“People think Bio-Maths is the only option. They do not know about these courses. When I told people I had taken this course, the general reaction was, ‘Why this course?’ There is a stereotype that only students with less marks would opt for the Vocational Higher Secondary Schools (VHSS) courses. That impression should be changed.”
– Krishnindhu (extreme right), VHSS student, 24 July 2023
Lace Making, Embroidery, and Sewing were taught to children in mission institutions in Kerala in the nineteenth century.
Source: University of Southern California (USC) Digital Library
VHSS or Vocational Higher Secondary Schools have been in existence in Kerala since the 1980s. However, few people know about these higher secondary institutions that provide vocational training and general education.
Missionaries introduced modern schools in Malabar, Cochin, and Travancore in the early nineteenth century, and skill-based education was essential to the curriculum. Later, when the various governments in these regions took up the responsibility of formal education in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, they carried forward the importance given to skill-based or technical education.
A photo of St. Ignatius VHSS, Kanjiramattom, Ernakulam taken on 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
In 1983, the Kerala government introduced Vocational Higher Secondary Education (VHSE) to provide job-oriented education at the higher secondary level. This curriculum integrated academic knowledge with vocational skills, preparing students for various job roles. In its inception year, VHSE was implemented in 19 schools, offering a limited selection of courses. Later, the programme diversified its course offerings, incorporating disciplines ranging from technology, healthcare, hospitality, and commerce to arts and crafts. By 2010, 67.1% of the vocational courses were in government schools, and 32.9% of the schools were in the private-aided sector. Various vocational courses have been introduced in schools and colleges to cater to the diverse needs of the job market. In 2018-19, the National Skill Qualifications Framework (NSQF) started to be implemented all over India. In Kerala, existing vocational higher secondary courses were revamped to accommodate the NSQF framework.
The entrance to Rahmaniya VHSS for Handicapped, Medical College, Kozhikode on 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Dr Anil Kumar R. Kurup, a Thrissur VHSS teacher, said, “The original idea of the NSQF was that students from classes 9 to 12 will be given vocational training. The plan was to implement NSQF in normal higher secondary schools as the vocational schools already have a skill component. This has been cut down to classes 11–12. Now it is intended to be a terminal course enabling students to enter a trade. At least 30 per cent of the student population needs to be given training in trade. This has not happened in Kerala due to various reasons.”
Biju Kuriakose, clerk at St. Ignatius VHSS, studied in a VHSS in 1984–86. He was part of the second batch of VHSS students there. He did a course related to agriculture and mentioned that the course helped him try innovative methods in cultivating his parambu (land around the house). Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What is the history of the St. Ignatius VHSS, Kanjiramattom?
St. Ignatius School was started in 1939 as an upper primary school near St. Ignatius Church in Kanjiramattom. The idea to start a school was proposed by Bishop Mar Athanasius and taken forward by K.V. Ittan Master (Founder Manager) and others from the area. The St. Ignatius VHSS was started in 1991 and was the first aided VHSS in Kerala.
Front view of the St. Ignatius Church, Kanjiramattom on 24 July 2023. St. Ignatius upper primary school, with Malayalam as the language of teaching, was started in a room near this church in 1939. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
The original St. Ignatius Vernacular Upper Primary School has been relocated to this new building within the compound. It is now a high school. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
A photo of the High School Section of Rahmaniya for the Hearing and Visually Impaired Students, Kozhikode taken on 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What is the history of the Rahmaniya VHSS for the Handicapped in Kozhikode?
In 1973 the Association for Welfare of Handicapped (AWH) started the Rahmaniya School for Handicapped. It aimed to provide vocational and all-round development for children with special needs. The Association manages the school and runs several educational institutions across Northern Kerala. The Rahmaniya VHSS was started in 1991 to continue providing vocational support to deaf students (hearing-impaired, HI, is the term used by the staff to refer to the students) in the Rahmaniya School.
What is the curriculum in a VHSS? How is it different from a normal Higher Secondary School (HSS)?
A VHSS course in a school typically has five subjects—a vocational course, a language, and three other subjects. In an HSS, the students would learn two languages and three other subjects.
In Kerala, because of the high levels of education, a degree is considered the essential qualification before moving on to a job. Therefore, VHSS students, who have internalised this, also prefer to go for higher education rather than stop their education with schooling. There is also the hope to land a “white collar” job. When vocational schools were started in Kerala, equal importance was given to the vocational subject and the general subjects.
