Schooling of Children from Fisher Families
Lessons from Fisheries Schools in Kerala
By: V. Santhakumar, John Kurien, Rema Devi
The world over, marine fishing communities which inhabit the coastal fringes of their countries, have adopted occupational and work practices which establish a special socio-cultural ethos for them and which tends to be different from that of the mainstream society. Historically, whether in Canada, Brazil, Norway, Ghana, Myanmar, Cambodia or Indonesia, fisher people were proverbially poorer and more exploited than other land-based agriculture and food-producing communities. In terms of the current development discourse, they are seen to be the ‘outliers’ and have lower human development indicators than the averages which prevail in their respective countries.
This situation prevails even in countries or regions which have been singled out as sterling examples of high human development, like Costa Rica and Kerala in India. Low educational attainment is the hallmark feature of this outlier status (see Kurien, 2000 for Kerala; Vivienne Solis Rivera et al, 2011 and INEC, 2016 for Costa Rica).
There can also be other reasons for this state of affairs, like the uncertainty and variable incomes from their livelihood; working at night; the crowded riparian habitation; lack of educational facilities; their rigidity in terms of occupation; and, the lack of options for occupational diversification.
2. Educational initiatives for Kerala’s fishing communities
Fish and fisheries have been a very important part of the culture and economy of the three regions1 which are now known as the Kerala State. In these regions, fish was considered an important part for the diet of the population and fisheries and fishing communities were vital to the economy. However, noting the need to bring these communities into the mainstream, and given their low levels of literacy, special educational efforts were started in the early 1900s. By the late 1950s, there were fisheries schools at the primary, secondary and higher secondary levels which catered to well over 30,000 children from the coastal areas.
With the formation of Kerala State in 1956, many of these initiatives were carried forward by the Communist Government which was voted to power in 1957. They, however, proposed to modernize the fishery industry by promoting mechanisation and corporatization with the view that the education of children from the fishing communities would contribute to this objective in the long run. It was during the second United Front Communist-led Ministry (1967) that the idea of technical schools for children from the fishing communities was included in the government programs (Mohamed, 2001)2.
In 1968, three Regional Fisheries Technical Schools (RFTS) were set up to cover the three regions of the state. These were residential, keeping in mind the difficult housing and other conditions in the coastal villages. The schools were to train the candidates in seamanship, navigation, net fabrication, engine maintenance and repairs. It was hoped that those who pass out of these schools, given their natural familiarity and closeness to the sea, would take to work on the new mechanized boats introduced by the government; be trained at the Department of Fisheries stations; opt for further training in the Navy; and also, be ideal candidates for training at the numerous central fisheries -related institutions coming up in Kerala. The RFTS were visualized as feeders to the planned modernization of the fishery industry of Kerala.
It must be noted that, along with technical education, the state also, on an average, provided 100-120 merit scholarships to children from the fishing communities who completed schooling on their own initiative and were desirous of opting for pre-university, degree, engineering and medical education.
This report looks at the experience of schools which were created to address the needs of the fishing communities in Kerala. It is based on consultations with different stakeholders, which started after an interaction with a non-governmental organization, Friends of Marine Life (FML) that has been working with the government schools meant for children from the fisher families with an objective to make the education in these schools more useful and effective. This was followed by a meeting with teachers from different schools organized jointly by the FML and the Azim Premji University held at Ernakulam in June 2018. The discussions at these meetings form the substantive empirical basis of this report.
3. Challenges in the schooling of fishing communities
Given the levels of poverty and other difficult socio-economic conditions, the boys and girls of this community may not have a conducive environment for learning in their homes. The boys may be eager and even encouraged to participate in fishing at a relatively young age and the requirement to acquire the skills to be proficient in this occupation may work against their education. Though there has been a gradual change in their living conditions, there are sections of the fishing community found in pockets all along the coast of Kerala which are yet to undergo a significant improvement in their living conditions3. For these reasons, different strategies may need to be adopted to ensure that children from these communities acquire quality schooling.
Given the bountiful fishery resources of the Kerala coast, fishing is an occupation with a sustainable future, especially as the demand for fish and associated products increases as part of economic development. This is particularly so as the health benefits of fish consumption are being increasingly stressed. Hence, there is need to provide education that does not force the younger generation of the fishing communities to withdraw from their traditional occupation (as has been seen in the case of agriculture in different parts of the world) and which supports a sustainable livelihood for them in the fishery industry.
