The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, to be notified on April 1, could alter the educational landscape. But can private institutions contribute to its application? DR.A.KUMARASWAMY and ALOK MATHUR give some pointers…

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE Act) will be notified on April 1. The Act attempts to address the historical problem of continuing illiteracy as well as the lack of educational opportunities that persist for sections of our population even sixty years after adoption of the Indian constitution. The socio-political, legal and financial aspects of the Act have been much debated and its final form much critiqued. As we draw nearer its implementation stage, it is clear that this Act will change the educational landscape of the country. However, the specific educational steps needed to meet its wide-ranging provisions remain far from clear.

Taking the perspective of a non-profit institution with a commitment to quality education for urban and rural children, we indicate some likely pitfalls in the implementation of the RTE Act. We then make some suggestions on the possible roles that private schools may play in order to support the quality-related and egalitarian provisions of the RTE Act.

Some pitfalls of the RTE Act

In its barest outline, the RTE Act has three goals: 1) bringing children of marginalized sections of our society into the ambit of school education, 2) ensuring that all schools and their teachers meet certain specified norms, and 3) ensuring that all children receive schooling of reasonable quality, free from any form of discrimination.

While these goals may seem laudable in themselves, we believe that simply using the Act as a legal instrument to initiate action against institutions and/or individuals that are perceived as responsible for failure to implement provisions of the Act, will not really address the issues of illiteracy and lack of educational opportunity. A coercive approach might at most bring in children who are out of school into the school system. However, it cannot actually address the core issue of the lack of meaningful learning in current forms of schooling across the country.

Our experience as an NGO that has actively participated in bridge-school programmes, intended to support and bring ‘drop-out' children back into government schools, showed us that the issue is more of ‘push out' rather than ‘drop out'. The children liked being part of this learning programme, since they were well looked after and the pedagogy was appropriately designed. However, most of the children who returned to mainstream government schools disappeared again after a few weeks or months. This was clearly due to the type of experience these children actually faced in regular schools, whose well-known features are: a) a lack of relevance of the curriculum to children's experiences and needs b) rote-driven textbook-centred teaching c) lack of support as well as motivation among teachers to address the specific situation of diverse kinds of children. While these issues are well known and it is often acknowledged that a multi-dimensional approach is required to address them, the lines of solutions implied in the RTE Act are limited to: a) Requiring greater parent and local body representation in school managing committees b) Providing local authorities with the power and responsibility to ensure compliance of schools with specified norms c) Having many more trained teachers.

In our view, these measures would at best succeed in strengthening schooling that is ‘more of the same kind'. While parents and local bodies can ensure that teachers and students do attend school and are doing something in the classrooms, they cannot address the core problems of lack of motivation on the part of both teachers and children, or the perceptions that teaching is a chore and learning in school is a painful, ritualistic exercise. Children, from a very young age, are forced to sit for hours and made to listen to uninspiring textbook lessons from teachers, who in turn are often bored by carrying on with the same chore day after day. This situation prevails not only in a large numbers of government schools, but also in a wide spectrum of private schools that have sprung up in cities, towns and semi-urban areas all over the country.

Whereas the RTE Act emphasizes the need for child-friendly approaches, very little mention has been made of the need for having teacher-friendly and teacher-initiated processes in the school system. One cannot see how the former is possible without the latter. Our current system of academic administration remains heavily top-down and vertically organized, with very little scope for teacher participation or initiative.

The mechanism of monitoring relies heavily on inspections, assessments and punishments, with very little guidance, support and nurturing of teachers. We believe these are some of the major reasons for teachers becoming de-motivated and lacking interest in teaching. Therefore, even as more children are brought into the schooling system through the RTE Act, unless we bring in significant changes in our current approach to both children's and teachers' educational needs, its impact will remain limited. We will have more children going to school without the commensurate increase in either literacy or any other form of educational attainment.

It is here that NGOs and private schools with a good track record in education could be invited to play a role in catalysing shifts in government as well as private schools. We outline below some thoughts on the possible roles of private schools.

Role of Private Schools

At the outset, it needs to be recognized that the term ‘private schools' is a ‘catch-all' label that covers a wide variety of institutions. The range includes: a) International schools (with IB or Cambridge curriculum) b) Older established ‘public schools' (many of them residential) c) Small and large urban schools with several branches d) Schools run by religious charitable trusts e) Private ‘ English-medium' schools that have mushroomed in every part of the country f) Alternative schools that are based on holistic educational philosophies g) Innovative schools run by NGOs.

It would be counter-productive to make rules that deal with all these types of schools with a single brush-stroke. It would be more constructive to require their participation in a manner that is somewhat differentiated. We especially focus on the role that the last two categories of schools can play.

Private schools with a proven track record in providing sound education have the potential for playing a significant role in enabling shifts in the government education system towards a more child-friendly and teacher-friendly model. The essential components of such a model, to our minds, would include:

An age-appropriate curriculum with a significant amount of local content and exemplars that children, teachers and parents can relate to;

Organising the curriculum as a learning continuum that is mapped out in accordance with progressively organised learning goals in various curricular areas. This would enable a blurring of sharp dividing lines between successive grades, into which groups of students must be fitted; and who must all be taught the same content in tandem;

Preparation of teaching-learning materials for smaller, sequential curricular units, and participation of teachers in selecting and/or constructing appropriate teaching-learning materials. Teaching and learning could then be more flexible and the textbook be seen as a resource, rather than being treated as a ‘ one-size-fits all' storehouse of knowledge; centrally constructed by ‘ experts' for a whole state.

