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The Learning Curve

Kerala, the state with the best literacy in India, ropes in language volunteers to help children of migrant workers transition to local schools. Some grow up to make history.



P Anima



Sisters Rokshat (left) and Najiya Khatun at their home in Kerala. P Anima/The Migration Story


Kozhikode, Kerala: The rhythm of Noorjahan’s life is arranged on the beat of her daughters’ exam schedule. As the important day draws near, she ensures an impermeable quietness at home. No distractions. 

They rent in a middle-class colony in Kozhikode. Her husband Rafik SK also rents a shop for his small welding business. Noorjahan, 40, cleans four houses to keep her daughters in college. Rokshat Khatun, 20, is studying finance while her elder sister Najiya Khatun, 22, is a nursing student. Four years ago, Rokshat was featured in the local media when she scored a perfect A plus in all subjects in Class X, including Malayalam. 

“It was the first time in the history of my school – NGO Quarters Government Higher Secondary School – that a student got an A-plus across subjects,” Rokshat gave context to her achievement. She had built on her older sister’s efforts, who received a gold medal for an A-plus in science at the same school. 

Rokshat and her sister are the children of migrant workers from Berhampur, West Bengal. Rafik, forced out by debt, took his family with him on a 2,500 km journey when he migrated here in 2011. 


Students of Cotton Hill Government Higher Secondary School in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. The Migration Story

After migrating, a pause in schooling

The sisters’ achievement is a story against all odds. Administrators in Kerala have documented how children of migrant workers struggle to continue their schooling after moving across the country with their parents.

A 2018 National Human Rights Commission study has captured the toll: only 83 percent of the children who have migrated with their parents to Kerala are in school, whereas 97 percent of the children of migrant workers who did not move with their parents are enrolled. Researchers attribute this disparity to the "constant shifting of place of employment of their parents and language problem". 

In Kerala, a state that prides itself for its literacy scores, the challenge for the children begins after enrolment. Speaking in languages ranging from Bengali, Odia, Assamese, Mundari, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada to Dhivehi, they enter classrooms where Malayalam is the medium of instruction. With limited language support, children tend to drop out. 

For Rokshat and Najiya, who were in classes II and IV when they moved, education paused for over a year. The family struggled in a new city facing an unfamiliar language and social ways. After trying a primary school and an anganwadi, the girls found themselves at NGO Quarters school largely by chance. It would take them even longer to get into an age-appropriate class. 

Najiya recounted critical interventions by a handful of teachers: “Language was a barrier. There weren’t any changes and breaks after I got into Class VI,” she told The Migration Story.

 

It helped that their mother refused to give up. 

The initial struggle appears to have built the sisters’ resilience. After the media attention following their Class X results, help came in the form of a fee-waiver at a coaching institute and laptops. Education, however, has come at great expense; the family has taken out a loan of Rs 4 lakh to fund Najiya’s nursing course. “The fees is lower since I got in through merit,” reasoned Najiya. Rokshat, with her eyes on a job in finance, is studying for a course in accounting. 


Children of migrant workers, who move with their parents, face challenges to schooling: Bridging a language divide, lack of documentation for enrolment and, at times, negative attitudes to outsiders in the classroom.

‘Kerala needs migrant workers’

In villages all over India, their father Rafik’s predicament of mounting debt and for others, farming losses, has spurred a wave of domestic migration. 

 

“Most of the migrants in Kerala are from socially and economically disadvantaged communities - the adivasis, Dalits and religious minorities,”  said Benoy Peter, co-founder of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development.

On the flip side, Kerala increasingly needs more migrant workers. S Irudaya Rajan, chair of the International Institute for Migration and Development in Thiruvananthapuram, said, “What the Malayali did in the 1960s migrating to other Indian cities is now unfolding in Kerala with the influx of migrants from North and Northeast India."

"This replacement migration (the Kerala labour force having migrated elsewhere) began 30 years ago and education of the migrant children has become a dynamic concern over the past decade.”  

Kerala is ageing far ahead of other states and its population growth rate is among the lowest in India; the state is at the end of its demographic dividend. “We (in Kerala) need the labour force,” said Rajan. 

How many migrants are we talking of? In 2017-18, a State Planning Board study pegged the number of domestic migrants in Kerala at 31 lakh, of which around 10 lakh stay on. Of those who stay on, 52,000 (~5%) have moved with their families and around 61,000 migrant children are said to be receiving an education.

