Saturday, March 8, 2014

Is the Right to Education a reality for India's children?

Is the Right to Education a reality for India's children?

The somewhat successful implementation of the RTE Act
is home to 19% of the world’s children.  What this means is that India has the world’s largest number of youngsters, which is largely beneficial, especially as compared to countries like China, which has an ageing population.
The not-so-good news is that India also has one-third of the world’s illiterate population. It’s not as though levels have not increased, but rather that the rate of the increase is rapidly slowing. For example, while total literacy growth from 1991 to 2001 was 12.6%, it has declined to 9.21%.
To combat this worrisome trend, the Indian government proposed the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, making education a fundamental right of every child in the age group of 6 to 14. Unsurprisingly, the reality is very different.

There are 5 main components that the Act puts forth:
  • In India, every child is entitled to free and compulsory full-time elementary education (first to eighth grade) as facilitated by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act. This means elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality in a formal school run with certain essential standards
  • Parents of children covered under RTE are not liable to pay for school fees, uniforms, textbooks, mid-day meals, transportation, etc. until the elementary education is complete.
  • If a child has not managed to secure admission in a school according to age, it will be government’s responsibility to get the child admitted in an age-appropriate class. Schools will have to organize training sessions to allow such a child to catch up with others
  • No child shall be held back (failed) or expelled until the completion of elementary education.
  • Not following the RTE rules can invite a penalty of Rs 25000.
While the RTE is a ground breaking piece of legislation, the first in the world that puts the responsibility of ensuring student enrollment, attendance and completion of elementary education on the Government., recent surveys by the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights and show that the state of education has not improved much since 2009, when the act was first proposed.
According to Tarun Cherukuri, City Director for Delhi for , there is always a lag to be expected between de jure interventions and de facto outcomes.
“To expect laws to change citizen and public servant behaviour overnight is not realistic,” he says. “ There has been considerable progress in education inputs over the last decade due to efforts like SSA and RTE - pupil-teacher ratios have fallen over 20 percent (from 47.4 to 39.8), fractions of schools with toilets and electricity has more than doubled etc. These are all non-trivial achievements of the state system.”
Schools that have understood the remedial teaching process are unable to act accordingly due to the inappropriate student-teacher ratio. 
“The ideal class for the remedial teaching process is of 30 students,” Sangeeta Shrivastva, principal of Kandivali Education Society Schools told DNA. Thus, when the strength of a class varies from 60 to 80 students, it is difficult to provide remedial teaching those who are not up to the set expectations of a class.
“The [RTE] Act does not do enough justice to enable marginal improvements in quality and foster creative solutions within the larger system,” continues Cherukuri. “By making a clear choice for access through the concept of neighbourhood schools, the Act has virtually sealed the door on drawing benefits from economies of scale within schooling systems.”
It seems to be an unassailable fact that the RTE Act appears, on paper at least, to be an ideal solution to the problems of education in India. However, its implementation too has been faulty.
Although state education departments and local education authorities are responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Act, this responsibility doesn’t seem to have been taken seriously.
“There are no special audit mechanisms like in the case of NREGA,” says Cherukuri. “This accountability mechanism is weak in almost all states and judicial activism through PILs has been the common and reasonably successful recourse.”
Another rather glaring flaw is the “no failure” policy that the Act attempts to implement. What the Act attempts to do is implement a Comprehensive Curriculum Evaluation (CCE), to ensure that tests are not be the singular measure of a child's progress during an academic year.

"Students are supposed to be tested through multiple formats - presentations, projects, public performances etc," explains Mr. Cherukuri."

However, because CCE is not understood properly by officials in many schools, children are constantly passed to higher grade levels, regardless of whether or not they are prepared for that higher level of work. "Most schools use CCE as a medium to excuse themselves from pursuing rigorous work with their children. Most children glide through the system without achieving any significant learning outcomes," says Mr. Cherukuri, who says he is in favour of CCE, at least in principle.
Further, campaigners claim that children from poor families are often pulled out of school by their parents, who need them to work.
“State and National child rights commissions have been working actively with governments to reduce the percentage of children out of school and [involved] in child labour,” says Cherukuri. “The reality is that there is still a long way to go to achieve 100 percent enrollment and ensure retention within school for at least 8 years of schooling.”
Passing a bill is one easy thing to do. What is seems to be the key in ensuring this Act is successful, is to make parents, particularly in rural areas, aware of the benefits of education and to encourage them to send their children to school. 

Like many attempted social changes in India, this too has to start at the community level, requires a widespread change of an age-old mindset and must make people at the helm of affairs accountable.

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