After The RTE Act, The Focus Is On Quality Of Education
The government’s film, School Chale Hum, shows children all over the country eagerly running to school. Indeed, 98 per cent of habitations now have a school within 1 km. But with unintended irony, the scenes shot inside the schools are all about rote learning or copying from the blackboard. Will the historic Right to Education Act 2009 bring in schools that do something more for our children?
2010—sixty years after India adopted the Constitution—Indian children finally got the right to free and compulsory education as indicated in its Directive Principles. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 guarantees to all children within the age-group 6-14 years, the right to education in proper schools with trained teachers. It was a long, long time coming, but this historic legislation, despite the many loopholes, has the power to transform the lives of millions of poor Indian children who have so far been deprived of the opportunity to make their lives better than those of their parents.
It remains to be seen whether the powers-that-be are able to envisage something more for the children of the poor than what is shown in the beautifully produced promo for the government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. The film, School Chale Hum (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_Hd16Si8TI), has beautifully shot scenes of children all over the country, eagerly running to school. But, with unintended irony, the scenes shot inside the schools are all about rote learning or copying from the blackboard. Will the Act bring in schools that do something more for our children?
In the intervening years since Independence, elementary education has grown into a multi-headed monster of sorts, with its own caste system of service-providers—government ordinary, government elite, private elite, private-run but government-funded, and so on. It has provided children of the privileged classes a springboard to greater privilege, while doing nothing to eradicate child labour or provide poor children with even basic literacy, let alone the broader gains of education.
ASER 2009 gives a good indication of the state of basic literacy skills attainment across the country (www.asercentre.org).
Education in India is on the concurrent list. This means that while the Centre is responsible for providing general direction in terms of educational policy and curriculum, the running of the vast school network is the responsibility of individual state governments.
The figures are daunting—the number of recognised schools imparting elementary education is over 1,285,576, of which 80 per cent are government-run. The number of children enrolled in Grades I-V in 2009 was 1,34,377,324, and in Grades V-VIII was 53,350,189 (DISE 2008-2009 Flash Statistics, National University for Educational Planning and Administration [www.nuepa.org]).
Broadly, the vast majority of the population, both rural and urban, send their children to government-run schools as these are free, that is, they do not charge fees. However, given that the quality of education in these schools is usually quite poor, the fast-increasing middle class prefer to send their children to privately-run schools.
If one were to identify the single most important achievement in the field of education by the government in the post-Independence era, it would have to be putting a school within the reach of almost every child—98 per cent of habitations now have a primary school within 1 km.
But the question that one sees on the eager faces that run to school each morning is: so, we are in school—now what?
The first area of concern, easy to see and easy to address, is infrastructure. Even by official government statistics, 20 per cent of schools do not have drinking water available on the premises; 38 per cent of schools have no toilets. On the ground, a large proportion of the taps and toilets shown on paper do not actually function. Inadequate space and ventilation, leaking roofs, broken floors, and unusable doors and windows are common even in urban government schools, where supervision is somewhat better. The situation in remote rural schools is worse.
The new Act addresses some of these issues, but not the more important concern—teacher absenteeism. Various studies have shown that at any given time, 30 per cent of teachers at government schools are absent from their classrooms. While the Act mandates the number of teaching hours per year, it does not address the lack of accountability on the part of the teacher or the system, if the mandated number of hours is not actually provided.
Other problems include discrimination on a caste basis, violence and abuse of children, and discrimination against girls. The latter is not often overt but a result of certain existing situations: for example, 27 per cent of schools do not have even one female teacher, resulting in a lack of confidence on the part of parents, especially of older girls. Fifty per cent of schools do not have separate toilets for girls. As a result, it is estimated that for every 100 girls who enrol in school in rural India, 40 will reach Class IV, 18 will reach Class VIII, nine will reach Class IX, and only one will make it to Class XII.
And finally, and more significantly, what are children learning? The stated aim of elementary education is to provide the child with the knowledge, skills and qualities to become an independent, thinking, creative human being. But the ASER report quoted earlier shows that on the ground we are far from even providing them the basic literacy skills. This is the biggest challenge now that children are increasingly going to be brought into the mainstream—can the system help them develop into independent, thinking, creative human beings? Or will it turn out barely literate automatons, who have lost their innate ability to question and explore?
And some of us are still not in school!
An estimated 30 million children remain out of school, working in fields and factories, on city streets, at the bottom of mines, in quarries and kilns, in desperately dangerous situations that go against all notions of childhood. Though the new Act aims to bring all children into schools, surveys in the past have shown that enrolment does not mean completion. Children continue to drop out of school and join the labour force. And while there is obviously the dimension of economic need, there is also the ‘push out factor’ operating here. The PROBE survey in 1999 cited ‘boredom’ as one of the main reasons given by children for dropping out of school.
