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Learning the ABC

The time has come for donors and the larger NGO community to introspect and ask if the centres they support or run actually benefit children, writes Vimala Ramachandran.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2010 22:14 IST

Today, the day on which the Right to Education (RTE) is being notified and will become a legally enforceable right, there is one group that is uncomfortable. For many decades now NGOs have been running night schools and non-formal centres in this country. Many of these so-called schools run for a couple of hours and children — mostly very poor, especially girls — attend when they are through with work.

Well-known philanthropies and donor agencies support such initiatives in the name of promoting education. In the last few months, I have had the opportunity to attend meetings where donors and NGOs met to understand the implications of RTE. In more than one instance, organisations running non-formal centres and night schools have expressed their displeasure at closing down such schools as they will lose money.

The RTE not only gives every child the right to be educated, but also clearly lays down what a school is supposed to be. Any centre that runs for a few hours will no longer be recognised as a school. More importantly, it is now mandatory for every single school to acquire a certificate of recognition after complying with norms and standards specified in the act. Donors and recipients alike have known for a long time — at least since 2003 when the 86th Constitutional Amendment was passed — that the right to education essentially means that every child has the right to a proper school. In other words, a school that functions for five-six hours a day, where there is one teacher for every 30 children, where children have access to textbooks and learning material, where they get a mid-day meal and a place where children are with other children of their age.

Furthermore, the Act stipulates that “where a child is directly admitted in a class appropriate to his or her age, then he or she shall, in order to be at par with others, have a right to receive special training, in such a manner, and within such time limits, as may be prescribed… further that a child so admitted to elementary education shall be entitled to free education till completion of elementary education even after 14 years…”. The administration is expected to maintain records of children up to the age of 14 residing within its jurisdiction. The onus of ensuring compliance lies with the administration.

We all have known for a long time that night schools and non-formal centres are apologies for schools and that children who go to these centres for a few hours barely learn beyond basic alphabets and numbers.

Way back in the mid-1980s, there was compelling evidence about the dismal failure of the government’s non-formal education (NFE) programme. Subsequently, due to the tireless work done by people like Shanta Sinha, the government withdrew the NFE scheme and started advocating full-time schooling as a right of every child.

This was also the time when research-based evidence pointed out that poverty is not the only reason for non-enrolment or for children dropping out. A range of in-school factors like availability of teachers who actually attend school everyday and teach, non-discriminatory environment in school, absence of verbal or physical punishment and abuse, basic facilities, availability of teaching and learning material — all determine the ability of children to be retained and to learn.

The time has come for donors and the larger NGO community to introspect and ask if the centres they support or run actually benefit children. Equally, the media and the larger education community should join hands with local authorities to ensure that children can realise their rights. Maybe we need to start with educating our peers about the right and why it is important to comply with it.

No right, however just and timely, can become a reality unless societies as whole and interested actors in particular make an effort to educate and enforce. The Right to Information would have remained in the statute books but for the tireless work of hundreds of activists. A similar movement is called for if RTE has to become a reality.

Vimala Ramachandran is Director, Educational Resource Unit, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.