In TN’s forests and villages, evening schools are filling the gaps in conventional education

These multi-grade learning centres are winning over villages and tribal communities
In TN’s forests and villages, evening schools are filling the gaps in conventional education
In TN’s forests and villages, evening schools are filling the gaps in conventional education
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In the deep forests of Gudalur, the nearest high school is at least five kilometres away. Holidays are declared when wild elephants, stomping away during the migratory period, block the route to their schools. There are even a set of community volunteers who escort the children to school and back, entertaining children with songs and wisecracks. For the tribal community living here, the biggest success of the day isn’t getting a centum, or getting a state rank – it’s managing to reach school safely. 

Unlike cities, school and community here exist in a continuum, considering how close-knit the tribe is. That’s why B Ramdas, founder of the Vishwa Vidyodaya trust worked with the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam to start a small school in the area close to most of the homes. The school can accommodate 100 students, and it functions as an after-school open space for parents and village elders to impart values, tell stories or teach a vocational skill. These stories are stories dear to the community, and never make it to conventional history textbooks. “In the evenings you’d see teachers and students singing and dancing, sometimes they even start with song and dance,” says Ramdas. 

Ramdas has chosen teachers who speak the local language of the community and trained them through intensive programs. “We pick them over people from outside because the school grows in their imagination, not mine or yours,” he says. 

But in the long-run, how does a non-competitive value based system work in a highly competitive world? “That’s always the issue. The tribal community’s idea of success is based on preserving their culture and history, on maintaining their forest land. They’re not keen on leaving here and working in a big city. It’s very different from what you and I consider successful,” he explains. 

“Instead of looking outward, what we need to do is create a self-sustaining economy within the tribe itself. We have teachers and nurses from the community, but we also need members to train in managerial skills. So we plan on opening a skill development program,” he says.

Closer to home, in Tiruvallur district, the issue of drop-outs was a concern, but opening evening schools has bridged the gap. This supplemented regular school education and the curriculum included English, Mathematics and even yoga. Men and women in the village go about their day jobs as manual labourers or brick kiln workers as usual, but come back home to a yard filled with 30 children, ready for their evening school. This is the average day in the life of a single-teacher school, three or four of which dot every village. 

“It works like this. We identify youth from the village and impart teacher training. We then find a convenient location in the village – a temple, a community hall, space under a huge tree or unused space under a lamp and set up a Black Board,” says Maheshwari, President of the Tamil Nadu chapter of Ekal Vidyalaya, which has established and administers the system.

Classes from I to V are conducted, six days a week, after regular schooling hours. But why an additional school? “If children refuse to go to the school in the morning, they’re always provided an option of walking into a little backyard and learning whatever they can,” Maheshwari says. 

The syllabus for Tamil, English, Arithmetic and Basic Sciences is provided along with books, stationery and food. Discipline, hygiene and elementary yoga are also included with a focus on character building.

"Instead of expecting children to move out of their villages and tribes, we should come to them and respect their space and culture," says Maheshwari. 

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