the mainstream.
    • A good example is that most Adivasi groups do not differentiate between a boy and a girl which is evident from their customs during the birth of a child, however, the mainstream society brings in the differences, hierarchies and concepts of gender (inequality) through the schools (for example, an Adivasi Head Teacher, went on to have nine daughters in the hope of begetting a son, something that is not of concern among the Adivasis).
    • Even this conference has the schooled Adivasis’; whereas a lot of wisdom resides in their traditional knowledge repository, which is ignored, and even, condemned as archaic.
    • In the name of education, schools are taming’, not even training’ which too would be problematic.

The list of issues put forth by the participants seemed to present a dismal picture. However, the group agreed that enabling conditions for learning outcomes have improved; hence, some strategies have worked. The way forward would be to study these strategies and also design scale-ups by adopting strategies that can work across regions and, at the same time, enable the eco-system to come up with further strategies to create customized solutions for Adivasi education in every region.

The participants shared their experiences and the strategies that have worked well in their effort to improve Adivasi education. The section below attempts to capture the strategies shared by the group members and, thereby, provide a broad roadmap for the way forward.

Overall principle

It was pointed out that we often look at Adivasi education as a binary between modern education versus tribal culture. An effective strategy would be to have a good balance; to bring in the modern aspects of science; and at the same time, retain the traditional knowledge system of tribal cultures, such as the understanding of forests, etc.

There is a need for a change in perspectives, in order to recognise that the Adivasi children too already possess culture and knowledge before they are enrolled in schools.

There were some voices in the group that indicated the need for a certain level of scale in any initiative, wherein some aspects of diversity have to be sacrificed, i.e., in order to enhance the quality of schooling, some standardization has to be in place (such as the curriculum), which reduces the diversity/​flexibility (such as incorporating the tribal customs of every tribe).

Government policies and initiatives

  • Currently, most state governments have schemes to encourage enrolment at every stage; this needs to continue along with a focus to improve schools.
  • In Kerala and Telangana, there is a departmental bifurcation, which takes into account the relevant expertise within respective government departments. Education is under the Education Department, whereas, health and accommodation are the responsibility of the Social Welfare Department.

Promising pilot initiatives by NGOs

  • There are examples of mass enrolment campaigns in June, as well as, in October (during the Diwali vacation); this strategy of bi-annual drives has a better impact than restricting it to only annual drives before the beginning of each academic year.
  • Some specific strategies have helped improve learning outcomes in certain cases. For example, identifying learners who fall behind based on assessments and the ability which is being graded and providing them with extra academic support. These have led to improved results in the class X Board exams and the dropout rate has come down from 90% before the completion of elementary schooling to NIL in a span of 15 years in some regions.
  • Providing exposure’ to children is critical; children who are provided with adequate and appropriate exposure to various aspects of growing up display more confidence.
  • Attempts have been made to bring agriculture into the curriculum, but teachers feel that the syllabus-time is being wasted; however, teachers could see aspects of maths and science in gardening. So, exposure and orientation to enable teachers to appreciate the tribal lifestyle and integrate it into the school syllabus are equally important.
  • There are examples of children taking sessions in the villages based on what they had learnt in school. These initiatives go a long way in building the trust of the community and an appreciation of the value of schooling.
  • Triangulation of data by looking at census data, GIS mapping and DISE data for dropouts, is a strategy that has allowed for deeper and more reliable assessment of the dropout figures, as well as, other issues related to dropouts, for example, it provides insights into:
    • Reasons for dropping out.
    • The true problem of access, for example, in the hilly regions, even schools within 1km are inaccessible or the fact that a certain river floods during some months or the reality of non-existent roads even for cycling and so on.
    • Parental migration for work — the period and duration of their migration, etc.
  • Close monitoring and analysis of data collected yields many insights.
    • For example, attendance data, which exists for all students and teachers.
    • In one example, it was found that a majority of students were not eating the mid-day meal; a quick dip stick indicated that the children were not happy with the menu. Once the menu was changed to suit the local taste, the partaking of meals improved.
  • Web portals and literature have been created by reputed institutions to empower teachers although many more such initiatives are required.

