Private schools are increasingly trying to fill the vacuum created by low quality of education and facilities in government schools, topped with rampant teacher absenteeism. For those who cannot afford private school education, emergence of Hindutva-oriented schools, on one hand, and madrasas on the other is also a cause of concern as they teach a narrow sectarian interpretation of culture and social values.

Professor Brij Kothari of IIM-Ahmedabad maintains that the literacy rate in India is highly exaggerated and based on the report by parents and not on proper evaluation of the children’s ability to read and write. His study reveals that the 260 million so-called ‘literate’ people, according to the census, in practice cannot read.

The update of the People’s Report on Basic Education, which covered Hindi speaking States, have found that quality of education in private schools is uneven and doubtful. The report recommends setting up of local committees of parents and concerned local persons to act as a watchdog to ensure that the teachers turn up and teach well and that proper and regular mid-day meals are being served. Voluntary organisations like Bodh in Jaipur, which pioneered community-based education of slum children, can use its experience to help in setting up and training such local community committees.

Including topics such as peace, environment, justice and secular human values in education remain neglected, the study points out. Special needs of scheduled castes, tribals, the disabled and other marginalised children, particularly in rural areas and in urban slums need to be addressed. For this appropriate teaching aids and methods need to be developed, which will help enhance the self esteem and confidence of the children and make their environment more safe and enjoyable.

The Alternative Development Center (ADC) in Jaipur, after many years of experience in running four schools for slum children, has realised that it is difficult to retain older children in school because their parents insist that the children go to work and get a certain income every day. According to a plan suggested by ADC, in order to bring the laboring children to school, some financial incentives to parents should be given. There is an effective model followed in Brazil for this where along with better social services, employment for the adults in the family is made possible by imparting them skills. Vocational training for older children makes a direct connection between education and employment which is the main consideration for poorest families. For marginalised children, medical support to mother and child, extra nutrition, hygienic conditions and psycho-social development need to be combined with mainstream education.

This plan can achieve abolishing of child labour, providing universal education, reducing child malnourishment through mid-day meals and uplifting families out of poverty. Passing very progressive laws are not enough. Recently, the International Labour Organisation has also advised that the families of child labourers need to be skilled and provided opportunity for micro business to improve their economic condition.

Civil society groups are now demanding that the age of children covered under the Right to Education Act should be extended to 19 years. After the age of 14, the child should have the option to undertake vocational training, given that only formal school education cannot always provide jobs. Provision of vocational training is also a kind of education and should be an integral part of the Right to Education Act.

Shikshantar in Udaipur is working towards a kind of ‘de-schooling’: unlearning and re-learning. It opposes conventional schooling or what it calls the ‘factory system’. It is experimenting with open schools where creativity is allowed to blossom and traditional knowledge and skills learned within the family and community is respected.

Digantar, another group in Jaipur, is known for its emphasis on a pedagogy which focuses on learning through understanding, rather than depend on memory and rote learning. Digantar can expand its pedagogy to include development of emotional and social intelligence to balance IQ and cognitive development.

Aruna Roy and her group Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan are developing a School for Democracy for rural areas. Hopefully such a school will introduce participatory education for democracy, conscientization and pedagogy for the poor villagers to strengthening grass roots democracy.