Dr Anil Kumar: “This was thought of as a terminal course by the Centre due to the high school dropout rate in North India. In Kerala, the trend of doing higher studies has made this into a transitional course. Though the idea was that the course would enable the student to enter a trade directly, that has not happened due to the way the course has been implemented.”
A photo of students working in the Field Technician Air-conditioner (FTAC) laboratory in St. Ignatius VHSS taken on 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
A photo of students working in the Four Wheeler Service Technician (FST) laboratory in Rahmaniya VHSS taken on 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What are the vocational subjects taught in St.Ignatius VHSS and Rahmaniya VHSS?
The vocational subjects taught in St. Ignatius are connected to the following courses: Draughtsperson Civil Work (DCW), Field Technician Computing & Peripherals (FTCP), FTAC, Lab Technician Research and Quality Control (LTR), Dietetic Aide (DIA), and Business Correspondent & Facilitator (BCF).
The vocational subjects taught in Rahmaniya VHSS are connected to the following courses: Four Wheeler Service Technician (FST), Field Technician Computing & Peripherals (FTCP), Junior Software Developer (JSD), Fitness Trainer (FNT), Lab Technician: Research and Quality Control (LTR).
What are the changes in the curriculum because of NSQF?
The courses were different before the implementation of the NSQF in 2020. Earlier vocational courses were revamped and renamed. For instance, the (FNT) Fitness Trainer was renamed the Physiotherapy course, the Lab Technician: Research and Quality Control course became the Medical Laboratory Technology (MLT) course, and the FTCP (Field Technician Computing and Peripherals) course was titled the Maintenance and Repairs of Radio and Television course. The changes in the names and the corresponding changes in the curriculum have altered the aspiration, demand for, and quality of specific VHS courses.
In the 1990s, students learned the plan of a house, building layout, and so on as part of their practicals in the civil course at St. Ignatius. When the civil-based courses were revised and consolidated to Draughtsperson, the practical aspect of the course changed to survey with tools and use of AutoCAD. “The teachers have also been learning new technology with the students”, according to Bessy Mathew, who teaches the Draughtsperson course.
The Dietetic Aide Laboratory at St. Ignatius VHSS, which was earlier the MLT laboratory, on 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Jaymol Thomas, a teacher at St. Ignatius VHSS, in the staff room on 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What are called the practicals in a VHSS course?
The practical classes are in various modules. There is laboratory work, field visits, Interaction Classes and similar activities. Practical evaluation is given equal weightage with theoretical classes. The students work with a company or a factory for a week. Interaction Classes are sessions in which the students listen to professionals who work in the field. The speakers do a one-hour PowerPoint presentation on a topic related to their work.
At Rahmaniya, the students are encouraged to do small projects as part of their practicals. Yoonus C.P., a teacher of FST, said, “We give them general guidelines on what to do. The students find the engines from scrap yards. They are encouraged to dismantle these at the school lab. Since the engines and motors are taken from scrapyards, they do not cost much. These add to their understanding of the working of the machines.”
Bessy Mathew, a teacher, in the DCW Laboratory at St. Ignatius VHSS on 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
A photo of the inside of a gearbox at the FST laboratory, Rahmaniya VHSS taken on 8 August 2023. One side has been cut out to show the working of the various gears to the students. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What happened to the old laboratories when the courses were changed to implement NSQF?
Many of the older equipment in the laboratories have become redundant. Some of them cannot be used due to changes in policies and rules.
The LTR lab in St.Ignatius had a cupboard full of preserved animals. The current law and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act do not allow these to be displayed to the students.
Praseetha E.P., the LTR teacher, said, “They are shown diagrams of the animals. There is no dissection also. The students draw these diagrams. Different plant sections are dissected, and cheek cells are shown through the microscope.”
The cupboard with old specimens in the LTR laboratory, St. Ignatius VHSS, 24 July 2023. The students draw diagrams of insects and animals and learn from the diagrams and charts. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Close-up of old specimens in the LTR laboratory at St.Ignatius VHSS, 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
The old televisions from the Maintenance and Repairs of Radio and Television course were stowed away in the FTCP Laboratory at St. Ignatius VHSS, 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
The Publicity board for an event to be held by the Entrepreneurship Development Club displayed on an outside corridor at Rahmaniya VHSS for Handicapped, Kozhikode, 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What are the add-on courses offered at VHSS?
