Where the sums add up to a way out of poverty

Labouring to Learn
May 19, 2000

Vickneswari is woken by her mother at 6.15am and has her breakfast of roti with a little sugar before leaving the plantation line room for school at 7.30. At school, the space available to the eight-year-old and her classmates is very restricted, with some 40 pupils crowded into an area originally intended for 18. As a result, several of the boys stand at the back of the class.

At 11.30, Vickneswari is back home again in the line room changing out of her school uniform, for during the afternoon she will undertake a variety of domestic tasks, ranging from fetching water to helping her mother make the meal. At 6pm, she joins her brother at a private tuition class held in a nearby line room. This she attends every day, including at weekends. Vickneswari's day ends when she falls asleep at around 8.15pm.

By employing this vignette exemplifying the close connection between education and domestic labour for many children, Angela Little engages the reader at the outset by personalising the struggle for learning in a developing world context. From here it is but a short step to argue that "in contrast to many of those from economically poor home backgrounds in many school systems in the West, children from poor home backgrounds in Sri Lanka view schooling as a way out of poverty and as a passport to jobs different from those of their parents".

The overall theme of Little's analysis of the growth of educational opportunity among plantation Tamils is that despite Sri Lanka's modest levels of economic growth, it is hailed for its high standards of education. She presents an analysis of the slow consolidation of plantation schools from 1948 to 1977 and the state takeover and enrolment expansion of plantation schooling from 1977.

This is an eclectic book, a feature that is generally a virtue. Thus, Little's wide-ranging analysis will be of interest to all who are concerned with comparative education and the broader relations subsisting between education and development. However, perhaps too much space is devoted to some background issues, including the history of the plantations from their inception in the 1830s through to the present day. The wide-ranging nature of the volume is signified by the fact that the 31 pages of the first chapter are divided into no fewer than 26 sub-sections, which range over the focus of the book, the growth of educational opportunity in plantations, the people of Sri Lanka, development discourses, and models of educational change including Marxist frameworks.

This is a well-written, clearly produced and interesting book. Laudably, the royalties are to be used by the International Committee on Plantation Education to fund educational scholarships for Tamil and Sinhala plantation labourers' children in Sri Lanka and among repatriates to India.

Robert Potter is professor of geography, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Labouring to Learn

Author - Angela W. Little
ISBN - 0 333 67429 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £52.50
Pages - 324

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