Come April 1, the right to free and compulsory education will finally be notified and become a justiciable right. At least on paper, the government is duty-bound to provide every child aged between six and 14 a proper school with qualified teachers. The government has a two-year window to make it available. Parents, community leaders and activists can go to court and demand answers. But going over the commentaries, it looks as if the only issue is one of funds — to hire more teachers, convert all transitional schools into proper ones, upgrade them to Class VIII and adhere to the definition of a school as spelt out in the 2009 Right To Education (RTE) Act.
Is that really the case? Are we really on the brink of realising the right to education?
The real issue is not only to do with money, but with the ability of the government to turn around the system. Providing funds to state governments is no doubt a necessary precondition, but it is not sufficient to realise the goals of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). The recent mid-term review of the Eleventh Five Year Plan takes note of the poor use of funds by many states, lack of relevance, endemic corruption in teacher training, poor teacher and student attendance, and most importantly, very little progress in learning. Worse still, close to half the children who enroll in Class I do not reach Class VIII with a majority dropping out after Class V. More than half the children in Class V cannot read a Class II text, or solve simple Class II arithmetic problems.
We are also a long way from ensuring that every child can access schooling. One of the huge lacunae in the RTE Bill was that it did not include the right of children with disabilities. The failure has less to do with money, and more with a lack of conviction about the right of every single child.
Another area that needs attention is identifying and reaching out to the most disadvantaged. The plight of migrants is well known. Equally, the terrible state of education in remote and tribal areas is acknowledged. The persistence of child labour has also been documented. Despite the compelling evidence, there is little in the SSA that turns the spotlight on such children.
As a first step, the ministry — in collaboration with national and state task forces — must initiate a state-by-state and district-by-district stock taking of access and learning, especially of children who have either never enrolled in, or have dropped out of, school. Plans relevant to a community or an area need to be evolved. To make this possible, the SSA has to move out of its rigid template budgeting and create mechanisms to respond to diverse situations. This needs to be done with an understanding that it would require more per-unit cost and a greater flexibility in financial norms.
Equally, the government needs to invite the private foundations and philanthropies to participate in targeted schooling initiatives for the most deprived. For example, the tremendous response received by the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya scheme — where girls who have dropped out after primary school are given a chance to pursue schooling at a fully-funded residential school — is a model that can be replicated. Our schools can also be made disabled-friendly through partnerships.
From April 1, the government has to plan for specific groups with a determination to realise the spirit of the right to education. It should not hide behind a maze of data doctored to show the world that all is well. We owe this to our children.
Vimala Ramachandran is a former member of the Central Advisory Board of Education. She is now Director of ERU, an education consultancy
The views expressed by the author are personal