Daxsly – The right not to be left behind – Kiran Bhatty – The Hindu

The Supreme Court in its verdict on the constitutionality of the
Right to Education Act in relation to the reservation of seats for
Economically Weaker Section [EWS] and socially disadvantaged [SD]
children has rightly upheld the principle of integration. It is hard
to see how it could have been any other way. In fact, the arguments
against segregation and in favour of diversity in schools have long
been settled in international debates on education. In India, where
disparities are wide and reflected in the increasing gap between
private and public schools, the need to make schools inclusive is
perhaps even greater. This is not to deny that there will be
challenges faced by all concerned — school managements, teachers,
parents and children — in enforcing the law both in letter and in
spirit. But given that children from the EWS and SD backgrounds are
being inducted in the “incoming” class of a school, the anxiety being
expressed seems somewhat exaggerated. It is another matter that it is
being expressed almost exclusively by the “elite’ sections of society.
No EWS parent or child, for whom the “trauma” is likely to be greater,
is complaining or wanting to do away with the quota.

Real issues

Nevertheless, the matter has now been settled by the Supreme Court.
Legal clarity to the argument for diversity in the classroom and
regulation of quality in all schools — public and private — has been
provided. It is time this issue, which has taken up far more space
than warranted, was laid to rest and focus shifted to the real issues
plaguing the education sector.

For all the efforts of government programmes in the last decade, and
especially through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan [SSA], basic education in
this country is still a far cry from being universal or of
satisfactory quality. It could even be argued that the RTE may not
have been needed were this the case. There is a growing realisation
that education, particularly but not exclusively, in the public sector
has been on a downslide, and that nothing short of radical change was
required to turn the tide. This is reflected in the provisions of the
RTE Act. The Act establishes for the first time standards for not just
infrastructure such as classrooms, toilets and drinking water, but
also for quality by stipulating that teaching — teachers’ education
and training, their recruitment rules, their professionalisation,
their accountability — be redesigned. It also addresses teaching
methods, curriculum formation and evaluation procedures, as well as
corporal punishment and discrimination, all of which are intrinsic to
quality and all of which are in need of reform. But bringing about a
“paradigm shift” of this type and scope is not easy, especially when
the subject is concurrent, involving multiple levels of government.

But the task ahead is clear. Less than 20 per cent of children in this
country go to some form of private school; the rest are either
enrolled in a government school or not in any school at all. It is
these children who need to be addressed and towards whom the RTE Act
is largely directed. Quality education for close to 80 per cent of the
children in this country still needs to be guaranteed within the
framework of RTE. Herein lies the real challenge.

This challenge is made worse by the fact that even as the state has
made elementary education a legally guaranteed right of every child,
information on how many children are in fact “out-of-school” — not
just “never-enrolled,” but not attending, dropped out or virtually
dropped out — is not officially available. These are all children who
have fallen out of the loop of mainstream education, but the system
has no means of accounting for them. They include the urban homeless,
the stigmatised, the migrant, but also the many, many children who,
while enrolled, attend school at best sporadically. In an exercise
conducted by the National Commission for the Protection of Child
Rights (which is mandated to monitor the RTE), a house-to-house survey
was conducted in 12 districts across the country to assess the
situation of out-of-school children [OOSC]. The gap between the
official figures of OOSC and what the NCPCR found was startlingly
large. While the data are yet to be fully analysed, a preliminary look
shows the gap to be as much as 40-50 per cent in some areas. And this
is only the tip of the iceberg. Identifying all the children, bringing
them to school, providing adequate physical infrastructure and
qualified teachers and then ensuring they attend regularly and learn
all they are meant to learn in an atmosphere free of fear and trauma —
all this is a very tall order. What it means is that many more
resources and far greater efforts will be required, especially within
the ambit of the RTE Act.

It also means that the institutional structures of the state will need
to be geared towards meeting these goals. Within the education sector
itself, the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) — the body
responsible for overseeing teacher education — will need to be
overhauled; teacher training institutes — the District Institutes of
Education and Training — will need to be reformed; the Block Education
Office — the administrative unit closest to the people — will need to
be revitalised. The NCPCR and SCPCRs, mandated to monitor RTE, will
need resources, structures and staff. At the current allocation of Rs.
50 per school/year and no sanctioned posts, it is hard to see how the
huge task of monitoring across the country can be optimally achieved.

Role of PRIs

The Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), which have been given the
important role of grievance redress, are yet to wake up to this huge
responsibility. No rules have been framed and no resources allocated
to the PRIs to undertake any form of grievance redress. In other
words, the understanding that elementary education is now to be
enforced as a fundamental right and not implemented as yet another
scheme is still to be given institutional shape and form. For this,
the Education Departments and the Panchayati Raj Departments will need
to develop a framework for how grievances related to RTE will be
addressed.

None of this is to say that nothing has been done so far. Many
important steps have been taken to set the ball rolling. Rules have
been notified in all but two States; government orders have been
passed for the formation of School Management Committees; guidelines
for prohibiting corporal punishment have been issued; a Teacher
Education Test to select teachers has been instituted; budgetary
allocations have been increased, even a grievance redress
“advisory” (albeit a rudimentary one) has been issued. But much more
needs to be done if the challenges are to be addressed in real
earnest. Also, the pace of implementation needs to be accelerated
before people start to lose faith in the enforcement of this
fundamental right.

The RTE Act provides a strong legal framework for addressing most of
the challenges that confront the elementary education sector, but
unless it is backed by political will and commitment translated into
institutional capacities with adequate resources, it will remain a
wasted opportunity.

(Kiran Bhatty is former National Coordinator [RTE], National Council
for the Protection of Child Rights.)

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