Therefore, flexibility has to be an important aspect of the education system in order to incorporate local aspects and enable diversity to flourish and contribute to overall learning; and at the same time, there have to be certain structured aspects of learning as part of the overall plan.

Well-being of children in government schools

The aspect of well-being was covered in the discussions relating to residential schools. The group had two positions on this: some members had seen tremendous success in the residential school model, while some had seen the disadvantages of the model in which the children suffered.

The success factors

  • Overall, the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBVs) have been a success; there are many positive stories from the KGBVs; some members of the group went to the extent of stating that education of the Adivasi children would not have come this far without the residential schools.
  • A residential school provides for more time with the children which allows for holistic development.
    • For example, building confidence and developing English skills is easy in a residential environment.
    • The attention and focus that are required for education is possible in a residential environment wherein, at home, given the hardships families of most children face, this is difficult.
  • The members presented several strategies that help in maintaining the tribal identity without placing the children in the disadvantaged situation.
    • The use of tribal language; encouraging the children to engage and explore in it, even as they learn other mainstream languages.
    • If children are kept in smaller groups, then they call the carer, Ma’ which made an immense difference as experienced by some members.
  • Though ideally, children should line with their parents, there are many cases where parents cannot take care of the children due to extreme poverty or other disadvantages, which is when residential schools are the best possible option. Some other reasons given were:
    • It keeps them away from the militia.
    • Residential schools are a boon for migrant communities which, otherwise, also have children turning wanderers by nature.

The disadvantages

  • Young children ought to be raised within their families – any other arrangement is unnatural and not a good solution is a belief that is backed by theories of childhood and growing up. Therefore, many members feel that even if the model has worked given the complex situation of the Adivasi communities, it is not a good option for primary school children from a philosophical perspective. Also, as young children cannot take care of themselves, one-on-one adult assistance is required and there is no better option than the family as residential models cannot provide individual care.
  • Non-residential schools have an instant link with the community while residential schools usually have very few children from the village in which it is located. As the model demands numbers, there are children from various locations and their connect with their immediate environment is completely lost.
  • The group argued that the community may not agree with what we believe to be good and useful for a child. It is important to have social audits of these programs which have emerged from ideas generated outside the community.
  • A member in the group went to the extent of saying that residential schools are an extreme form of violence and, in fact, some of the incidents that have come to light over the years, indicate that these are no different than our jails and that this is such by design because this is how the mainstream society has decided to treat Adivasi children.

To elaborate the above, example from the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences was provided wherein, haircuts on children are used to identify them — the KG to grade III children have one type of hairstyle and the children from grades V to VIII another. This is done to identify students, which is not only offensive but is also completely alien to many Adivasi cultures where the hair is not cut at all. This is carried out under the ruse of lice.

  • One of the arguments in favour of residential schools was that Adivasi children have to be taught hygienic living – members argued that nothing can be more paradoxical as Adivasi communities understand, and practise high levels of hygiene given that medical aid is not easily available and hence, know the risk of diseases that spread due to poor hygiene. Ironically, many residential schools do not maintain good hygiene.
  • The residential school structure is far more stringent than that of a regular school and added to this, the timetable and annual syllabus does not take into account the Adivasi festivals nor does it appreciate their culture.
  • The group felt that the biggest drawback of the residential model is in trying to implement a model for Adivasi children’s welfare under the mainstream framework instead of evolving one by thoroughly understanding their culture and world view.
  • There are operational issues. If we are unable to run regular schools well enough, the question members posed was, how do we expect to run residential schools better?
    • Many a time, wardens and staff do not even know when some children are sick.
    • There is no training to run a residential school; no course on hostel management.
    • There is a lot of corruption that many group members have witnessed in person.
    • Given that there is no overarching policy for operating residential schools, some good programs commence but do not last due to lack of funding and bureaucratic apathy. For example, a member shared that Zilla Panchayat schools in her District had a program about gender equality called, Meena Manch’ which was very effective but has been stopped without assigning any reason.
  • History is important and the Adivasi children should learn about their history from their communities and it can happen only if they stay with their families and get to listen to the stories by the older members as most of Adivasi history is still in oral form. This, then, should be acknowledged at school to nurture a confident child who is proud of their history, as well as, progressive in thoughts and action.