The basic school curriculum has evolved from colonial times; ‘what is to be taught’ remains in essence a colonial view, deliberately disassociated from whatever knowledge and skills already existed in India. It is hardly surprising therefore that a large proportion of what is taught is completely alien and alienating to the average Indian child. And while the hapless middle-class child doggedly goes through school anyway, because she/he has no choice, the poor child, the first-generation learner, often takes the easy way out and stays away.
This is not to say we need to have separate curricula for the rich and poor—definitely not. Children of the poor cannot be short-changed in the name of local relevance, non-formal education, etc. In fact, there is a lot of confusion and well-intentioned bumbling going on in this area at present. For example, ‘non-formal education’ is often posited against ‘formal schooling’, implying that the latter is stifling, irrelevant and undesirable by definition, and the former necessarily good. Obviously this is not the case. If made truly relevant, interesting, child-centred and attractive to learners and parents, formal schooling can provide the poor child with a solid educational base that is in no way inferior to that available to her richer compatriot. On the other hand, non-formal programmes can, and often do, end up being extremely loose and without specific targets. It eventually cheats the child of even basic literacy skills.
To really provide equity in basic education, what is needed is a combination of the best of both approaches. On the solid framework of a core curriculum needs to be built a child-friendly, locally relevant structure that is welcoming and appealing for first-generation learners. This is the focus of the National Curriculum Framework, a pathbreaking document that, together with the Right to Education Act, has the potential to make education meaningful for all those children, who have so far stayed away from it.
We the people
Of great importance in this situation is increased awareness among parents, especially poor parents, about whether they are being short-changed. A climate is slowly developing in which parents feel that they can demand accountability from the system that promises to educate their children, and can have a say in what and how their children are taught. The Act mandates 75 per cent membership of parents in the school management committee. This is the most hopeful sign of change and needs to be taken up in a big way by community-based organisations and NGOs. Of course, community involvement can also serve to perpetuate existing casteist and patriarchal attitudes. It is not enough to put control of education in the hands of existing local hierarchies; it must be truly in the hands of the people.
Primary education, as all basic necessities for the poor in India, is inextricably bound up with the existing political and economic climate. The impact of globalisation is being acutely felt, with the World Bank dictating the forms that the so-called ‘social safety net’ should take. Enormous externally-funded primary education programmes with dubious benefits are generating a huge amount of research and information, but are only helping to obfuscate the main issues of relevance and accountability. Large-scale projects targeting girls, backward classes, etc, may disguise the fact that public spending on education is stagnant. Public-private partnerships are increasingly drawing private players into the provision of this basic social service, bringing with it fears that quality education will go out of the reach of the poor family, as it will fall into private hands where the profitability of a school will be its major raison d’être.
In light of the situation described above, what are the priorities before organisations seeking to improve the opportunities for and quality of education for all children in India?
The first priority is to place before the public a clearer picture of the situation, ensuring better critical analysis of the reams of reassuring data that is constantly being generated by the government’s new Educational Management Information Systems machinery. Claims of the phenomenal success of various schemes for improving enrolment and attendance, of amazing improvements in learner achievement, and of increased involvement of the ‘community’ rarely stand up to even the most cursory critical study.
Involvement of those directly affected
The involvement of those sections of the community that have a stake in a better education for their children, that is, the rural and urban poor, and dalits, needs to be mobilised. This may be supportive or confrontational as the local situation demands. In a democracy that has come of age, there can surely be more instances like the one in a remote village in Maharashtra, where villagers put a lock on the school and refused to let the teacher enter to sign the muster until their demands for a better school were met.
But community involvement should not be used as an excuse for the State shrugging off responsibility in an area that, along with health, is the most important social responsibility of an elected government. The role of the community and community-based non-government organisations should be that of demanding the best possible education for their children, and ensuring that they get it. They should support government efforts by ensuring enrolment and attendance, providing assistance to teachers, contributing to the maintenance of school buildings, and keeping a close watch on the quality of education being provided to their children.
Creative inputs in curriculum design
The third area where the involvement of non-government agencies will prove critical is in evolving a curriculum and pedagogy suitable for local needs and demands, while keeping in mind the important issue of equity in educational opportunities. The old established State institutions for educational research have repeatedly shown themselves to be incapable of genuine innovation, being by and large content with periodically bringing out further batches of ‘old wine in new bottles’. Community-based organisations and people’s movements may not on their own be equipped with the technical expertise and the broader national and international perspectives needed to develop an appropriate curriculum and pedagogy for local needs within the larger mainstream. Specialist technical support organisations, along with colleges and departments of education and social work in universities, have a crucial role to play in this area.
By Mini Shrinivasan