The Road to School

It was claimed that the Right To Ed­u­ca­tion Act (RTA) would greatly con­trib­ute to in­creas­ing In­dia’s lit­er­acy rate. There is still a long way to go.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Iqra Asad The writer is based in La­hore. She con­trib­utes to var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions.

While the Right To Ed­u­ca­tion Act is couched in ideal terms,

the re­al­ity is quite dif­fer­ent.

When in 2009, the UNICEF re­vealed that there were an es­ti­mated 8 mil­lion out of school chil­dren in In­dia of ages six to 14 years and stated that ‘the world can­not reach its goal to have ev­ery child com­plete pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion by 2015 with­out In­dia,’ the coun­try re­sponded by en­act­ing the Right of Chil­dren to Free and Com­pul­sory Ed­u­ca­tion Act or the Right to Ed­u­ca­tion Act (RTE) in Au­gust 2009.

The Act puts forth five main com­po­nents: 1) 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 a sat­is­fac­tory and eq­ui­table qual­ity in a for­mal school that com­plies with cer­tain es­sen­tial stan­dards; 2) Par­ents of chil­dren cov­ered un­der the RTE are not li­able to pay for school fees, uni­forms, text­books, mid­day meals, trans­porta­tion, etc. un­til el­e­men­tary ed­u­ca­tion is com­plete; 3) If a child has not man­aged to se­cure ad­mis­sion in a school ac­cord­ing to age, it will be the gov­ern­ment’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to get him ad­mit­ted to an age-ap­pro­pri­ate class. Schools will have to or­ga­nize train­ing ses­sions to al­low such a child to catch up with oth­ers; 4) No child shall be held back (failed) or ex­pelled un­til the com­ple­tion of el­e­men­tary ed­u­ca­tion; and 5) Not fol­low­ing the RTE rules could in­vite a penalty of Rs 25,000.

While the RTE is couched in ideal terms, the re­al­ity is quite dif­fer­ent. A re­port on the sta­tus of the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Act was re­leased on its first an­niver­sary by the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­source De­vel­op­ment. The re­port ad­mit­ted that 8.1 mil­lion chil­dren in the age group 6 to 14 re­mained out of school and that there was a short­age of 508,000 teach­ers coun­try­wide.

Why is there such a dis­crep­ancy be­tween the stip­u­la­tions of the RTE and what is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing on the ground? Let us take a look. Firstly, par­ents pre­fer to send their chil­dren to work in­stead of send­ing them to school so that they can earn some money and con­trib­ute to the house­hold in­come. Ed­u­ca­tion is con­sid­ered a waste of time. Se­condly, par­ents pre­fer pri­vate schools over gov­ern­ment schools, as the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion in pri­vate schools is bet­ter. How­ever, pri­vate schools which are af­ford­able for low­in­come fam­i­lies may not meet the re­quire­ments for schools stated in the RTE, as they may not be able to af­ford the cost of run­ning schools ac­cord­ing to the new guide­lines. This poses a prob­lem to both the par­ents and the school own­ers.

Thirdly, re­me­dial classes are a big prob­lem. The ideal teacher-to-stu­dent ra­tio in a class is one teacher to thirty stu­dents. In re­al­ity, one teacher is given 60 to 80 stu­dents for re­me­dial

coach­ing, with the re­sult that learn­ing is­sues are not tack­led prop­erly but stu­dents are passed on to higher grades with­out hav­ing reached the re­quired level of schol­ar­ship in or­der to com­ply with the “no fail” pol­icy of the RTE Act. Lastly, there is no proper au­dit sys­tem in place to see whether the RTE con­di­tions are be­ing im­ple­mented. As such, the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem would pro­ceed with­out any checks and bal­ances.

Of course, the lit­er­acy rate in In­dia can­not be ex­pected to soar overnight; par­ents can­not be con­vinced to send their chil­dren to school, nor will the stan­dard of gov­ern­ment schools im­prove sud­denly. How­ever, one ben­e­fit of the RTE Act is that it frames a goal for the coun­try’s chil­dren and spurs the gov­ern­ment to al­lo­cate a larger por­tion of the bud­get to ed­u­ca­tion. This al­lows gov­ern­ment schools to be run ef­fi­ciently ac­cord­ing to the guide­lines of the RTE Act. But one of the big­gest set­backs in this re­gard is lack of teach­ers for gov­ern­ment schools. Where there are teach­ers there is ei­ther a lack of com­mit­ment to the call­ing or they are over­bur­dened to the point where even well-mean­ing teach­ers can­not work with ef­fi­ciency.

Also, many vil­lages do not have a school at all. The near­est school is miles away. While it is hard enough to con­vince par­ents to send their chil­dren to nearby schools, con­vinc­ing them to send them to far­away schools by walk­ing many miles, is highly dif­fi­cult. It seems that the old sto­ries of “in my time I walked bare­foot so-and-so miles to school” are not old any­more; they are the re­al­ity for a num­ber of vil­lage chil­dren even in present day In­dia.

The RTE Act has also been crit­i­cized for not in­clud­ing chil­dren be­low 6 years of age. This is a valid crit­i­cism: what about the im­por­tance of pre-school ed­u­ca­tion? Chil­dren of un­e­d­u­cated par­ents can­not be ex­pected to know their ABC, count­ing and other ba­sic pre-school ma­te­rial which is the hall­mark of a tod­dler’s ed­u­ca­tional growth. This places an ex­tra bur­den on the teach­ers of first grade as they have to start from scratch with their stu­dents who come to school with prac­ti­cally no prepa­ra­tion. While hav­ing a clean slate to work with has its own ben­e­fits, the im­por­tance of hav­ing ed­u­cated par­ents can­not be em­pha­sized enough.

Un­e­d­u­cated par­ents can­not help their chil­dren with home­work or tell them how to pro­nounce a dif­fi­cult word. They usu­ally can­not af­ford to hire a tu­tor ei­ther. As a teacher can­not sin­gle­hand­edly be re­spon­si­ble for a child’s en­tire ed­u­ca­tional growth – there must be in­put from par­ents (or tu­tors, if par­ents are not avail­able) – and it is ul­ti­mately the child who suf­fers.

Par­ents who value the im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion are will­ing to send both their sons and daugh­ters to school. The num­bers may not be im­pres­sive but at some level some chil­dren some­where in In­dia are ben­e­fit­ing from the RTE Act, even if they have to jump through hoops to get ad­mis­sion into schools. Spe­cial chil­dren and or­phans face dif­fi­culty in get­ting ad­mis­sion; spe­cial chil­dren be­cause of non-avail­abil­ity of spe­cial teach­ers and or­phans be­cause they usu­ally do not have a birth cer­tifi­cate, which is re­quired for ad­mis­sion. Then there is the is­sue of chil­dren who are above 14 but re­quire pri­mary school ed­u­ca­tion. They are over­looked by the RTE Act and the schools can deny them ad­mis­sion. Who will pro­vide pri­mary school ed­u­ca­tion to such chil­dren?

The RTE Act needs time to be­come ef­fec­tive. Who knows the chil­dren who ac­tu­ally ben­e­fit from the law in its fledg­ling stage may go on to make road­ways for fu­ture chil­dren to have fur­ther ac­cess to pri­mary school ed­u­ca­tion? Only time will tell.

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