In sum, the group felt that given the issues concerning the residential model, we have to evolve alternatives and think deeply on how to involve the community, organically.


The following recommendations emerge from the discussions and the success stories that were shared by the members.

Bureaucracy / Government

  • There must be a combined policy and work strategy between the civil society organizations and the government and its various agencies.
  • Systems are compartmentalized within the government, which needs to change through policy initiatives for them to start working together.
    • Different government agencies should work in a coordinated manner to avoid duplication of efforts and wasting limited resources.
    • Various civil society organizations must be brought together on a single platform, region-wise, to plan actions so that there is a concerted effort in solving identified issues.
  • It is important to make the monitoring system more sensitive to Adivasi needs and aspirations,
    • The monitoring systems need to be empathetic.
    • The key role of monitoring should not be inspections but mentoring.
  • At the policy level, an unresolved discussion point was on the kinds of school for Adivasi children — separate or integrated. Recommendations emerged for each:
    • Those suggesting a separate school recommended that the school calendar take into account Adivasi annual calendar or at least be sensitive to the needs of the children and their community, even when in a residential environment. Some suggestions in this regard were:
      • A seasonal school calendar.
      • Weekend holiday to be aligned to the market day.
      • A suggestion for three-days of school per week or three-hours per day, allowing them to immerse in the Adivasi culture and learning during the remaining days/​time.
    • The other set of members recommended a common school for all, including the Adivasi children, and a curriculum that would include Adivasi aspects (the point is detailed under curriculum below).

Teacher and teacher development

  • Our dominant schooling model mainstreams even teachers from the Adivasi community by erasing their identity and leaving them with just an ST tag.
  • The teacher must have a very good orientation regarding working with Adivasi children as it requires appreciating tribal history and culture which teachers may not be familiar with.
  • Adivasi teachers require appropriate orientation to help them recognize and appreciate the knowledge that resides in the Adivasi communities and then identify the gaps that require support and learning.

Community engagement

  • Community participation is important; the Adivasis cannot be left out of the discussions on their children’s education.
    • Until the people claim ownership, no matter what the government does, nothing will change.
    • Strategies to involve the Adivasis in designing their own education program must be evolved.
  • Social audits of the existing programs are required for moving forward by learning from what has been done so far.

Curriculum and learning objectives

  • Learning objectives have to be well thought out and outcomes should not be measured only on standardized formats.
  • Job readiness and the economic aspects of education cannot be ignored, but its critical aims, which are concerned with the development of each student to their fullest potential as human beings, cannot be sidelined. This can take place well when based on foundational knowledge that already resides in individuals based on their history and culture. Knowledge, understanding and skill development are all important aspects of education, particularly for the Adivasi child who if fighting multiple disadvantages.
  • Starting learning programs with the standardized format of literacy is not the best practice.
    • It is important to recognize that many languages, particularly those of the Adivasis, do not have scripts. Hence, this is an unfair practice.
    • These are also examples of how mainstream thinking drives policies even with regard to the Adivasis.
  • The FRA debate states that water, forest and land are integrated into the knowledge system of tribal communities.
    • These natural resources are not only a means of their livelihood; it is part of the indigenous tribal knowledge.
    • These must form the core of the curriculum not just for the Adivasis but even for the mainstream, which will help others recognize the fact that there are communities whose knowledge systems speak of much more sustainable lifestyles, those which the mainstream communities are only beginning to grasp now.
    • Hence, it is important to have aspects of tribal culture in the schools, so that they may derive a sense of pride from it.
  • An important discussion point without a consensus was whether the curriculum and consequently, the school for Adivasi children ought to be separate or integrated.
    • The idea of an integrated school suggestion comes with the caveat that the curriculum should be true to the principle of diversity and have adequate representation of Adivasi beliefs and other cultural aspects.
    • The idea of a separate Adivasi school comes from the fact that the needs of the Adivasi child are very different – that even an idea of a pan Indian Adivasi tradition is not correct; various Adivasi beliefs exist, and all cannot be accommodated. Hence, if integration is attempted, many Adivasi traditions will be excluded.
    • However, the group felt that the answer lies in achieving a balance because complete inclusivity, such as including all Adivasi beliefs, cannot be achieved unless it is done at a hamlet level.
  • Regular assessments should be conducted. RTE’s no-detention policy has been misinterpreted to mean no assessments. Hence, the need for assessments was agreed upon by all and the recommendation was to clearly convey to schools and teachers that no detention and assessments are not linked.
    • The kind of assessments to be done should be well thought out.
    • Community-based assessments have been attempted successfully; For example: Can my child handle the business transaction at the market? Can my child handle a bank transaction? If not, then the parents can question the teacher.
    • Tribal children have a strong kinaesthetic sense, but regular schools cramp it. It is important to bring these into the curriculum and assessments.
    • Similarly, story-telling should be used to build language skills as part of the pedagogic strategy, and oral assessments should also form a large component of measuring learning outcomes.