Habeebu Rahiman T.V., a teacher at Rahmaniya, said students are given classes on entrepreneurship. The ED Club, as it is called, invites speakers to talk to the students.
Yoonus, another teacher, added, “They are given classes by former students who are well-placed, thus providing the students with an awareness of the possibilities of the courses.”
There is a training session given to them by faculty from the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indian Institute of Spices Research (IISR), or Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM) every year. The students are taken to these institutions and given a tour of the campuses. As part of the course, they are also taken to nearby industries, Milma, etc. to familiarise them with the working of machines in industries.
An Entrepreneurship Development class in progress at Rahmaniya VHSS, 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Habeebu Rahiman at Rahmaniya VHSS for Handicapped taking a theory class, 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
How has the existence and proliferation of Higher Secondary Schools affected VHSS?
Higher Secondary Schools were started in the late 1990s when the pre-degree courses were delinked from the degree colleges.
In 1999, the St. Ignatius HSS started functioning within the compound of the St.Ignatius Church and schools. This was a state-funded institution. Saji, a retired teacher at St. Ignatius, stated that the academically brighter students opt to take up the HSS courses that are pitched at a higher social class.
Dr Anil mentioned that his school did not get academically brilliant students. Earlier, when the number of colleges and HSS were less, they would occasionally get a few brilliant students. He said that when he did his research on vocational schools in the 2010s, the case was the same in the other schools. Now they hardly ever get students that are interested in the vocational course.
Shivapriya and Vismaya, two students, mentioned that they had less opportunities and access to extracurricular activities like sports. Since there are only around 120–140 students in the St. Ignatius VHSS, the school does not have enough funding for various activities. The students were generally embittered that the HSS (with 600 students) across the playground had more activities and competitions.
View of the St. Ignatius HSS block and entrance from the playground on 24 July 2023. The HSS section within the same compound has more funding than the VHSS. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What is the perception of the VHSS students about their schools and courses?
Currently, most of the students are not aware of VHSS courses or schools in Ernakulam and Thrissur. They join the schools through the single window entry because the courses and institutions that are their first choice are not available. But all the students interviewed—at Ernakulam and Kozhikode—said they were happy with the courses. “We enjoy having more practical courses and the edge it gives us over general HSS students.”
Abhijith, who is doing FTCP at St.Ignatius, said, “I used to find Physics and Chemistry difficult at school. Now, I find it easy to study. I like that there are two hours dedicated to practicals.” He hopes to do a B.Tech in Mechanical/Automobile or something related after he finishes the course.
The students interviewed at Rahmaniya VHSS had been aware of the school and the courses before they joined. Most of the students had relatives who had studied in the school and had given glowing reviews of Rahmaniya. These students were also happy with the facilities and opportunities that they had at the school.
Rasha Fathima and Fidha Fathima mentioned that they wanted to do a course abroad if circumstances allowed it. Both she and Rasha are Fitness training students at the school. Fidha said, “I knew about vocational courses and wanted to do one. However, I did not know much about my course when I joined. I like the course and want to do higher studies in fitness training or nutrition after this.”
Second-year students at St. Ignatius VHSS, 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rasha Fathima and Fidha Fathima at a laboratory in Rahmaniya VHSS, 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What are the measures taken to integrate HI students at Rahmaniya VHSS?
The special needs students have common classes with the other students at Rahmaniya VHSS. Currently, the VHSS has only HI students. All the teachers at the VHSS know sign language, which they said they picked up along the way. They have informal sensitisation classes when they join.
Abdul Rahim M is a teacher with a Psychology degree and experience teaching special needs students in other schools. He works as a councillor for the special needs students. He said, “The teachers give the HI students special instruction. Otherwise, the HI students sit with the other students and attend the classes and practicals. I give them counselling on a case-by-case basis.”
Habeebu Rahiman said that some of the concepts are difficult for special needs students to grasp. So, they use visual aids to help them. The teachers were all using smart boards and audio-visual aids in all the classes. Many of the students join the government polytechnic in Kozhikode. “A few have gone on to do a B.Tech and study at IIM,” Habeebu added with pride. Since the Rahmaniya School was started for special needs students, integrating them within society is very important to the teachers and management of the school.