4. Assessment of Regional Fisheries Technical Schools
The RFTS are celebrating their golden jubilee this year (2018). These technical high schools provide education for grades VIII, IX, and X. According to former students of these schools, their initial years were marked by a higher commitment of teachers and an adequate focus on discipline and extracurricular activities; the infrastructure in the schools and the residential quarters were also reasonably better than the conditions at home.
The number of such schools has increased to ten over the years. Out of these, nine schools are exclusively for boys and one is for girls. These schools are administratively controlled by the Department of Fisheries of the Government of Kerala. Teachers working under the Department of Education are deputed to these schools based on an arrangement between these two departments. Students from fishing communities from all over Kerala seek admission to these residential schools.
5. Objectives of Regional Fisheries Technical Schools
There were two main objectives with which the RFTS were set up. The first objective, as explained earlier, was to expose these students to a set of technical skills related to fishing in the context of its planned modernization in Kerala. Since these communities and their younger generation were likely to be interested in continuing with this vocation, it was perceived that their schooling would go hand in hand with their acquisition of skills in this regard. It was presumed that such an exposure to technical skills could be a way to `modernize’ the fishing activities which were carried out by these communities using traditional ways.
The second objective was to provide a conducive environment for the schooling of children from the fishing communities. This was based on an understanding that housing, socio-economic and family conditions of these children were not suitable for their education. Hence, bringing them out of their families and communities and putting them in a residential school was seen as a way to enable their education.
5.1 Indications of the effectiveness of residential schooling
There are indications that these schools have been successful in terms of their second objective, especially during the initial decades of their operation. A number of students completed schooling successfully and went for different levels of higher education and took up employment that requires formal education. According to one person who studied at an RFTS, who became a teacher there, even the availability of basic food in the residential schools was a major enabling factor a decade ago. That was due to the poor living conditions of the fishing communities then. There was a high demand for admission in the RFTS and getting admission into these was considered a major achievement by a child in the fishing communities.
Some of the headmasters and teachers who have worked in these schools in the initial decades have also played an important role in encouraging students to learn and acquire higher education. One could hear stories of a number of such motivated (and motivating) teachers who realized the difficulties of the students’ living conditions and encouraged them to overcome these barriers through extra personal attention and genuine concern.
5.2 Failure in terms of the primary objective
There is no indication that the RFTS with fisheries as a subject have been successful in terms of imparting skills related to fishing. The schools usually have a technical assistant from the Department of Fisheries for this purpose. However, the impact of such a skill-oriented education is uncertain. There could be various reasons for this. The teachers who taught the subject may not have had adequate exposure to the actual practice of fishing in these communities whereby, the teaching may have been more theoretical, failing to link it with the practice of fisheries or the life of the fishing communities. There might not have been enough facilities in these schools to provide skill-based education. The focus of teachers and the smarter students might have been on the educational achievements in general and not on the acquisition of skills. Therefore, there is no indication that this `formal education’ has contributed to the creation of `educated fishermen’.
In a sense, the success in terms of general schooling, and the failure in terms of vocational schooling is closely related with the socio-economic realities of these communities. When these schools were in high demand, the number of children in each fishing family was more (7-10). It may be noted that the fertility decline in these communities was slower compared to the others in Kerala. A big family size may have aggravated their living conditions, but on the other hand, families could spare one or two children for general schooling without it affecting the labour required for their livelihood. They would have seen the possibility of an educated employment (or their withdrawal from fishing as an occupation) for a few of their children as an attractive (or not so undesirable) option. These fishing communities might not have considered the RFTS as a space for fishery education, but just as schools for general education in an enabling environment.
6. Current status of Regional Fisheries Technical Schools
There has been a change in the socio-economic conditions of fishing communities in general, which has changed the demand for these schools. This change in demand and other factors are also reflected in the teaching and other facilities available in these schools now. These are discussed next.
