Wearing a clean, navy-blue school uniform with a sky-blue shawl draped over her shoulders, 14-year-old Khaushaliya Kumari is sociable and relaxed as she goes through her daily routines.
Khaushilya and the 46 other girls staying at this Residential Bridge Centre wash their own clothes and dishes and are in charge of cleaning up the classroom in which they all both sleep and study.
Special training programmes, currently called Residential Bridge Centres (RBCs), such as this one in Nalanda district of the eastern Indian state of Bihar, help former child labourers enter the school system and gives them the support they need in their first crucial steps towards fulfilling their basic right to an education.
Here, children who have either never been to school before or who have dropped out of school early are given the space and support they need to reach the necessary levels of academic competence so they can be integrated back into the general school system at a level that is appropriate to each child's age.
Khaushaliya is a strongly built 14-year-old with a strong character to match, but she smiles shyly when asked how her life was before she arrived here. "Every day, after doing my morning chores at home, I would go and carry baskets of coal till the evening," she says. "Unloading coal from the truck was always difficult. Sometimes I cut my hands," she adds.
Positive trends but challenges remain
The trend in education in India is positive. It is estimated that the number of out-of-school children between the ages of 6 and 14 years in the country dropped from 25 million in 2003 to 8.1 million in 2009. This is great news.
Also, with the recent introduction of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009 all children in India are legally guaranteed their right to quality elementary education.
According to the RTE Act it is the joint responsibility of government, the community and the family of each child to ensure that every child's right to a quality education is fulfilled and that every child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.
Luckily, for Khaushaliya, RTE also makes the provision that children, even older ones, having missed out on school still have the right to get the equivalent of eight years of quality education.
The challenge now is to ensure that each one of those remaining 8.1 million children is not only enrolled in elementary school but also completes at least eight years of child-centered, child-friendly education.
In order to achieve this, special efforts are needed to reach out to the children in the most marginalized communities and the most disadvantaged social groups.
Reaching the most marginalized and excluded
Khaushaliya and her family belong to one of the most socially excluded and economically disadvantaged communities in Bihar. Mostly landless labourers, families in Khaushaliya's community are forced to get by on a very meager income.
With a family of nine children, Khaushilya's father, Jakhar Manji, spends much of his time working in construction in the far-off city of Delhi in order to bring in much needed extra income.
In addition to this, Khaushaliya's entire family works for day wages in return for the back-breaking labour of loading and unloading coal for transport. In this business, the more hands that are working, the more money the family has to survive on each day.
Forced by her circumstances to contribute to the family's income generation, Khaushilya was unable to go to school. But now, thanks to this Residential Bridge Centre and the innovative teaching methods being introduced here, Khaushaliya has the opportunity to enter into the formal school system and to complete her elementary education, including the learning she may have missed when not attending school.
"Before this, my life was very difficult," says Kaushaliya. "I did not have time to even sit and rest. Now I study. I play. I do a lot of things."
Introducing innovative teaching methods
UNICEF is working with the Government of Bihar to introduce a new system of learning to these RBCs that will soon be implemented across the state.
These 'special training' courses provide the foundation to meet the provisions of RTE within the next five years-reaching out to all out-of-school children and bringing them into formal school with the necessary on-site support required to succeed and complete their education.
Like Khaushaliya, the children who come to these RBCs have often been engaged in hard labour or in domestic work. Arriving with highly varying levels of academic competence it is important that each child is given the individual support that he or she needs to make those first, most crucial steps towards completing elementary education.
First introduced in Bihar in 2009, the Vertical Competency Based Learning (VCBL) child-centered approach gives each child the opportunity to develop at his or her own pace.
Each student works through a series of lesson cards and by the end of 11 months, has the chance to achieve the academic competence of Class V in key subjects. As a result, once these children transition to the mainstream school system, they are far more likely to stay in school and complete their elementary education.
Along the way, each child marks his or her own progress on a chart on the wall. Every time a card is completed, the child's mark moves one step closer to the finish line on the chart.
Also, whenever a new lesson card is tackled the child herself moves to the appropriate group of students in the cycle such as a "lion group" or a "horse group." Some of these groups are for self-study while others are teacher-supported. This way, each child knows, at any given time, where they are in the lesson cycle and can move forward at his or her own pace.
The VCBL system provides individual learning support and concrete, clear-cut objectives for each child along with a visual representation of each child's progress.
Not only does this allow each child to clearly understand how much work is needed to complete the course and to reach Class V competency in each subject but also provides crucial guidance to the teachers on exactly what each child needs to achieve and a road map for how they can be helped to get there.
Looking forward to a brighter future
"It's a big programme and it will take a long time to reach all of the children," says Mr. Arshad Raeza, a local teacher who has worked in setting up this system here and has provided academic support to the teachers at this RBC in Nalanda, "but social change is happening. I heard one girl say she wants to be District Magistrate! Their thinking is changing and their ambitions are growing."
Kaushaliya's teacher, Ms. Suman Kumari, also says that she has seen the change in how the girls who come here think about their futures. "Many of the girls now want to be teachers or social workers. But some of their dreams are so big that I pray to the gods that they are realized."