Reflective Summary

The participants came with many years of working with the issues facing Adivasi children’s education and; in many cases, very deep and meaningful engagement; therefore, they were deeply influenced by their experiences and hence, it was natural for them to take different positions. Two opposing positions were on the issue of residential schools and the other, connected, but a larger one, of whether Adivasi education should be approached via integration or by focusing exclusively on the community. Both positions have a sound rationale based on the pros and cons of each. To move forward, it is important to acknowledge the various findings that people have collated over the years and take decisions, depending upon the situation at hand. Therefore, it is critical to provide enough flexibility in any policy framework to address the issues at the ground level.

Among the key points that emerged is that there must be better coordination within the government, and with the civil society organizations. Wherever the co-ordination has worked well, and federations have emerged, there have been tremendous positive changes in the overall situation leading to better learning outcomes, as well as well-being.

The other important element that has emerged in the discussions is the need to allow for a greater participation of the community; this does not mean allowing the community to have complete control as that has led to many of the current problems because many Adivasi communities are taken advantage of and exploited, both from within their communities as well as the mainstream society. Since there are serious socio-economic disadvantages that the Adivasi communities face, in general, there could be the danger of external forces taking advantage of the community and forcing them into unethical or unlawful activities such as selling their children, without realizing that they are being trafficked, hence, it is important for the State or federations to be engaged with the community. However, the community should also be given a larger say as with better exposure, the communities also have a better understanding of what and how their children should be prepared to face the world outside.

Last but not the least, it is important for the entire human society to not only recognize and appreciate, but also to imbibe and internalize the deep insights that the Adivasi communities present for sustainable living on planet Earth. This has to be brought into the education system so that not only does the planet have a better chance to survive, but also to showcase to children from the mainstream that their Adivasi peers, who were ridiculed for their belief systems and in some places continue to be derided, have indeed an approach to life which is more meaningfully connected to the natural ecosystems than the artificial attempts that global warming is forcing the mainstream communities to adopt.

The insights from the discussions by the group members have allowed everyone to introspect our respective positions. One consensus that has emerged is that good things have happened in the past and going forward not only do we build on those but also learn from the mistakes and strengthen the models, or even re-design to make better learning outcomes possible and improve the well-being of all Adivasi children in the country, be it in residential schools or their habitats.

Facilitator and Rapporteur: Rishikesh Shanker, Faculty, Azim Premji University, teaches at the School of Education and leads the hub for education, law & policy. His research interests are in educational assessments, teacher education and the intersection of education policy-making’ and policy implementation’.

Student volunteer: Ashish

Participants: Ashish Kumar Shrivastava; Ashok Kumar; Hitendra Joshi; Maya Shrivastava; Nargis Khatoon; Rajashri Tikhe; Ram Chandra Singh Chouhan; Sandhya Gajjar; Sumit Gunjan; Vivek Kumar