The illusion of equity in the classroom

“While it is too early to pass a judgment on the success of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, the initial trends are somewhat disappointing.” Picture shows a classroom in a school for underprivileged children in Bengaluru. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash   | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash K

As the Right to Education (RTE) Act just completed five years of operation, it is time to take note of some facts. Kerala became the first State to achieve 100 per cent primary education, but in Uttar Pradesh, only 12 out of 75 districts have admitted students from disadvantaged groups to private schools. The Act mandates that schools reserve 25 per cent seats for these students. There are rumours that due to the pressure exerted by the private schools’ lobby, Karnataka may dilute the Act. A large number of Dalits, Adivasis and girls discontinue education because of discrimination in schools. And more than 60 per cent of urban primary schools are overcrowded, and about 50 per cent of Indian students cannot do basic mathematics or read a short story when they complete elementary education.

Equitable quality education

Universalising education involves issues of both distributive justice and quality. While the former concerns taking education to marginalised communities, the latter asks, ‘what counts as meaningful education?’ Considering that inadequate education affects the disadvantaged groups more severely, it is a possibility that these groups will end up with restricted opportunities and diminished outcomes given the market-driven economy we live in. The RTE, therefore, entails the right to equitable quality education. It is with this aim that India enacted the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. While it is too early to pass a judgment on the success of this Act, the initial trends are somewhat disappointing. According to the 2011 Census, the average literacy rates of people aged above 15 among Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are about 9 per cent and 17.4 per cent less than the national average, respectively. The female literacy rate is 19.5 per cent less than that of males. This difference increases to 23 per cent and 23.5 per cent among the SCs and STs, respectively, indicating the double discrimination faced by Dalit and Adivasi women. The dropout rates among SCs and STs are significantly higher than the national average and more girls discontinue schooling than boys. Of course, there is a wide variation across States and the gap is wider in rural areas as compared to urban, but these statistics suggest significant inequalities in the distribution of educational opportunities.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014 reveals that enrolment in private schools has increased from 18.7 per cent in 2006 to 30.8 per cent in 2014. But has this increase been accompanied by a proportionate inclusion of disadvantaged groups?

The National University of Educational Planning and Administration’s 2011-12 report shows that only about 16 per cent of students from SCs and STs attend private schools and the average Indian household spends five times more money on each child annually if s/he is enrolled in a private school compared to a government school. It is reasonable to say that private schools are ordinarily more accessible to higher income groups.

ASER reports suggest that private schools fare only marginally better in terms of imparting quality education compared to government schools. While the ASER methodology of quantifying learning has been disputed, these statistics suggest that our education system has fared poorly on both equity and quality parameters.

The Constitution provides a flexible framework for a welfare state. Article 39 directs the state to frame policies that distribute the “ownership and control of the material resources of the community” such that it serves the “common good”, and “provide opportunities and facilities that enable children to develop in a healthy manner in conditions of freedom and dignity”. While Directive Principles are non-justiciable, Article 37 commands that they shall be “fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the State to apply these principles in making laws”. Initially, universal elementary education was a Directive Principle under Article 45. The fact that it was made a fundamental right vide the 86th Amendment does not jettison the egalitarian perspective that placed it in the same scheme as other Directive Principles, particularly those under Article 39.

The Kothari Commission recommended a common school system (CSS) to “bring the different social classes and groups together and thus promote the emergence of an egalitarian and integrated society”. It lamented that “instead of doing so, education itself is tending to increase social segregation and to perpetuate and widen class distinctions”. This results in the “anaemic and incomplete” education of both the rich and poor as it forecloses sharing of perspectives. The CSS was adopted by both the 1968 and 1986 national policies on education. While the interventions from ‘Operation Blackboard’ to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan brought universalisation and quality to the forefront, the CSS was somehow relegated to the background.

The road ahead

The RTE Act provides for minimum quality standards and mandates 25 per cent reservation for children belonging to weaker sections. This provision has caused much debate. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has clarified that “the larger objective [of this provision] is to provide a common place where children sit, eat and live together for at least eight years of their lives across caste, class and gender divides in order that it narrows down such divisions in our society”. Four caveats could be issued here. One, in conceiving ‘disadvantaged groups’, we must also include children of sex workers, transgendered groups, disabled persons and minorities. Two, equality also means the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Three, the government must not abdicate its responsibility to make its schools inclusive. If Dalit children sit separately and clean toilets and girls perform stereotypical gender roles, then we have only engrafted inequality and entrenched hierarchies. Four, education itself needs to celebrate the diverse ways in which knowledge is transferred and acquired.

As the RTE Act emerges from its nascence and education statistics continue to disappoint on both quality and inclusion parameters, the government is deliberating the first education policy post-1991. Its success would depend on how it socialises the private and provides a vision for an equitable quality education.

(Ajey Sangai is a Research Fellow with Education Initiative at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.)

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 9:52:48 AM |

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