HI students, Muhammed Sinan, Arun, and Abdul Samad at the FST laboratory with their teacher, Yoonus, at Rahmaniya VHSS on 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
A photo of the audio-visual aid being used in the classroom in Rahmaniya VHSS on 8 August 2023. This is useful for HI students and others. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Ladder Trolley made by the St. Ignatius VHSS students in use on 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What makes the VHSS students stand out from other students of the same age?
The VHSS students are not perceived as being academically brilliant. They are often considered second-level in comparison with HSS students. However, the teachers said they excelled in their vocational subjects. Their skills, ability to manipulate tools and machinery, and creative talents were excellent.
Jaymol mentioned, “They are very good in their vocational subjects. They find the practicals easy and do well in them.”
A section of the metal artwork by the St. Ignatius Students on display, FTAC laboratory, 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Model of apartments created by students at St. Ignatius VHSS, 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
An engine part dismantled and put together from scrap by the students at Rahmaniya VHSS, 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Tool to gauge water level in the water tank made by students at St. Ignatius VHSS, 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What do former students have to say about VHSS courses?
Annmarie from St.Ignatius said that her mother had done the MLT course at St. Ignatius School several years ago. Her mother was happy to do the course. “In those days,” she said, “the courses were different and people’s impression of the course was different.”
Seenath P., a teacher at Rahmaniya VHSS, was herself a VHSS student in the early 90s. She studied MLT in the Nadakavu (Kozhikode) VHSS. In 1993, immediately after she passed out of the VHSS, she joined Rahmaniya as a VHSS instructor. She teaches the Fitness trainer course now.
She said that she was not very interested in the medical laboratory aspect of her course. So, when she decided to continue her education after her marriage, she did a physiotherapy course. Seenath re-joined the school as a physiotherapy teacher.
In Seenath’s words, “Almost 90% of the people who studied in the VHSS with me are employed now. The percentage of my contemporaries who are employed is much less in the case of those that studied Plus Two or pre-degree (which was the higher secondary equivalent in the 90s).”
Seenath P. is a teacher at Rahmaniya VHSS and a former VHSS student, 8 August 2023. She found the vocational course to be useful. She made her son take it during his higher secondary education and made other relatives also take up the course. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Where are the principals and teachers for the VHSS drawn from? What are their qualifications?
Bessy and Jerry, teachers at St. Ignatius VHSS are engineers by training, 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
At St. Ignatius VHSS, the vocational teachers are engineers and engineering diploma holders. At Rahmaniya also the teachers were appointed based on their specialisations and qualifications. The teachers are engineers or degree-holders in the relevant specialisations.
However, not all vocational schools had qualified teachers, mentioned Dr Anil. It was only in the early 2000s that the government VHSS started appointing teachers with the exact qualification to teach the subject. Initially, the VHSS schools attached to government schools did not have a separate principal. The principal of the high school acted as the principal for the vocational courses. “Most of these principals were only 1–2 years away from retirement. They did not really understand the challenges or needs of the vocational course. The situation has changed. Now, it is a vocational teacher that is in charge of the vocational section,” said Dr Anil.
Abdul Gafoor, principal at Rahmaniya, said principals and teachers of VHSS have regular training. He was in a residential training programme for principals from Kozhikode, Wayanad, and Malappuram when I visited the school.
What have been the implications for gender ratios in vocational courses over the years?
Saji K.I. mentioned that when the St. Ignatius school only had civil-based courses (under the First group), the gender ratio was roughly 50:50. With the introduction of the Second (biology-based) and Fourth (commerce-based) group courses, the First (mathematics-based) group batches have been seeing a drastic reduction in the number of girls applying for admission with the ratio of boys to girls changing to 90:10. Given the choice, the girls are taking up subjects that have traditionally been associated with women and will lead to jobs considered appropriate for women.
Dr Anil mentioned that in his school, the number of girls applying for vocational courses has reduced over the years, “The number of girl students has reduced overall. The girls prefer to join HSSs. They get admission to the HSS since they usually have better marks than boys. The change is not so obvious in MLT courses. Those courses used to get ten boys, then and now. That percentage has remained the same. But, in the First group and commerce courses, the percentage of girls has reduced.”
Praseetha E.P., the LTR teacher said that the school has been seeing 2–3 male students take up the DIA and LTR courses in the past few years. These are kids who plan to do nursing after school.
Contrary to the trend in rural Ernakulam and Thrissur, the Rahmaniya School has not seen a reduction in the number of girls applying for the VHSS courses. However, even there, most of the girls were in biology-based courses.
