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.
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.