Spotlight on education outcomes in Tamil Nadu, India

In March 2021, PEAB brought together 95 students to mark International Women’s Day by honouring the contribution of Savitri Bhai Phule, the first Indian woman teacher in colonial India, who started the first school for girl children and for other children from oppressed communities. Tutors and students discussed the teachings and life history of Savithri Bhai Phule and male tutors were asked to reflect on the contribution and leadership of women in Indian society. These discussions reflect PEAB’s engagement in the India-wide Dalit human rights movement.

By Susan Engel, Partnership Coordinator 

Globally, the pandemic has caused a massive disruption to education. School closures worldwide have impacted nearly 1.6 billion students, threatening to reverse decades of gains in education outcomes. Our local partners in Tamil Nadu, Mahalir Sakthi and PEAB, work primarily with Dalit and Adivasi communities and have seen how girls and historically marginalised communities are losing the most. With in-person schooling closed for much of the past 18 months our partners report that many of their students, often the first in their families to stay in school beyond primary level, are at risk of dropping out of school. They are turning to work in the informal sector to make up for lost family income.  

During the extended lockdowns, our community partners have been at the forefront of keeping their students – and through outreach, their families – engaged in learning and committed to staying in school. Mahalir Sakthi and PEAB have supported 220 students from year 4 – 12 through a network of 20 tuition centres and education programs in the slum areas of Madurai and rural villages surrounding Maduranthakam. While face to face learning was suspended, the Government of Tamil Nadu telecast educational programs. Follow up by PEAB tutors was vital to learning. Our partners shifted programs online and tutors conducted surveys to ascertain which students had smart phones – the majority did not, nor did they have computers in the home. Tutors relied heavily on WhatsApp to stay in contact and share study resources. They reached out individually to students and their families through home visits and phone calls. 

It’s been a difficult period and there were some students that the tutors were unable to maintain consistent contact with at the height of the lockdowns. PEAB are now running intensive sessions in Maths, Science and English to help students catch up, although these have recently been interrupted by flooding. Despite the challenges, our partners are reporting positive outcomes. For example, in 2020-21 of Mahalir Sakthi’s students, 41 were admitted to tertiary institutions and 19 were admitted to colleges. Mahalir Sakthi supported 27 students to apply for scholarships and raised funds to help with school fees and uniforms. Student numbers in the tuition centres are growing again.  

Our partners have also launched new initiatives during the lockdowns. PEAB invested in professional education for their tutors, holding a series of zoom workshops on child-centric Maths, English and Science tuition. And Mahalir Sakthi is piloting new vocational education classes in IT skills. Our local partners have seen the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on girls and young women and know their education, safety and wellbeing is at greater risk. In response, PEAB held a series of workshops with female students, and their mothers, on topics including leadership and motivation, domestic violence and how to seek legal assistance and human rights.  They also ran a two-day self-defence camp for 16 year 10 students.   

With many thanks to the Navitas Education Trust who have supported this work with Mahalir Sakthi and PEAB in Tamil Nadu from 2019 – 2021.