The curious incident of the class in the night-time

Mohini Chaudhuri | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on September 09, 2016

Chasing benchmarks: Several Mumbai night schools operate out of corporation schools, which is why adults have to use benches meant for children Photo: Shashi Ashiwal

The revolution will not be televised: Last month, close to 4,500 students and teachers of night schools took to the streets of Mumbai to protest the State Government’s apathy towards them. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury


The catalyst Nikita Ketkar, CEO of Masoom


Battling slashed budgets and inadequate facilities, Mumbai’s night schools are offering a ray of hope to thousands of students

Anuradha Pawar was married before she turned 18. In no time, she was a mother of two children. Her day was divided between raising her two infants, and working as a domestic help in the home of a family in Breach Candy. There, too, her job was to look after kids. Before Pawar was married, her life was equally manic. She’d have to report at her employer’s home at 8.30 am, and as soon as she got off work late in the evening, she rushed to night school in Worli. She remembers being fatigued by the time she got there, but she also felt fulfilled. That’s where she discovered she had a natural flair for mathematics. On most nights she’d be up till two o’clock, catching up on homework and revision. She was performing well, but was pulled out of school in Std IX by her husband, just a year before she could appear for her board exams.

Seven years and a divorce later, Pawar was back at school, picking up her mathematics classes exactly where she had left off. She took a month off from work, sending her mother instead to the Breach Candy family, and focused on cracking her board exams. With a 92.4 per cent score, she was 2012’s state topper in night schools.

Looking back, she says that if she didn’t have the option of a night school, there was no way she could have resurrected her life.

For decades now, the night schools of Mumbai have been handing out second chances at life to students like Pawar. And yet, there’s been little regard for the work they do. Last month, close to 4,500 students and teachers of night schools took to the streets of Mumbai to protest the state government’s apathy towards them. A new government resolution suggests that the number of teachers in schools will be reduced because of budgetary restrictions, which in turn would mean fewer subject teachers at night schools.

“This will affect the overall quality of education in night schools. We are asking the government to pull funds from elsewhere and make budgetary allocations for night schools. We believe these students are especially deserving they are in school at night after a hard day at work. Most of them are self-motivated. They are already earning so there is no compulsion to study for the sake of work,” says Nikita Ketkar, the founder of Masoom, an NGO that has adopted around 57 night schools in the city. Masoom has started a petition for striking down this resolution, to avert the closure of night schools.

Subhash More, president of Shikshak Bharti, was widely quoted as saying during the march at Marina Drive, “The government has decided to shut down night schools and promote open schools instead. This is nothing but robbing poor and working-class people of their right to education. We want the government to not go ahead with this unjustified decision, and provide more funding and facilities to these students.”

The problems plaguing these institutions are as old as night schools themselves. The first-ever night school in Maharashtra was instituted in 1885 by noted social reformer Jyotiba Phule. Though there hasn’t been a formal survey in years, it is believed that there are about 130 such schools in Mumbai, and another 50 across the rest of Maharashtra. There are worries that the numbers are gradually diminishing over time. In the past few decades, several night schools in the Parel area have been shuttered owing to a lack of students. With the closure of mills and redevelopment plans in the area, the majority of the families have migrated deeper into the city, leaving the schools near their former homes empty.

Ketkar says that the students at her night schools are typically sweepers, canteen boys, and newspaper vendors. They come into class every evening at 6.30 and stay on till 9.30. They join in Std VIII and are trained to clear their Secondary School Certificate (SSC) Examination. It is a herculean task to give them a holistic education in just three hours when they’re already academically weaker than the average day-school student. “As far as competency is concerned they are still in the 3rd and 4th standard when they come to the Std VIII. As long as the students can read and write we take them in. It’s a huge challenge for students and teachers to cope with the SSC syllabus, because it is quite tough. Even the teachers are tired because they have worked all morning. They need to put in more effort here,” says Ketkar.

This is why the prospect of having fewer subject teachers is particularly damaging for these students.

Anantkumar Dattatray Patil, the headmaster of Agarkar Night School in Worli, says it’s taken him years to achieve a 100 per cent pass in his school. It’s now been four years on the trot where he hasn’t had a failure. But it hasn’t come easy. “Many of the students have left school years before joining us. Their standard is zero. We start from ABC and how to write capital letters. In three years we have to teach them everything, and that too in just three hours every day. Our teachers go the extra mile by calling them on weekends and using government holidays to take extra classes,” he says. One of his school’s biggest successes is Pawar, who is now studying BCom at St Xavier’s College and simultaneously preparing for chartered accountancy exams. She’s been granted a scholarship by the British Asian Trust and this has allowed her to quit her job and concentrate on her studies. She’s even been promised a job by Apollo Tyres on completing her education.

There are many more similarly inspiring stories of students going on to become businessmen, lawyers or finding creative outlets like photography. On the other hand, many students also drop out when they’re unable to keep pace with the syllabus.

“As a headmaster, my first challenge is to bring these kids to school. For that I need to go to slums and chawls and get them interested in education by distributing pamphlets and performing street plays. But once they are in, it is harder to keep them there and make sure they don’t drop out before the three years are up,” adds Patil.

Today the overall pass percentage of night schools is about 60-65 per cent. Ankush Jagdale, a teacher with Masoom and the former headmaster of Utkarsh Night school, remembers a time when the pass percentage was zero. The numbers have improved drastically with the support of organisations like Masoom that has made up for government inaction. But the fight for basic amenities continues. The basic requirements of a student — books, stationery and libraries — are not available to them. In many cases, they don’t have access to computers and science labs. “To make up for that, we have built a bus that is equipped with laptops and the internet. It looks like a classroom from inside and can hold about 27 students. The bus goes from one location to another, as and when schools require them,” says Ketkar.

Night schools are typically held in corporation schools — the premises are rented out after the day students are done.

“The government school has midday meals for the students, but we don’t even get that. Also, we have to use the day school furniture, which is very inconvenient, because those are made for much younger students. Our pupils are adults, but they have to sit on tiny benches and write on desks meant for kids for three hours every day. Sometimes it gets very painful. We are not given any funds to buy better black boards, chair and benches,” rues Patil.

That said, Ketkar says that the keepers of night schools have always found a way to rise above their troubles. The students, too, value the potential of this education, which is why they turned up in droves at the protest. Be it a bus with laptops or a mobile science lab constructed by a carpenter, nothing has come in the way of their spirit to learn. If their teachers are to be believed, the government must invest in the future of students.

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Published on September 09, 2016
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