Success stories from the right to education law give no joy when assessments show that children are ill-versed in the 3Rs and classrooms remain discriminatory

Three years ago today, India, for the first time in history, made a promise to its children. With the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education coming into effect on April 1, 2010, every child was guaranteed the fundamental right to eight years of quality education — one that helps them to acquire basic literacy and numeracy, enjoy learning without fear, and feel valued and included irrespective of where they came from. March 31, 2013 represents an important milestone in implementation as it is the agreed deadline for meeting most of the targets set by the Act. Three years later, we have seen significant resource allocations to the education sector, substantive structural reform as well as countless stories of hope from the field. There remains, nonetheless, much to be done in order to achieve quality education with equity for every girl and boy across India.

Millions drop out

Indeed, there have been promising developments starting from the government’s budget for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme, the main vehicle for RTE’s implementation — has nearly doubled from Rs.12,825 crore in 2009-10 to Rs.27,258 crore in 2013-14. Thanks to the opening of over 3.5 lakh schools in the last decade, 99 per cent of India’s rural population has a primary school within a one kilometre radius. Eleven million more children are now enrolled in elementary schools from 2009-10 to 2011-12. Despite the achievements, eight million children remain out of school and the integration of these children into an age-appropriate class remains a significant challenge. Millions of children drop out of school before completing the full cycle of elementary education.

Example of inclusion

Learning assessments show that many of the children who do remain in school are not learning the basics of literacy and numeracy or the additional knowledge and skills necessary for their all-round development as specified under the Act. While most schools have adequate numbers of classrooms and great strides have been made in providing drinking water and separate toilet facilities for girls and boys, the availability of playground, school ramp, kitchen shed and boundary wall remains a major challenge in many States.

A key RTE mandate is for schools to become child-friendly, inclusive spaces, where all children from diverse backgrounds are welcomed, treated kindly, and encouraged to actively participate in learning through child-centred activities. Many classrooms continue to be characterised by teacher-centred rote-learning, corporal punishment, and discrimination. More positive attitudes and expectations towards children from the most deprived and marginalised communities are needed, without which inclusive education will remain a distant dream. We can draw inspiration from The Loreto private School in Kolkata which has encouraged the sharing of learning between students from middle or upper class families with children who are entering school for the first time, many of who are domestic child labourers, trafficked children and street children. This meaningful exchange has improved the overall learning environment and students have gained a much broader perspective, sense of empowerment and compassion.

On teachers

Another important RTE goal is to empower teachers as key change agents in schools, ensuring their competence as professionals able to reflect on and improve their own practice. Beyond ensuring an acceptable Pupil-Teacher Ratio, RTE mandates that all teachers are professionally trained and supported to continuously assess and improve children’s learning. While it is encouraging that Delhi, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have over 96 per cent professionally qualified teachers there are other States that have less than 70 per cent.

Teacher preparation and on-site support needs to be much more child-centred, focusing on engaging the child’s curiosity rather than being monotonous with limited classroom impact. A large number of B.Ed/D.Ed pass students were not able to pass the November 2012 Central Teacher Eligibility Test. Without focused energy and investment into bringing larger structural reforms in teacher education and in improving the working conditions, professional status and agency of teachers, we will not see significant transformation in classrooms. Lessons can be taken from the innovative public-private partnership model, School Excellence Programme where the head-teachers are empowered to enhancing the learning outcomes of over half-a-million urban slum children in Mumbai.

Another key mandate of RTE is empowering communities to take ownership in the effective running of schools through school management committees. Much remains to be done to ensure the functioning of school management committees of parents and teachers that can produce RTE compliant school development plans. Some stories of hope can be found in efforts such as Andhra Pradesh’s intensive community mobilisation and RTE-awareness campaign through literacy efforts, mobile vans, kala-jathas, folk songs and dances, or Assam’s Mother Groups which actively conduct school morning assemblies and monitor student attendance. Another innovative practice across India has involved the engagement of community sports coaches with schools.

By encouraging children of different economic and social backgrounds to play together in team sport, schools became spaces of social inclusion. Sports coaches are trained to address issues related to health, sanitation, enrolment and attendance; coaches also conduct sessions on life skills. The play method is designed to motivate and build capacity of children to participate actively in classroom learning.

Monitoring systems

While there are one-time investments that will make a significant difference in achieving targets in such areas as ensuring a library or functional toilet in every school, much of the pedagogic transformation called for by RTE will necessitate substantive institutional reform. Some States like Odisha have implemented innovative grievance redressal mechanisms such as toll-free helpline numbers displayed prominently on school walls, and a comprehensive school monitoring tool called “SAMIKSHA” which helps to improve accountability, identify gaps and strategies for improvement.

The Act is a source of national pride and offers an unprecedented opportunity. It is a challenge, but with the resources and political will fuelling progress, is not an impossible task. What is critical now is that national and State governments take stock of the progress achieved and the gaps which remain in order to complete unfinished RTE commitments as a matter of urgency.

Just imagine India when all of its children will have completed eight years of good quality education. What better way to secure the country’s future?

(Louis Georges Arsenault is the representative of UNICEF in India.)

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