The canteen area of Rahmaniya VHSS on 8 August 2023. Though the school has a good number of girls, the number of boys outnumbers the girls in the school following the trend seen in other vocational schools. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
The Frontline Worker laboratory, now Lab Technician: Research & Quality (LTR), with the microscopes and reagents at St. Ignatius VHSS, 24 July 2023. These courses have a large number of female students as opposed to other maths-based (First group) courses. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What are the changes in the courses and aspirations connected to VHSS?
When vocational schools were started in Kerala, the idea was that equal importance would be given to the vocational subject and the general subjects. Dr Anil Kumar spoke of what has happened with the implementation of the NSQF, “This was thought of as a terminal course by the Centre due to the high school dropout rate in North India. That is not the case in Kerala. The trend of doing higher studies has made this into a transitional course. Though the idea was that the course would enable the student to enter a trade directly, that has not happened the way the VHSS courses have been implemented.”
From vocational education, the focus moved to skill training when NSQF was implemented.
Though the renaming of the courses was a central government directive, the idea fits in with the larger Malayali aspiration towards international migration. The male students that join the LTR course are again connected to the high demand for male nurses abroad.
The courses that are offered in Rahmaniya VHSS are those that have closely related higher education courses. Thus, their courses work as feeder courses to further education. Moreover, entrepreneurship training enables the students to start businesses on their own. The economic class of the students that join the schools influence the way the courses are offered and implemented.
This image of the Computer Lab at Rahmaniya taken on 8 August 2023 is an example of the changing nature of the courses and aspirations within the vocational education field. The students opting for the computer courses plan to continue their higher education in a related field. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
What was the teacher’s opinion on discipline in VHSS?
One of the important issues that came up while interviewing the teachers at St. Ignatius was that of discipline. The teachers perceived the state of the floor as indicative of students’ lack of discipline, which they considered to be the key factor distinguishing a well-run school. According to them, discipline was reflected not only in the condition of the floor, but also in factors such as noise levels, cleanliness of walls, student attire, punctuality, and more.
Dr Anil, who has been teaching in a VHSS since 1997 opined that there have been changes in the attitude and discipline of students over the years. The use of the internet and mobile phones has made a change in students’ attention span. He also added that students are becoming lazy when it comes to reading.
Students at Rahmaniya were asked if COVID-19 had an impact on their general attitude to school and education. They repeated what some of the teachers had said: that there is a general feeling of relaxation.
At Rahmaniya, the teachers are strict about discipline. Mobile phones are allowed only with the express permission of parents, and not during school hours. They make sure that there are teachers at the bus stop, after hours, to ensure order.
One of the outdoor stairs leading to a lab in the St. Ignatius VHSS with bits of paper on it, 24 July 2023. The condition of the floors, walls, etc. are all perceived by teachers as part of the disciplined behaviour or lack of it among the students. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Students moving in a semi-queue system through the corridors at Rahmaniya VHSS, 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
How are uniforms and clothing connected to discipline and culture?
Clothing has always been an item of contention in various social, religious, and political spheres in Kerala. Clothes are seen as marking a person’s connection to tradition/modernity, morality/immorality, decency/indecency, and authenticity/inauthenticity. The teachers in St. Ignatius pointed out how their students were not as smartly dressed as students in some of the other VHSS they had visited in north Kerala.
St. Ignatius school owned by Christian management is situated in a locality that has a strong Muslim presence. The girl students from the Muslim community wear a scarf over their regular uniform pointing to the secular, liberal culture followed in the institution.
A girl student wearing a long scarf covering her head at St. Ignatius VHSS, 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Students relaxing in the corridor of St. Ignatius VHSS, 24 July 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
How is Rahmaniya VHSS managing to maintain its popularity and relevance when VHSS are struggling to retain seats in other locations?
A few of the trophies displayed in the room of the principal, Rahmaniya VHSS, 8 August 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Vocational courses are immensely beneficial when there is adequate infrastructure, training, awareness classes, and internship programmes. In most cases, schools are not able to give importance to all these aspects due to a lack of funding or for other reasons. There is a definite difference in how vocational schools function and their position within the secondary school education system between different parts of Kerala. At Rahmaniya and generally in north Kerala, they seem to be thriving according to the staff of various VHSS. The private-aided schools there have a positive image not just in the immediate neighbourhood, but also in other locations in Kerala. They have been able to maintain their image due to funding, curricula, and infrastructure.
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