Assessment strategies that are built into the learning continuum as ‘assessment points' and ‘milestones', and which are both diagnostic and suggestive of remedial steps, doing away with the need for the stressful ritual of exams;

A shift in the teacher's role as a facilitator of each students' learning as the student navigates through the curricular route map at a pace commensurate with her abilities. This implies a shift in the relationship between teachers and students to one of cooperation and support, rather than coercion.

Whereas the forward-looking National Curriculum Framework 2005 had advocated many such shifts, their widespread acceptance has yet to take root. Some private schools and NGOs have had long years of experience in working on the development of viable and successful models of elementary education that build on the idea of a learning continuum. Well-designed teaching-learning materials, with built-in strategies for assessment, are available. These may be suitably adapted for use on a larger scale. State governments could fruitfully draw upon the knowledge base of this educational work, and devise effective strategies for scaling up such programmes, building capacity and shifting attitudes in the government sector in different regions of the country. This would enhance the quality of the learning in government schools and make the overall education system more receptive to the implementation of the RTE Act.

Supporting practical components in teacher training

A second possible role for educationally well-placed private schools lies in the area of support for teacher training. The task of preparing a large number of trained teachers in the next five years, as well as re-orienting and motivating existing teachers, as envisaged by the RTE Act, is indeed a huge one. Some of the solutions being considered are a) asking universities to start teacher-training programmes and conducting refresher programmes for existing teachers b) using distance learning models to conduct in-service as well as pre-service teacher training programmes.

Status quo of teachers

While these are important initiatives, they have some in-built limitations: they may be able to produce a larger number of trained teachers with some theoretical knowledge; but are not so amenable to providing a practical orientation to teachers. Effective teacher training needs sufficient exposure to school-based experiences. In fact, with some exceptions, most existing teacher training programmes in the country have very little experiential learning components. Graduates from these institutions are often not equipped to meet the requirements of a child-friendly learning environment.

It would thus be a desirable step to identify and support selected private schools, which have sound curricular and pedagogic practices, to set up facilities for conducting teacher enrichment programmes. Some private schools and NGOs are already moving in the direction of setting up in-house teacher training facilities. After a suitable ‘resource mapping' of schools with such capabilities, the government could support them to develop basic training infrastructure and encourage them to upgrade their senior teachers as teacher educators. They may then be in a position to offer on-going refresher courses for teachers deputed by the government as well as other private institutions. Based on contact with actual students and classes, visiting teachers could be helped to gain a working understanding of educational principles along with contemporary methods of teaching. Linking schools to University-based teacher training programmes and government teacher training institutes such as the Regional Institutes of Education could also be mutually enriching. Such schemes have the potential of benefiting a significant number of schools and teachers in widening circles across each state.

Towards inclusion of the children of the poor

The RTE Act envisages making all kinds of private schools share the responsibility of educating poor children from the surrounding community. It currently requires participation of private schools by mandating free and compulsory admission of children of the poor from the ‘neighbourhood' at Std. I level up to 25 percent of the class strength. In a society that has historically been stratified along caste and class lines, and in which gaps in every sphere have only widened, this is seen as a much-needed social corrective.

Some limitations and downsides of this thrust, however, need to be recognised. The fact remains that, in terms of numbers, the contribution of private schools to educating the poor will remain quite insignificant. At the same time, in its effort to regulate private schools and ensure their compliance, the government, acting through local authorities, might create conditions that lead to:

An increase in corruption with respect to enforcement of rules related to compliance with admissions of non-fee paying students;

A homogenising bureaucratic control that cuts at the root of innovative possibilities that a few schools have been able to sustain;

Difficulties for the survival of small schools that impart holistic, innovative education.

In itself, it seems highly desirable that children of different socio-economic classes are able to study and grow together. However, what cannot be denied is that several psycho-social and pedagogic issues would need to be addressed in order to integrate students from low-income families (who are often first or second-generation learners) with students from families that have a stronger educational as well as income background. Given the current exam-driven, competitive ethos of most private schools in India, children who lack academic support from their families are likely to remain low performing, and may suffer by comparison. Apart from this they would be faced with difficulties that stem from the contrast in social markers such as dress, possessions, parental profiles etc. All this could seriously affect the self-esteem of underprivileged students, and in the short run many schools may not be equipped or even inclined to respond to their specific needs.

To make this an educationally and sociologically worthwhile direction, school managements will need to work towards some basic shifts in their orientation and structuring of support for culturally diverse sets of children. Alongside this, a shift in sensibilities of teachers, other students and their parents will be needed, if underprivileged students are to have a worthwhile educational experience in private schools. Keeping these realities in mind, We propose the following intermediate step, which may be implemented at least for a few years: The government could expect well-endowed schools to either set up or adopt an additional ‘free school' for the children of lower income families in the ‘neighbourhood'. The school should be required to share infrastructure and resources with the school it supports. A certain percentage of better performing children from this school may then be required to be absorbed into the original school. This will ensure that there is indeed an incentive to make the ‘free school' sufficiently strong in its quality of education. After some specified number of years, such schools should be in a better position to directly absorb children from underprivileged families. This would be a more graded manner of ensuring that such private schools meet their social responsibility.

We conclude by maintaining that educationally well-placed private schools could play a variety of constructive roles in bringing into effect the provisions of the RTE Act. While educating children from low-income families in these schools may be one among these roles, this would benefit only a small number of them. On the other hand, participating in the training of teachers by a selected set of private schools will have a multiplier effect on other schools and teachers. Even more effective would be the scaling up of innovative models of schooling, accompanied by specialised capacity building, such that an increasing number of government schools develop a more sound platform for implementing the RTE Act in letter and spirit.

Dr. A. Kumaraswamy is Principal, Rishi Valley School.

Alok Mathur is Director, Teacher Education, Rishi Valley School.

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