Garima Bangard, from Asha Seattle provides excerpts from a recent case study on the status of education in bastis (slums) and people’s perception of formal education in Bhopal, India, conducted by Muskaan – a voluntary organization supported by Asha Chapters in Seattle, Stanford and Frankfurt. This content was originally published in Asha Seattle’s Q2-2014 newsletter.

Muskaan is an organization working for the education of slum children in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Started in 1998 as an effort to provide meaningful education to twenty children from deprived backgrounds, Muskaan now helps more than 800 children and their families. Asha Seattle has been supporting Muskaan in its efforts since October 2005. Muskaan works with vulnerable slum communities in Bhopal on issues of education, identity, violence, health, and nutrition and tries to enhance livelihoods and savings through microcredit. Since its inception, Muskaan’s work has expanded from 6 to 24 slums in the city of Bhopal. Muskaan’s primary focus is on the education of children unable to access mainstream schools. Other programs differ across slums, depending on the critical needs of the community and the capacities and resources within the organization to address them. Strong inter-personal relationships with the community enrich and inform the different programs undertaken by the organization, often defining the focus and methods of work, and at times outlining the changes required within the programs themselves.

Muskaan’s case study

Muskaan conducted a case study on status of education in slums of Bhopal. The study was conducted to understand the status of formal education among urban poor and the form in which it has been integrated within the lives. The study fills in the gap of bringing qualitative and quantitative information on the education scenarios of the urban poor, in the voices of parents and children. Here are some excerpts from the case study of Muskaan. The study report is available on request from Garima at Asha Seattle.


A total of 228 adults and 164 children were interviewed from 18 slum sites.
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The concept of ‘formal education’ has become so ingrained in the society that it is now seen as a child’s right, and the non-fulfillment of this right amounts to a violation. But what does formal education offer to the people who have come to believe in this system or have become subsumed by it, even though they may have not experienced it directly? The experiences in Muskaan have raised many questions and doubts, and we felt that one of the best ways to get answers was from people themselves.

Through this study we have tried to understand in concrete terms how the concept of ‘education’ translates for people. Therefore, this is thus also an attempt to explore the interface between deprived communities and the promise of education, and to understand and put forth people’s own perspectives and experiences with the formal school system. This study looks into the status of formal education among the urban poor, people’s experiences with formal schooling, and their expectations from and perceptions of the roles of education and schools in their lives.

The study has been carried out in a cross-section of urban poor living in the city of Bhopal. The Communities were selected keeping in mind critical attributes of urban poverty so as to be able to capture the existing range of realities and views. A total of 228 adults and 164 children were interviewed from 18 slum sites.

Status of Education

It was found that only 63% of children (6 to 18 years) among the urban poor were going to schools. While 21% had dropped out, 16% had never been enrolled. Enrolment was higher for the age group covered by the RTE, of 6 to 14 years. However, even that was far from universal coverage, with 16% of boys and 12% of girls in this age group not being in schools. Of the school-goers, a total of 58% of the children were studying in government schools and the rest in private schools.


The percentage of children going to a government school increased with the classes and by class 11th-12th, 80% of the children still continuing with schools were studying in the public system. The choice made by parents to send a child to a private school was driven by their concern for a better quality of education; they said they felt the need to build a strong base for their children in the early years of schooling, which they felt would not be possible in the government schools. There was no significant difference in the overall enrolment and dropout rates of girls as compared to boys. But the proportion of girls being sent to government schools was distinctly higher, with 67% of the girls in government schools against 42% of the boys. Also, in the discussions with the people interviewed for the study, a patriarchal attitude against the education of girls in terms of questioning the need for girls to study, fear for their safety, unacceptability of education for girls within the social norms kept coming up.

