Now that the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, the Centre and the States must do their utmost to provide eight years of good quality schooling to all children. The unsuccessful challenge to the Act, which went into effect on April 1, 2010, came from unaided private school managements who are required to set apart 25 per cent seats for poor children. Private schools that favoured a market-based approach to universalisation — relying on government education vouchers for the poor and filtered entry — failed to make convincing arguments. They are all within the ambit of the law, except for unaided private minority institutions. Rather than view this as a loss of prestige, they must sagaciously open their doors to students of all social strata, and help those from the weaker sections integrate with the others. The letter of the law is a far-going reform measure and has the potential to create a generation of Indians who are equipped to participate in nation building. But it will take relentless efforts to turn the legislation enacted in furtherance of Article 21A — which enjoins the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children aged six to fourteen — into a revolutionary instrument. The immediate challenges lie in the area of recruitment, to meet the estimated shortfall of one million teachers, and toning up teacher training as per the pedagogic requirements of the National Curriculum Framework, 2005.

With continued economic growth, it should not be difficult to allocate the Rs. 4.50 lakh crore that the Planning Commission thinks is needed for the implementation of the RTE Act over the next five years. The task will primarily be led by the States, but only a few, notably in the South, have the capacity to take on the challenge. The others must use the opportunity that presents itself to improve facilities and raise standards. Government and municipal schools have a long history of neglect and lack of investment in infrastructure, while affluent private schools use the most modern educational tools and teaching methods. It is worth pointing out here that the RTE rules have provisions to help bridge this asymmetry, in the form of perspective plans to be drawn up by individual schools. Moreover, the Act enables monitoring of the manner in which the law is being implemented, through the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights. The NCPCR and State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights can, of course, only perform their task if they have sufficient resources. The Supreme Court order makes it possible to speed up these vital reforms.

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