6.1 Enrolment declining but schools needed for a section of fishing families
Various factors have led to a decline in the demand for these government-run, residential schools among the fishing communities. Firstly, the number of children per women has declined drastically and is currently close to 2-3. The household incomes have also increased gradually for the majority, if not all, of households. The consumption levels have improved. Hence, the majority of households are not interested in sending their children to residential schools for food and other basic requirements. So, although the basic food and other amenities in these government-run, residential schools had been attractive to these families until a few decades ago, that is currently, not the case.
The expectations of these households have gone up and some of them may even consider the facilities in these schools inferior or unattractive. With the educational aspirations going up, some sections of these people have started using private schools for their children, which is the general trend within Kerala and also in other parts of India.
Though this is the general picture, there are groups within these communities or households which may still want to send their boys to the RFTS. This is discussed next.
6.2 Children come from difficult family backgrounds
There is a perception among the teachers that the demand for these schools is higher among the fishing households in the southern part of Kerala. The fishers in this region are relatively poor. Overall, there could be a greater willingness to send children to these schools among households which are facing disabling conditions, like if the family is broken, or if the father is absent, indifferent or incapable to contribute to family welfare. This is not unique to the fishing communities. When most children were in school in Kerala, conditions similar to these were noticed among a set of students, which can affect their educational and learning achievements4.
The teachers believe that though there is a general decline in the demand for the RFTS, there is a set of children who may not get an adequate education if these schools are closed down. It is therefore evident that the students who continue to use these residential schools are faced with more difficult socio-economic and family conditions compared to others in the community.
6.3 Poor educational achievements
Those who have seen these schools over time note a decline in their academic standards and the achievements of the students5. It is well-known that the educational achievements including the learning of the students are determined not only by what happens within the classroom and school (quality and readiness of teachers, curriculum, pedagogy, infrastructure and facilities) but also by the socio-economic and family conditions of the child6. Given that the children who currently use these residential schools are likely to have specific disadvantages compared even to the others in their own community, one should not be surprised by their poor educational achievements. Even as some schools record a 100% pass rate, a significant number of students who pass out of grade X cannot even read and write.
There could be a decline in the commitment of the teachers in these schools, as noted by a number of participants in the interactions. Most teachers are not in a position to understand the specific disadvantages faced by these students, and orient instruction and other processes within the school to keep the children interested in the learning.
Some teachers note that these students may do well if classroom teaching is combined with more physical activity, including sports, such as football and swimming. There may be a need for emotional support for these children who come from difficult family environments and teachers may not be equipped or willing to reach out to them in this regard. Even as we hear stories of former teachers who have made a lasting positive impression on the minds of their students by demonstrating a strong interest in their welfare, currently, there seems to be a decline in the number of such teachers in these schools.
6.4 Status of infrastructure
There has been a decline in the quality of infrastructure and other facilities available in the RFTS. It is possible that these schools have failed to improve the facilities as per the expectations of parents which have changed over time based on the improvement in the socio-economic conditions within the state.
The tendency to use the premises of these schools for rehabilitation of the fishing families whenever there is a natural disaster in the coastal areas, which is not infrequent, and also due to the difficulty in getting these families to vacate the premises afterwards, adds to the inconveniences there. There are also issues with hygiene conditions in the hostels with students reporting skin-related and other infections. There is not enough allocation of resources for the provision of adequate food for students. There can also be cases of malpractice wherein the money allocated to these schools is not being used effectively and for the intended purposes. The Kerala State Child Rights Commission has taken note of these issues and has made recommendations to the state government7. Though certain steps are being taken by the government, these do not seem to be adequate.
The need for and the absence of well-trained and motivated wardens of hostels, who can also be counsellors to students, was noted by teachers who have worked in these schools. The current practice of hiring temporary hands or assigning this responsibility to the physical education teachers is not desirable. Though these schools come under the fisheries department of the government, there is not enough supervision from the government’s side. The fact that these schools are controlled administratively by the Department of Fisheries but teachers are under the control and supervision of the Department of Education, could be creating problems in coordination and effective supervision.
The number of students taking admission in each school has come down drastically and hence the pupil-teacher ratio is very low. This situation could have been used as an opportunity to improve the learning levels of these students. Since these schools have only grades VIII, IX and X, the poor learning in lower grades may continue to affect the education of the students and there may be a need for remedial support to mitigate this problem.