During this study, it was important to identify reasons for children not being in schools, given the overall environment of compulsory and universal schooling. Lack of secure living conditions was a clear reason for parents not being able to take the decision of sending children to schools. Financial problems at home also impacted the course of the children’s education. The need to send children for tuitions in their senior classes to ensure learning added to the costs borne by parents. Some interviews also brought up the futility of gaining education beyond literacy skills, as the people felt that it does not provide any real learning. The processes within the schools were also mentioned as reasons for children dropping out of schools. Corporal punishment and the inability to learn in spite of spending several years in schools have worked as a deterrent to creating a sustained interest in acquiring formal education.

While the bulk of a family’s earnings were spent on food and health care, parents were continuously cutting down on all kinds of basic requirements and/or finding extra jobs to be able to pay for their children’s education.

Expenditure on Education

Almost all parents had to spend money on the education of their child, irrespective of the class the child was studying in, or the school s/he went to. 72% of the parents interviewed spent money on school fees. The amounts ranged from Rs. 50 to 200 per child per month. One third of the families were sending their children for tuitions, costing them between Rs. 30 to Rs. 200 per month. Expenses on uniforms, books and stationery further added to the costs. The study showed that about 40% of the families spent up to Rs. 1000 each year, but another 40% had spent more than Rs. 2500 per year on their children’s education. In-depth interviews showed that it was not easy for people to pay these amounts. While the bulk of a family’s earnings were spent on food and health care, parents were continuously cutting down on all kinds of basic requirements and/or finding extra jobs to be able to pay for their children’s education.

Parents’ Involvement in Children’s Education

In urban poor communities and for parents from these backgrounds, the concept of children being educated is not a family norm. Making ‘education’ part of children’s lives was a conscious decision made by them and one that was carried out daily. Bearing the expenses of education also showed their commitment to education. The study further showed that in almost all households, someone from the house would visit the child’s school over the year, for various reasons. It was also clear that the mother played a bigger role in this. The study also showed that the tradition of giving respect to the teacher and the educated class as a whole alienates the majority of people from impoverished backgrounds, within school spaces. There was limited information about a school committee of any form amidst the parents. Only 10% of the parents who had children in government schools knew of the existence of this committee.

Perceptions about Education

The study showed how and what people associated with ‘being educated’. Being able to read and write has its many practical uses, which people stated would be of practical help in their daily lives. Examples of needing literacy such as for writing down an address or in banks, courts and other such situations came up. There were many people who were able to connect education to what they were currently doing, and felt that education would also be helpful in their current jobs. For instance, there were examples of a skilled driver needing basic literacy for a job. Besides these practical spaces where people felt the need for education, many voiced the hope that education would free their families from a life of constant revilement that they receive from various quarters every day. Education was perceived as being able to bring in something different from the present. For many, it was a symbol of progress. Having to ask someone to read things out for you is a discouraging experience, because there is an attached sense of ‘being less’ than the other. The interviews also showed that ‘formal education’ has been interpreted as a change in culture and mannerisms. In many different words it came up that the way one behaves, sits and functions all change with education.

Having been subjected to disdain from the ‘progressed’, there is a feeling of self-denigration and an aspiration to these ways. A person’s confidence was also associated with his/her education. This has obviously been a learned response based on the exchanges with the ‘educated’. In the interviews, people said that if their child studied, ‘s/he will not be subjected to other people’s teasing. The child will not feel scared of everything, as we do.’ The interviews also showed that it was widely thought that to some extent education would bring a sense of control over their circumstances, in contrast to their existing situations, where the course of their lives was defined by external factors.

The responses showed that the concept of a school has become narrow in its scope, and so have expectations from a school.
As is evident from the findings briefly discussed here, schools are not delivering what they promise; each indicator of failure can be seen in its specificity, but put together, they reflect the failure of the entire structure and system of education.
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Expectations from a School

Over and above everything said by the parents, a voice was constantly heard saying that any school where ‘teaching’ and ‘education’ is taking place is a good school. In different voices, parents placed importance on the relationship between the teacher and the child, specifying that the teacher should not be biased against the poor. Some parents astutely described that greater value should be assigned to occupational skills as a part of the institutional curriculum. They expect holistic development, voicing the need to integrate mental development and livelihood skills / physical work, sports and art. The government provision of free textbooks and uniforms has helped in taking a big load off people’s heads and was appreciated. A separate, functioning toilet for the girls was considered compulsory in girls’ schools. The children’s section in the report deals with the responses of the children to various questions. Here too, we saw that the expectations from a school were guided by the experiences of school life.

