Wearing a uniform, carrying textbooks and sitting in a classroom is still a distant dream for more than two crore children in India, despite an act that makes education their right.
The good news is, there are ways to ensure the Right to Education Act (RTE) is implemented better — from increasing education budgets to better student enrolment drives and investing in teacher training, academicians and education activists said.
Crores of students across India are out-of-school; they are being denied their Right to Education, but efforts to bring them into the fold seem half-hearted, said Herambh Kulkarni, a Pune-based activist.
Take for instance a day-long survey done on July 4, 2015 by the education department to identify children who were never enrolled in school and those who dropped out later.
Around 40,000 such children were found across Maharashtra alone.
But activists said this survey barely scratched the surface, and that the actual number of out-of-school children was much more.
After a couple of more surveys, the drive ran out of gas.
“The problem is that there is no willpower to implement the Act. While the RTE Act states it is the school’s responsibility to ensure all children in their neighbourhood have access to education, the government is not holding the schools accountable,” said Kulkarni, adding that for these drives to be successful, co-ordination between different departments, such as the labour, social welfare, tribal, and women and child development departments, is necessary.
“The drives weren’t effective because these departments do not coordinate their efforts. Children who are out of school are from varied backgrounds — child labourers, children of migrants or from different tribes. This means the efforts to reach out to them have to be taken jointly by all departments,” Kulkarni said.
The quality of education in schools is another area of concern, said experts.
The Maharashtra government has taken up several initiatives to improve education standards, but they are focused only on creating model schools. The others remain neglected.
For instance, a recent state government initiative aims to bring 26 civic-run schools at a par with international standards — again an effort focussed on only some schools.
Educationists said instead of developing a few schools as models, the government should work to bring all schools up to the level of the centre-run Navodaya Vidyalayas and Kendriya Vidyalayas that are known to be benchmarks of public schooling.
“The government wants to develop ‘model schools’, but this would mean not too much effort is put into improving other schools,” said Girish Samant, the author of a book on the RTE Act and a trustee at the Abhi Goregaonkar English School.
Samant said because of poor training, several schools misunderstood initiatives that can improve the quality of education, such as the no-detention policy (in which the students are promoted till Class 8 irrespective of their grades) and the Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE), which focuses on the all-round development of the children.
“The CCE was a big change over the 150-year-old tradition of rote-learning and exam-oriented assessment. But teachers were not trained to understand how it works,” Samant said.
What’s more shocking is that the concept of CCE is not even part of the syllabus in the courses aspiring teachers take, such as the diploma in education and bachelors in education (BEd).
“When CCE forms such an important part of the new evaluation style under the RTE Act, teachers more than anyone else need to be proficient with its working,” said Samant.
“Merely holding training programmes for teachers in service is not enough; we need to ensure that the new recruits are also aware of how it works.”
Security in schools, especially in state-run residential schools or ashramshaalas, is another area that needs immediate attention, said activists.
In November last year, several cases of minor girls being raped in ashram schools in Buldhana brought to light the deplorable conditions in which these girls live .
But even with such incidents rising across the country, the infrastructure and security in most of these schools are yet to be upgraded, said Shubadha Deshmukh, a member of the district and divisional committee to monitor ashram schools.
The main problem is the shortage of schools — there are more students than schools.
This puts tremendous strain on the existing schools, Deshmukh said.
“In some of the schools, we observed there are only 15 beds for 48 to 50 girls. The rooms are so crammed, and the girls often have to change their clothes standing on their beds,” said Deshmukh.
These schools lack the most basic of amenities, such as continuous water supply, separate and clean toilets for girls and uninterrupted electricity.
Wardens and women attendants are also absent in most of these schools, which has activists demanding security bells in the girls’ rooms.
“The bells can be sounded if the girls are in trouble. These bells can be connected to a main security station or to the local police station,” said Deshmukh.
But instead of improving the condition of such schools, the government recently started a scheme that gives private, reputed English schools Rs40,000 a child for enrolling tribal children.
Activists pointed out how this again was an example of misplaced focus, as it will only benefit a few students.
“Instead of spending money on this, the government could have looked at using it to improve the condition of all tribal schools,” Deshmukh said.
INTERVIEW: Hemangi Joshi, education manager at Narotam Seksharia Foundation and a member of the Right to Education Forum
Falling education budgets, poor training to teachers and haphazard initiatives to ensure children come to school — Hemangi Joshi, the education manager at Narotam Seksharia Foundation, a not-for-profit, and a member of the Right to Education Forum, talks to HT about the issues plaguing the Right to Education Act and the steps that can be taken to ensure the landmark Act is implemented better.
What do you think is the one main problem with RTE implementation?
To begin with, the education budget needs to be increased. It needs to be at least six per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The BJP announced they will increase the budget, but it has not been done. Even the latest BMC budget for education was a disappointment. We need to make education a priority.
The government has conducted several surveys to identify out-of-school students. But these programmes haven’t yielded any results. What do you think is lacking in the efforts?
Enrolment levels are high, but the children who are not in school belong to marginalised and disadvantaged groups. This includes nomadic, tribal and differently-abled students. We cannot afford to ignore them saying a majority of the kids are already in school. The initiatives taken so far to identify out-of-school kids have been conducted in a haphazard manner. They lack long-term vision and planning. We need a concrete, well thought out five-year programme.
What steps can be taken to improve quality of schools and teaching?
Merely holding competency tests isn’t sufficient. Their results need to be made public, so schools can work on them and improve. Unless individual schools know where they stand compared to others, they will not be able to work on their performance.
What should be done to prepare teachers to implement these programmes?
There is a need for pre-service and in-service training on the job. Teachers must be given incentives to go and get training and continuous education. Unfortunately, right now, the government’s focus is not on training. Unless teachers grasp the spirit of the RTE Act and the policies started under it, they won’t be able to do justice to the reforms. It is important to ensure that teachers share the same vision as the Act.
Has the SARAL project — the digital database of all schools started by the government to bring in accountability— worked?
The idea behind SARAL was good. The amount of data the government can collect through this project is huge. And, it can be used to design policies and understand gaps like never before. Unfortunately, the programme has failed to launch in the way we hoped. It is facing a lot of technical troubles and has become a burden for teachers. The data collected through SARAL is also not being made public by the government. It is yet another failed attempt.