The question of access has been a major concern in the field of education right from the days of the Constituent Assembly — which made a provision in the Constitution promising free and compulsory education for all children under-14 within ten years — to the Kothari Commission (1964) and many other bodies that followed it.
At the policy level too, the fact that a wider access to education is essential for development as well as for the effective functioning of democracy has been recognised and sought to be implemented for more than 60 years now. But there has been a big gap between intent and attainment, and this chasm is beginning to be bridged slowly.
The book under review, which looks at the problem of access to education in its varied dimensions, makes two things clear. One, that there are still a large number of children with little or no access to schooling, and two, that such children are concentrated in certain specific segments of society. True, access has, of late, been widening as a result of some initiatives taken by the government and the private sector. Yet, in the words of André Béteille, “We have very little knowledge of how the elementary school as an institution functions and what goes on in it in the course of an ordinary school day or school year. Because we are not sufficiently informed about such matters, our policy initiatives are often out of touch with reality.”
Based largely on research carried out with the support of the Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions & Equity (CREATE), the book provides insights into different dimensions of ‘educational access', a term broadly defined to cover not just enrolment but also attendance, progression, and appropriate levels of learning.
A wide range of factors affecting educational access such as cultural traditions of family, poverty, caste, gender, migration, malnourishment, teacher quality, and community participation are discussed, with supportive statistical profiles. There are several national initiatives in operation — the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, the District Primary Education Programme and the Universal Elementary Education Programme, to name a few. As it turns out, however, the statistical data provided are in many cases neither reliable nor comparable across States, and this is primarily due to the varying interpretations of the terms used and the poor record-keeping practices.
Apart from drawing lessons from case studies of attempts made to overcome such barriers, the book offers some suggestions for action.
Another point that emerges is that even where children of the marginalised groups are enrolled, social inequality persists. So does gender disparity in retention as well as in transition to higher grades. Particularly significant is the observation that a poor, and often hostile, environment in many schools virtually “pushes out” pupils, especially those belonging to the marginalised sections of the population.
Much of the effort towards educational access aims at increasing enrolment. But little attention is paid to the adequacy and quality of teachers, which are so crucial for making the school attractive and the learning meaningful for children.
The study brings out sharply how malnutrition and poverty afflicting the economically worse-off families force children to drop out of school — causes that are sought to be removed by government-aided initiatives to provide mid-day meal to school children. The plight of the oft-neglected children of migratory labour and the attempts being made by voluntary organisations to correct it are highlighted.
On the positive side, decentralised governance and active involvement of local panchayats is noteworthy. The non-availability of primary schools in proximity is no longer a problem. There is a groundswell of opinion cutting across the social strata in favour of universalised quality education. With the levy of an education surcharge on income-tax, the government has much less worry on the resources front. Above all, the right to education is now guaranteed under the Constitution.
Thus, the mood and the milieu are more favourable than ever before, and there is enough money to spend. Yet, there are serious lags in implementation and shortfalls in achievement. It is hoped studies such as this would make policymakers and implementing agencies realise that ‘exclusion' is not just a statistic but a live issue which demands a corrective process and a reordering of their strategies and action plans.