Adivasi children and youth experience high levels of illiteracy and school truancy, leading to limited job opportunities when they reach adulthood. A leading cause of this situation is poor instruction at tea plantation schools. Many schools are severely understaffed, having ratios of just one teacher to as many as 300 students. Teachers often are appointed without demonstrating the legally required qualifications. School infrastructure is also lacking – with shortages of classroom space and desks. Another cause of low literacy among Adivasis is lack of instruction in Adivasi languages, which makes it very difficult for children to learn.
PAJHRA seeks to elevate the education and job opportunities of Adivasi youth in a couple ways.
Promotion of Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education
PAJHRA promotes Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB MLE). MTB MLE refers to a system of education that promotes “first language first;” that is, schooling which begins in students’ mother tongue, and uses the mother tongue to help children “bridge” to learning in other languages. The basic premise of the system is that students whose early education is in their mother tongue will be better able to learn in general, to bridge towards understanding and speaking several languages, and to achieve higher education outcomes in the long-run.
In 2010, PAJHRA formed a language development cell to test the proficiency and comprehension in the Assamese language of Adivasi elementary and middle school children.
The Adivasi children scored shockingly low in the tests, demonstrating understanding of just five percent or less of subjects taught in Assamese, as compared with 84 percent comprehension of their Assamese student peers. Further investigation revealed the cause: that Adivasi children have almost no exposure to Assamese language in their homes and communities, making it very difficult for them to understand school subjects taught in Assamese. Students’ poor comprehension and failure in schools is a leading cause of truancy and eventual early-termination of schooling, which in turn causes the low-literacy rate that limits the socio-economic potential of Adivasi communities.
To address the poor educational outcomes of Adivasi children and also help promote Adivasi languages, in 2011 PAJHRA joined with the Adivasi Sahitya Sabha (Adivasi Literary Society) and SIL International to inaugurate three pilot schools implementing the MTB MLE philosophy. The schools provide two-hour classes – involving songs, creative writing, as well as teaching math and other subjects – that supplement education at government or plantation schools. In addition to providing bridge education in Adivasi languages, the schools are organised around an Adivasi cultural calendar that helps students learn Adivasi traditions and culture.
There are challenges in running the schools, and two have been forced to close for reasons unrelated to PAJHRA. Nevertheless, one school continues to run strong, building teacher confidence and helping students learn to love school. PAJHRA and its partners will continue to seek ways to advance MTB MLE in Assam.
Education and Skills Development for Young Women and Men
PAJHRA is also working to support youth who need assistance in finding a means of livelihood – especially those who have dropped out of school and are unable to pursue professional careers. PAJHRA has organised trainings to help youths select a job that interests them, develop the necessary skills and training and, if necessary, start their own microenterprise. Through such trainings, many Adivasi youth have, for example, learned how to become drivers or mechanics, conduct tailoring or beautician work, and open their own small businesses.