A classroom reflecting life's diversity will benefit children of all strata while enriching teaching experience.
Now that the Supreme Court has validated the Right to Education (RTE), its success will depend on teachers. When I said this to a friend who teaches in a primary school, she said, “you are being unfair.” I was startled to hear this response because what I had said was common sense. When I pointed this out to her, she said, “Common sense isn't enough to implement RTE — you need professional insight, so you need policies that allow teachers to develop insight and use it.” She is right. For well over a century, India has treated its teachers like messengers who need not know or understand the message themselves. They occupy the lowest rung in the ladder of authority and status in the system of education. The younger the age-group they teach, the lower their own status and salary. That is why the nursery teacher has no status at all, and no university-level training course, which might explain why certain practices are good and others are bad, exists for nursery professionals.
Primary level teaching is similarly regarded as a drill devoid of intellectual effort. Delhi University stood alone when it started offering a four-year course called Bachelor of Elementary Education (B.El.Ed.) in the 1990s. Though this course has produced outstanding teachers, the Delhi government still denies them the status of trained graduate teachers. In its recent verdict, the Supreme Court characterised education “as a process involving many actors,” starting the list with “the one who provides education,” namely, the teacher. The list then goes on to include the owners of institutions, parents, the child, society, and the state. This clarity of analysis runs through the entire verdict which should become a compulsory reading for administrators and teachers alike if RTE is to reach its ambitious goals.
Most ambitious among its objectives is the social engineering it proposes by guaranteeing at least 25 per cent share of enrolment in unaided fee-charging schools to children whose parents cannot afford the fee. This provision formed the focus of the petition the Supreme Court has now disposed of with its majority verdict. The petitioners had challenged the provision arguing that reserving 25 per cent seats, that too without the freedom to screen, implies an unwarranted curtailing of the autonomy of unaided private institutions. The analysis used by the Court to reject this argument is both complex and sharp. It shows why the right to run a private school is not absolute. The Court's logic is that Article 21A has come into being because certain Directive Principles, particularly Article 45, required the state to provide ‘for' free and compulsory education for all children up to the age of 14. The preposition ‘for' is important, says the verdict, because it is in response to the Directive Principles that the new law has established the manner in which the state has decided to follow the Principles. The chosen manner covers both state and private schools. The verdict also reminds us that RTE has been woven into the Right to Life, on the ground that a life worth living must have dignity and that is what education promises to impart. Thirdly, the right encoded in the new law concerns children, and not institutions. Finally, RTE also covers quality as an aspect of education, not something external to it. The state has now fully admitted being a custodian of all children, so it has a right to withdraw recognition from institutions that fail to provide education in the manner stipulated by law. The provision for mixing children of different socio-economic backgrounds now defines what education is.
Upset and startled
This is as clear as it can be. Yet, one can understand why private schools are upset and startled. One simple reason is habit. Unaided schools have been used to thinking that they can isolate their children from the poverty, roughness and the pain of daily life that surrounds prosperous Indians. The belief that learning needs withdrawal from the jungle of life belongs to an old, very old tradition. In the history of pedagogic theory, this view was challenged more than a century ago. In Europe and America, experience was recognised as the best teacher at the beginning of the 20th century, and experience meant direct exposure to the reality and diversity of the human condition. Mixed schooling was bitterly debated before it took root, and in the U.S., it had to await the pressure generated by the civil rights movement. Indian private schools, including the elite among them, are startled that they are coming under a law they did not help to formulate.
These schools have been used to seeing themselves as leaders. Their teachers are accustomed to working with a select group of children whose home environment already gives them the skills they need at school. Now, these teachers will have to cope with a mixed classroom. They will have to learn and practise new pedagogies capable of maintaining high standards in the face of India's socio-cultural diversity and economic disparity. The crucial lesson they have to learn now is that the inclusion of children belonging to the poorer sections and marginalised groups is not just good for them, but also for the remaining 75 per cent. This is so because classroom life will now be experientially and linguistically richer. It will be easier to illustrate complex issues with examples drawn from children's own lives. In the syllabi and textbooks developed in the wake of the National Curriculum Framework (2005), all subjects — and not just the social sciences — require understanding from multiple, often contradictory, perspectives. Peer group learning is as important as what the teacher teaches.
Indeed, the teacher's job is to nurture a classroom culture which enables children to take positive interest in differences of opinion, perceptions and life-style, in order to infuse life and meaning into knowledge.
However, the owners of unaided institutions are going to perceive their critical challenge in finances. They want to know where the funds for the free seats are going to come from. RTE stipulates that the state will subsidise the cost of reserved seats by paying to private schools an amount representing the state's per child expenditure in its own schools. Owners of high fee-charging schools argue that this amount is just not sufficient to cover the expenses that the school incurs for maintaining its quality. This argument contradicts the popular theory, espoused by private schools themselves, that state-run schools are of poor quality because their teachers are unaccountable. By describing the state's compensation for free seats as inadequate, the unaided private schools are conceding the point that the quality of education in state schools is hampered by paucity of funds. In order to substantiate their claim to greater efficiency, private schools must now show better outcomes with the same amount of funds per child that the state spends in its own schools.
Indeed, this may provide to private schools an opportunity to set their own priorities in order. Over the last few decades, a culture of extravagance has engulfed many of India's elite private schools. Many private schools now uninhibitedly flaunt their five-star luxuries, ranging from expensive furniture and marble floors to air conditioning and CCTVs. When you visit one of these schools, you wonder whether you are in a hotel. Their plea for sympathy over the inadequacy of state subsidy for 25 per cent free seats is a bit cloying.
It will be nice if they shift their anxiety to the challenges that RTE throws at everyone concerned with children's education — teachers, trainers, parents, state and society. For teachers, the critical issue is to absorb the new curricular and pedagogic perspective which focuses on learning in place of marks. RTE asks for continuous and comprehensive evaluation, and a ban on corporal punishment and private tuition. These are tall demands and our systemic preparation to meet them has barely begun. Search for short cuts has ominously surfaced in matters like the selection of distance education for teacher training and dependence on NGOs for monitoring. The state and the university system cannot any more neglect the task of regulating teacher training institutes, most of which are now in the private sector.
The RTE Act has assigned the monitoring of implementation to the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). Currently, this fragile agency has hardly any institutional capacity to look after the millions of children whose right to education and dignity has been recognised for the first time in the nation's history. Help from NGOs can hardly substitute a workforce of academic and legal specialists that NCPCR and its State units across the country require. Let us note that the Supreme Court's verdict puts the onus for the execution of RTE on the entire society and the apparatus of the state.
(The writer is Professor of Education at Delhi University and a former Director of NCERT.)