Education and Inclusion on the saporis: UNICEF-C-NES Education Consultation with SSA

The Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES) and UNICEF, Assam organized a consultation on “Upscaling the C-NES-UNICEF education initiatives in the saporis of Dibrugarh and Lakhimpur districts of Assam” on 24 September, 2010, at the Indian Institute of Bank Management (IIBM), Guwahati.

The consultation was held to share and discuss the experiences of implementing education initiatives that were introduced in the river islands of Dibrugarh district and Lakhimpur district by C-NES and UNICEF with a focus on the Feeder – Nodal School concept.

Speaking at the consultation, L S Changsan, Mission Director, Sarba Shiksha Abhijan (SSA), Assam and Commissioner Higher Education, said that “enrolment has increased but there are isolated pockets that remain unserved. There were 700 such habitations which have no access to education facilities and the challenge is to provide access, equality and quality education for all children. Tea gardens, hilly areas, forests and char/sapori are special focus areas for SSA where the dropout rates are high”. The provision for neighbourhood schools in the RTE Act should make access possible.

The annual floods and limited access to basic services have severely disadvantaged the island dwellers. Responding to this, C-NES introduced its now well-known boat clinics to provide regular health services that have recently expanded to 13 districts under a PPP with the National Rural Health Mission, Government of Assam.

UNICEF has supported this initiative since 2006. Building on the organization’s credibility on the saporis, UNICEF extended the C-NES – UNICEF partnership by developing education interventions for children both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of school of marginalized island communities. The highlight was the Feeder-Nodal School concept that has tried to provide children opportunities of education closer to home.

Feeder schools are community managed schools that charge nominal monthly fees @ Rs 5 – Rs 30 in Lower Primary Feeder Schools and Rs 50 in Upper Primary Feeder Schools to meet teachers’ payment and recurring costs. The Feeder School functions as an extension of an existing provincialised school, whereby the children are enrolled in that school and there is no need for mainstreaming. They follow the academic calendar of the Nodal school, use the same textbooks, provide midday meals and records pertaining to enrolment and examinations are maintained in the Nodal school. School Management Committees have been formed and work together with the SMC of the Nodal schools, and are the main decision making body for the Feeder schools.

The number of out of school children has significantly reduced from 392 to 82 in Dibrugarh and from 277 to 28 in Lakhimpur in the beginning of 2010. Children are now able to attend school throughout the year as the Feeder Schools are easy to access and are not affected by floods, but for a few days. After going on educational trips the children are able to think beyond the river islands. On the whole, the interventions have helped education regain a place of importance among the local community and their ownership is high. Local communities have begun to understand the importance of education.

“Our experience from these two districts is that despite difficulties we can tap both the social capital of people in developing and running these schools as well as connect children to education processes on the mainland through local Feeder Schools” said Sanjoy Hazarika, C-NES Managing Trustee.

Jeroo Master, Chief, UNICEF Assam, remarked that “It is challenging to work with the required intensity and commitment under the difficult conditions in the saporis and overcome the constraints posed by the physical, social and administrative environment.”

UNICEF Education Officer, Deepa Das and C-NES Associate Programme Manager, Sanjay Sharma made a presentation on the initiative“ Education and Inclusion: Reaching Children of the River Islands”. Tracing the growth of the education outreach programme from its inception till date it was informed that as many as 12 Feeder Schools have been set up as part of this initiative, that have benefitted 1,080 children in both the districts.

As the education initiative has been a success in both districts, C-NES in association with UNICEF Assam, organized the consultation to explore the possibilities of forging a partnership with SSA to upscale the model to similar riverine areas in other districts, particularly where the Boat Clinic initiative is operating for health services in collaboration with the National Rural Health Mission. As a start, an exposure visit by SSA officials to Dibrugarh and Lakhimpur is being planned.

The consultation was attended by Ms. Patricia Mukhim, Editor Shillong Times and social activist, Dr Jayanta Madhab, Economist and former Advisor to Chief Minister, Assam. Among others present were Senior Consultant, EGS and AIE, EdCIL’s Technical Support Group for the North East, State and District officials from SSA, officers from UNICEF and teachers of Feeder and Nodal schools and community representatives from the river islands.

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