The responses showed that the concept of a school has become narrow in its scope, and so have expectations from a school. As much as the children recalled positive exposures in the school space and felt that these should become part of the norm, they also clearly voiced their negative experiences and stressed that such behavior or situations should not arise in a school. One of the greatest concerns the children had was about understanding what was being taught. The children’s responses reflect that children have ways of assessing when they are learning or not, and what the problems in the teaching methods are. When asked what kind of education a school should provide, many children spontaneously spoke of the teaching methodology and material, as well as about interactions and attitudes in the classroom. Children also expressed the need for free expression and space for being themselves.

Many children clearly said that they should not be punished in schools for simple things, such as talking. Children from very vulnerable communities who face discrimination from different quarters were also very articulate about the prejudices they have to face, and felt that schools should teach children how to behave with those different from themselves.

Relationships in School

The study explored relationships that played out in school. It was found that almost all the children had at least one friend in their school. However, these friends were mostly from their immediate neighborhoods. There was a lot of discrimination among the children – they often behaved badly with the ones who were socially more vulnerable than them. Many of the schools are co-educational in the city. But, schools were not spaces where children were able to know and be friendly with a child of the opposite sex. Interactions between girls and boys were found limited throughout school life. Girls and boys were taught to sit separately and to not mix with each other physically, at any time. It was also found that children have a very strong opinion about their teachers, those whom they like or dislike.

Their choices are determined by various elements – the way a teacher teaches, the way s/he treats the children, the way s/he speaks to them, whether s/he gives a child attention, and quite significantly, if s/he hits them. It was also found that their like or dislike is clearly a reaction to a specific teacher, and is usually not a school-level phenomenon.

Corporal Punishment in Schools

The study showed that 78% of the girls and 94% of the boys had been beaten in schools. It also appears from the study that children of all age groups are beaten and that these are not sporadic incidents or incidents limited to a specific age. The forms of violence found in schools were both physical and psychological, and usually occurred together. Besides being physically beaten, there was also a lot of emotional torture and judgmental words were hurled at the children.

The study further explored the reasons for the violence, the form of violence and the possible mind-sets being developed in the child as an impact of this daily acceptance of violence in the environment around him/her.

Disillusionment with the School

The views of children who had dropped out were not significantly different from those who were still enrolled. They felt similarly violated by the physical and mental violence against them. Both groups also found the schooling similarly mundane and it did not attract them to return to the space the next day. Many children (who were going to school) said that they didn’t like coming to school, but were forced to do so. The relationships within the school did not give them a sense of warmth. The interviews with children who had dropped out showed that once a child drops out of school, his/her relationship with the school is completely severed. There is no going back to school and the child is left with a sense of negativity.

Recommendations and Suggestions

The study brings up several kinds of issues showing the present realities, difficulties within and the aspirations of the marginalized communities of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims as well as other population groups living in the bastis. People have largely accepted education as necessary for their children, but it remains an unpredictable path for them. As is evident from the findings briefly discussed above, schools are not delivering what they promise; each indicator of failure can be seen in its specificity, but put together, they reflect the failure of the entire structure and system of education. Schools need to foremost begin with respecting the children and their communities.

The schooling years need to be more productive. Children need to be taught the values of justice, humanity and equity. Schools need to be placed inside a community, to metaphorically and explicitly identify the objectives of education based on the realities of the people. Thereby the content, curriculum, pedagogy and the cost of education and other logistics should also be decided with these factors in mind. The public education system must respond to make this experience of education meaningful for the impoverished.

The education system also needs to plan for the large number of out-of-school adolescents across slums. There is also a need to reflect on how the formal education system can respond to the most marginalized communities within the urban poor.