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Rough road to school

India's Constitution guarantees the right to education. But for the underprivileged child, it still remains an uphill task to get decent schooling. Charu Sudan Kasturi reports. Why students drop out

india Updated: Apr 18, 2012 11:23 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the nation on the morning of April 1, 2010, he became the first premier to do so for the launch of any law in independent India.

Speaking on the Right to Education (RTE) Act, one of the biggest early achievements of the subsequently scam-scarred government, the Prime Minister recalled his own childhood.

“I was born into a family of modest means,” he said. “In my childhood, I had to walk a long distance to go to school. I read under the dim light of a kerosene lamp.”

Two generations after Singh went to school, India has a school enrolment rate of 97%, many more schools, an education policy that places children at its centre, and unprecedented public investment in the sector. However, for many children from poor families, the challenges of accessing education remain remarkably similar to those the Prime Minister faced, statistics show.

Girls fare worse than boys on all indicators of education access; scheduled caste and scheduled tribe students still face discrimination, and Muslim students are less likely to complete elementary schooling than their counterparts from other communities.

Infrastructure gaps and a shortage of teachers continue to plague many schools. Students who struggle are often left to fend for themselves. Child labour remains a scourge. Why students drop out

Relatively newer challenges have also emerged — concerns that start with an unregulated pre-school system and linger through formal school in the form of questions over whether students are actually learning what they should be.

The RTE Act has come into effect at a time when India, with 65% of its population under the age of 35, enjoys a significant demographic edge over the ageing economies of Japan, China and Western countries.

Coupled with never-before investments made in higher education over the past decade, the law — which aims to provide at least basic schooling to every child between six and 14 — could help India reap the benefits of this advantage, the National Knowledge Commission said in its reports.

The Act set six months — by September 31, 2010 — as the deadline for all schools to meet a strict teacher-pupil ratio, three years — by March 31, 2013 — for infrastructure requirements at schools, and five years — by March 31, 2015 — for ensuring that all teachers are qualified.

The deadline for the first marker of progress, on teacher-student ratios, was missed. And with less than a year to go for March 31, 2013, statistics show that India may well miss the deadline for schools to meet infrastructure requirements.

The year-long HT initiative will highlight the myriad challenges facing India’s school education system, before looking at initiatives — both public and private — that have helped tackle these challenges. Finally, we will look at what needs to be done, going ahead.

The transformative power of education needs no debate, but what it needs to do for an Indian child from a modest economic background was perhaps best articulated by the Prime Minister himself when he launched the RTE Act two years ago.

"I am what I am today because of education," he said.