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How to bridge the gap between student enrolment, attendance – analysis

Boot Polish is, perhaps, independent India’s first movie centered on the issue of the lives and tragedies of children pushed into children labour as a consequence of their mother’s death. In a poignant scene from the movie, John Chacha says to Belu and Bhola, the two children labourers, “Someday, this night will end. It will definitely end. My heart says that there will be a morning.” Nearly seven decades later, many Belus and Bholas still await that morning.

After 20 years, child labour appears to be growing substantially in India again. Apart from the loss caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, India is at the cusp of another catastrophic loss — that of the many successes towards curbing child labour.

It is against this backdrop that the Government of Delhi appointed me chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), an independent statutory institution tasked with protecting child rights in the Capital. Based on the consultations of the past three months with several stakeholders, I believe we have identified the most important yet under-appreciated and under-utilised leverages to eliminate child labour.

Students’ attendance data can be the strongest predictor of children’s adversity. I analysed Delhi’s government school students in the 2019-20 academic year and found that nearly 35% students were absent, on an average, daily. This translates into over half a million students missing school on any given day.

There could be several reasons why children are absent from schools for even longer periods. Their families may have migrated back to their villages, temporarily or permanently. However, this alone does not explain such large, glaring gaps in attendance.

We find that children are often absent from schools because they’re going through some sort of personal adversity. It may be serious health conditions such as a disability, bullying at school, the death of a loved one, being pushed into labour or early marriage among other reasons. The absence of students indicates that they are going through severe adversity, and some of our early analysis bears this out. Identifying at-risk children assumes more importance given the fact that 97% are currently enrolled in schools.

Unfortunately, the focus on attendance has not got the attention it should in our governance discourse. The Unified District Information System for Education (U-DISE) data collection framework, the largest annual database of our schools, does not even gather information on students’ attendance.

Therefore, DCPCR has started building an early warning system that will trigger a series of actions and interventions based on attendance. If a student is absent for more than seven days at a time, or more than 50% in any month, the warning system will generate Short Messaging Service/Interactive Voice Response (SMS/IVR) calls to the student or her parents as the first step, and then schedule home visits. The dashboard will help the district and state officials reorganise their priorities and work to improve students’ attendance.

The Delhi government has brought in a series of pivotal educational reforms which have produced outstanding results. Independent surveys have established that most Delhi parents feel more satisfied than ever in sending their children to government schools. More than 500 government school students cleared the IIT-JEE this year, and the schools also recorded the best-ever class XII board results.

These reforms are being internationally appreciated. Schools are better prepared than ever to impart education and shape children to become smart citizens of a modern world. The key here is making sure that all children attend schools regularly.

The story of Belu and Bhola in Boot Polish is from a time when the primary and secondary Gross Enrolment Ratio was at 42% and 13% respectively. Today it has reached 99% and 93% respectively. The attendance data can alert us if Belu and Bhola are not in school or are experiencing adversity. This would ensure that Belu and Bhola do not ever have to polish boots again.

Anurag Kundu is chairperson, Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Government of Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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