Due to the decline in the number of students, the government has allowed admission to day-scholars to fill up a maximum of 50% seats. However, the prevailing quality of the schools (which includes the learning aptitude of students who reside there) may not attract many day-scholars who have other options for their education. In many coastal areas, there are private schools run by the various religious communities to which the fishers belong. Today, many prefer to send their children to these institutions.
7. Exploring the possibility of better but fewer residential schools
Given the decline in the demand for residential schools among the fishing communities, but the persisting need for it among a smaller section of them, the government of Kerala will do well to consider continuing only a few but better equipped residential schools. There are such models within the state, a couple of such schools with adequate facilities are run for the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and the Scheduled Castes (SC) by the departments for the welfare of the SCs and the STs. There are similar residential schools for underprivileged groups in others states (such as Andhra Pradesh). Similarly, there are the Navodaya Vidyalayas which are also in very high demand even among the middle-class sections of the Indian society.
Hence, it may be possible to have a fewer (probably three – one each in the southern, central and northern parts of Kerala) well-equipped residential schools for children belonging to the fishing communities. These schools must avoid the current situation of admitting only boys and must create favourable conditions so that girls can join too. Since these schools cater to grades VIII, IX and X, the issues associated with taking children away from their family/social surroundings at an early age (an issue regarding residential schooling of the underprivileged discussed globally) are also not of concern.
The RFTS should have a better-quality infrastructure and a higher allocation of resources for the boarding and lodging of students. Each of these should have well-trained and well-motivated warden-cum-counsellors. Teachers for these schools must be hand-picked from those who work under the Department of Education. In addition to the academic credentials, their ability and willingness to work with and motivate these students who come from difficult family and social situations should be taken into account in the selection of the teachers. They can be provided with additional support and recognition (not financial since such incentives may not be appropriate in organizations like schools8). There should be enough opportunities for co-curricular and extra-curricular activities in these schools along with those for the learning of academic subjects.
These suggestions are different from the approach followed by the Kerala State Child Rights Commission which has recommended substantial improvements on all counts (in terms of school infrastructure, residential facilities, teachers and wardens, and teaching) in all of these schools. It has also recommended the admission of day-scholars (without any cap on the numbers) and girls. Since there may be financial limitations on the state to enhance investments in all schools, this suggestion of the Commission may not be implemented. Also, there may not be enough public pressure for such investments from the fishing communities when the number of children seeking residential facility is declining. Admission of other children who do not want residential facilities may divert the attention of the teachers away from the children who stay in the hostels. For all these reasons, we suggest a transition to a set of fewer but well-equipped residential schools to meet the needs of those who still require such a facility.
In the current situation, and particularly when small-scale fishing activity still forms the backbone of the fish economy, an attempt to provide an exposure to fisheries as an academic subject in these schools may not be important. It is internationally recognised that children below the age of 15 years should only be exposed to general schooling and not vocational education. They are at an age where they should have the option to pursue diverse opportunities in vocational and higher education and narrowing down their education to a specific vocation may work against their wish to pursue other subjects at a later stage.
However, since these students are from the fishing communities, activities or knowledge related to fishing can be used as a pedagogical tool to study other subjects (such as science, geography, and mathematics). There can be innovative efforts in this direction. Moreover, fisheries can be a vocational subject as part of higher secondary schooling, and we discuss this in the following section.
8. Assessing fishery education as part of Vocational Higher Secondary Schools
Like many other states, Kerala too has a set of Vocational Higher Secondary Schools (VHSS) where vocational subjects such as agriculture, animal husbandry, and so on, are taught in addition to the regular school subjects. There is a set of schools where the vocational subject is fisheries, and there are 39 batches for this course with some schools having more than one batch of students. Ten per cent of the seats in these schools are reserved for children coming from the fishing communities and the teachers in these schools have good fisheries qualifications (B.F.Sc) and private sector experience in fish processing industries and in the fisheries department.
8.1 Status of VHSS
There is a high demand for seats in these schools. Students from all communities opt for vocational education. This could be due to the overall scarcity of the number of seats in higher secondary education compared to the demand (or because of the sheer number of students who pass out of high schools) in Kerala. However, not surprisingly, VHSS is generally considered as an inferior option. Those who want to take up a job after higher secondary education are those who do not want or cannot go for higher education in colleges/universities (for academic or socio-economic reasons), and hence the first preference is a general education at the higher secondary level. However, the VHSS are also designed to equip students to pursue university education if they so desire.