Rokshat and Najiya are among a growing cohort of children of migrant workers who are banking on access to quality education to secure a better future than the one they would have had in the villages of their ancestors. For teachers and education department officials, the talented sisters became role models to expand the language transition services.

Samagra Shiksha, Kerala (SSK), goes door to door to identify and enroll children who are not in school. Their survey found over 2,000 children who need to be enrolled in age-appropriate classes in the 2024-’25 academic year. SSK facilitates services with language volunteers to support children transitioning to learning Malayalam. 


Volunteers work with children of migrant workers to help them bridge the language gap as part of Project Roshni in Ernakulam, Kerala. Project Roshni/The Migration Story  

Language volunteers

In a 2021 study on education of children of migrant workers, Dhanya P Vasu, SSK project officer in Kottayam district, recommended appointing educational volunteers in every cluster of migrants.

 Vasu, who has launched initiatives in Ernakulam, Idukki and Kottayam districts since 2011, said that language is the main barrier in the initial stage: “The key is to find volunteers who can handle the language of migrant children and the language of instruction.” 

These language-support centres are mostly within the school, she says, although a few are in hamlets and colonies where the children live. Sessions are run before or after school with snacks for students, she explains, and the focus is on classes I to IV. The goal, Vasu said, is for the volunteer and class teacher to work together to integrate a child through word-familiarization and curated worksheets. 

Around 60 km away, Ernakulam district has experienced the highest influx of migrant workers in Kerala along with a growing number of families. The worrying drop-out rates of migrant children prompted the district collector to set up Project Roshni in 2017-18. 

With pedagogy from a local government school that used code-switching to engage a multilingual group, the project expanded a similar system to four urban schools.

“Children were brought to school an hour before classes, offered breakfast, and then handheld towards learning Malayalam by volunteers who spoke their language,” said C K Prakash, project general coordinator. Project Roshni is now in 40 schools. Post Covid, volunteers switched to work during regular school hours.

With interventions in place, say experts, the focus should be on better implementation. Right to Education (RTE) establishes that no child between 6-14 years be out of school. The RTE, said Peter, addresses enrolment, retention, and learning outcomes. “When it comes to migrant children even enrolment and retention become a challenge… though we had found over 230 out of school children, we could enroll only 67 owing to multiple factors, including lack of documents,” he shared. 


The key is to find volunteers who can handle the language of migrant children and the language of instruction. - Dhanya P Vasu, district project officer of Samagra Shiksha, Kerala in Kottayam district.

Some face bias in classroom

Besides language, enrolment and documentation barriers, practitioners point to bias towards migrant workers as a challenge to assimilation. Peter shares how, on occasion, he faced strong reservations from teachers to admitting migrant children in schools. “It is not the universal case,” he added, explaining that, “the basic issue is the lack of understanding of marginalisation.”  Vasu believes this to be a larger barrier than language, and suggested: “We need sensitization training for teachers. We need society to be empathetic.” The wariness to outsiders still exist among teachers and parents, she said, perhaps not as strongly as these did a few years ago. 

Peter makes the case for symbiosis in migration – beneficial to both the migrant and the receiving society. Kerala’s continuing outbound immigration, ageing society, and falling birth rate may mean that schools need migrant children more than the other way round. “In the previous academic year, over 150 schools in the state had an average of 25 children,” said Peter. Moreover, he reasons, opportunities provided to the next generation of migrant families are critical for breaking the cycle of poverty that their parents have experienced. 

In the previous academic year, 150 plus schools in the State had an average of 25 children. Children of migrant workers will be saving the jobs of many teachers

 

 --Benoy Peter, Executive Director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development


Payal Kumari, 25, is another example of making the most of the opportunity that is studying in Kerala. “I am comfortable with Hindi, English and Malayalam,” said the civil services aspirant.

She recounted her family’s migration from Sheikhpura in Bihar to Kochi when she was four. Payal remembers that “language was not so much a barrier, as I learned and was able to communicate.” Though financial constraints would force a move from private to government school, Payal went on to graduate in archaeology with top honours and finished her post graduation.

As she takes a year off to prepare for exams, she said, “That is what I wanted even as a child.” 

Edited by Sonu Chhina 

P Anima is a Delhi-based journalist who writes on climate change, energy transition, gender inequality and archaeology

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