There are some disadvantages of fisheries as a subject at the VHSS. Those who take up agriculture or animal husbandry benefit from a certain level of reservation in government jobs (such as, veterinary assistants) or in courses in colleges. However, such a reservation is not available for those who pass out of courses in fisheries. There may be possibilities to institute such a reservation in certain fishery-related jobs or courses, but how far that can improve the attractiveness of fishery at the VHSS still needs to be seen.
In the current scenario, most students want to focus on general subjects especially, science as they may want to go for higher education in engineering, medicine, agriculture and so on. Since there cannot be any dilution in the teaching of these subjects due to the interest of students, the vocational subject of fisheries has become just an additional discipline in these schools. It has added to the academic burden on the students and hence there is less attention paid to it which further reduces not only the students’ interest but also the time available for innovative experiments to make the vocational subject attractive, this may have a bearing on the interest of the teachers as well. This needs to change so that the vocational component of the education (here, fisheries) benefits those students who are interested in pursuing a career in fisheries, and various suggestions in this regard are discussed in the following sections.
8.2 Exploring possibilities of integrating vocational and general subjects
Given that students want to focus on conventional science and other regular school subjects, it may be useful to explore the ways in which the vocational discipline can be used to teach conventional subjects.
It is theoretically possible to teach mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology in ways that can be related to the science, technology and skills in fisheries. Such an integration may enhance the interest of students in conventional subjects. However, this may require a co-ordination between teachers of conventional subjects and those of the vocational discipline. This may also require the development and use of new learning materials. Though the syllabus of the fisheries schools aims at student-centred and activity-oriented teaching, the actual teaching of conventional subjects may have to change to fulfil these intentions.
8.3 Need of better infrastructure
The VHSS also need better infrastructure facilities, and some of these are mentioned in the report prepared by the Child Rights Commission of Kerala. Only a small set of students who are enrolled in the VHSS may need residential facilities, and currently, these are not available. The possible reduction in the number of fisheries high schools (considering the decline in the enrolment there) may provide space (if developed and utilized properly) for residential facilities for the students in the VHSS.
8.4 Lack of facilities to give appropriate skills in fisheries
There are teachers who are well-trained in fishery science in the VHSS. However, there are not enough laboratory and other facilities or time and provisions to use the facilities available elsewhere to impart different skills in fisheries. It may be difficult to have a full-fledged infrastructure in all these schools in the current situation. There have to be different ways, like having connections with the national institutes in fisheries technology or marine science located in Kerala or with different industrial firms involved in fisheries, to enhance the access of students to such facilities.
8.5 Exploring possibilities of skill education through digital media
The other possibility is to use the tools available on digital media, such as YouTube, to make the instruction of different subjects attractive to students. There can be efforts to develop or disseminate such tools among teachers from different schools. Whether it is by using digital media or other means, there is a need for the development and dissemination of newer pedagogical tools. This requires a networking of teachers in different VHSS-fisheries schools and must include not only those who teach the vocational subject but also the conventional ones.
This network of teachers can also partner with external organizations, such as the Azim Premji Foundation and others involved in developing and propagating learning materials for different kinds of schools.
8.6 Strengthening linkages with fishing communities
There seems to be a weak linkage between the fishing communities and schools imparting fisheries education. Strengthening these linkages would be beneficial on different counts. It may enhance the awareness of the scope of this education among parents, which may enhance its demand. It can also be an opportunity for teachers to understand the real challenges faced by the fishing population, which may help them to develop better connect with students or change the nature of education to make it more appropriate for their needs. There may be possibilities of using the interface with the fishing community as a pedagogical tool. The fisher population may have certain practical skills (such as deep-sea diving) which may be difficult for teachers from non-fishing communities to acquire or practice. Developing close connections with the fishing communities or their organizations (or those working with them) may provide the possibilities to impart different skills to the students.
This report is itself the outcome of a collaboration between teachers of fisheries schools and the Friends of Marine Life headed by people belonging to the fishing community. The FML has taken an active interest in improving the quality and usefulness of education provided in the fisheries schools. Such collaborative efforts have to be strengthened to make the education in these vocational schools effective.
8.7 Need to upgrade curriculum
The curriculum of fisheries taught in the VHSS covers a number of useful topics, like fishing technology, fish processing technology, and aquaculture. However, it needs to be upgraded periodically to include other relevant issues. There could be a reluctance to upgrade curriculum periodically and this needs to be addressed. It may be better to have wider consultations with all stakeholders for this purpose.
In this context, the introduction of the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) by the Central Government needs to be converted into an opportunity9. Appropriate syllabi for a variety of job positions such as aquaculture farm managers; hatchery technician; aquaponics technicians; value-added product technicians, to name a few, can be submitted for course approval to the Pandit Sunderlal Sharma Central Institute of Vocational Education (PSSCIVE), Bhopal by the state government. The experienced teachers of the VHSS-fisheries schools and other relevant stakeholders can come together to formulate these.
A few gaps are notable in the current fisheries syllabus. Fishing as an occupation and industry needs to be concerned with the sustainable and responsible use of marine and water resources. There is a need to develop responsible fishery all over the world. Though fishing resources and responsible fisheries are covered in the module of fishing technology in the syllabus, our impression is that there is not enough coverage of the marine ecosystem, the potential impacts that the fishing of different kinds may have on this ecosystem, and the technological and institutional (rules and laws) options that are in tune with sustainable fishery or sustainable use of marine resources (like the conservation-oriented tourism to watch marine life; community tenure rights, valorising small-scale fisheries and so on). These need to find a place in the curriculum.
After training in fisheries at the VHSS, students may take to individual or family owned, small-scale fishing activity if they are also provided with the required capital. Alternatively, they may join industrial fishery or find jobs in the currently modernizing fish-processing and marketing sector. There is also a great need to revive the institution of cooperatives. These requirements need to reflect in the teaching of fisheries as a vocational subject. It may require not only skills but also awareness and attitudinal changes, for example, to work as part of a cooperative or collective entity.
This seems to be a problem in other parts of the world too as evident from the experience of a fisher school in Brazil described here.
8.8 Establishing industry-school linkages
There is a need to develop closer linkages between vocational schools and the fishing industry/sector. Such associations would be useful in various ways. They may enable the updating of the curriculum to make it appropriate to the contemporary requirements of the industry. Technicians and managers from the fishing industry can be invited for guest lectures in the schools, which will enable the students to form a clear association of classroom instruction of skills with the practical needs. It may enable students to undertake internships and practical work in industrial firms to enhance their skills. It may also lead to the placement of students in fishing-related industry after the successful completion of their studies. Such an industry-vocation linkage is envisaged in the skill development programs which are currently going on in the country, and it may be useful to bring about such a strong connection in the VHSS-fisheries schools.
8.9 Possible placement as a means to enhance student interest
Even if there is a placement service in the VHSS, only some students may show interest in taking up a job after passing out of the school. It is understandable that some students will want to pursue different streams of higher education. But students who are from the fishing communities may be interested in taking up jobs after secondary schooling and the availability of a placement service may motivate them to complete schooling successfully.
Making vocational education closer to the practical skills necessary for fisheries jobs, developing close linkages with the industry and the sector as a whole, and job placement for students who are willing to work may enhance the attractiveness of the VHSS- fisheries schools.
This report analyses the current situation of schools aimed at children from the fisher families in Kerala. These schools which started in the 1960s, though have been partially successful, are facing different kinds of challenges currently. There is a need to understand their requirements, the relevance of their current curriculum, and redesign it to better meet the challenges of today. Through the discussion with different stakeholders, we highlight a few changes that are desirable in the current context. There are two key suggestions: (a) it may be better to have a fewer but well-equipped residential high schools for children from the fisher families; (b) there is a need to change the curriculum and pedagogy; and, establish institutional linkages to make the education in the VHSS- fisheries schools closer to the needs of fishing sector and communities.
V.Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University.
John Kurien, Retired Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum; visiting professor at the Azim Premji University.
Rema Devi, Associated with the Field Practice Team of the Azim Premji University, supports coordination between practice organizations and the Practice Connect team. Has worked with various civil society organizations across India on various aspects of social development.
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