The RTE Act 2009 has been pioneering in many ways, mostly as it defined changes to be made within a definite timeline, for realising children’s right to education. As a result of this Act, for the first time in the history of India, children in the relevant age groups have conferred the right to free and compulsory education, as a fundamental right, which is legally enforceable. It provides for a set of norms, which are also legally enforceable. These norms, when applied to all schools, seek to address structural deficiencies, built into the school education system in India, that have kept children out of school. The Act also ensures equality, not just in terms of access, but quality. Implicit in this enactment, is the obligation assumed by the government, to commit all resources required for its implementation. In other words, it laid the foundation for universalisation of school education.
Second, the framers of the RTE Act 2009 considered “access” as one of the most critical parameters for ensuring equity and inclusion in school education. The report on Basic Education in India by the PROBE Team in 1999, clearly demonstrated that the major problem in universalising elementary education is not on the demand side, which is the most common alibi of policymakers, but in supply. It portrays a dismal, even shameful picture, of dark and dirty classrooms, in which little children are crowded together ‘like herds of sheep and goats.’
In the PROBE states, 29 per cent of the schools are still held in huts, tents and open spaces. In 27 per cent of the schools, only a single teacher has been appointed for five classes and 26 per cent are without a usable blackboard. PROBE found a depressing child-teacher ratio of 68, unimaginative and uninspiring teaching methods, and even social discrimination and gender bias in the classroom.
The RTE Act of 2009 ensued availability of a neighbourhood school, as specified in section 6 of the Act and made the appropriate government and local authority duty-bound, to establish schools where they are not established. It didn’t provision only for the physical school in the neighbourhood but ensured every child belonging to the weaker section and the child belonging to a disadvantaged group are not discriminated against, (9(c)) including children of migrant families (9(k). Besides social and physical access, it also made the schools functional and developed norms and standards so that every school is able to impart elementary education ensuring the twin principles of equality and quality for universalisation of elementary education.
For ensuring equal access of opportunity to elementary education for all children from 6-14 years of age in the spirit of the RTE Act, a process of school mapping (SM) was undertaken by the MHRD. School mapping (SM) is a normative approach to the micro-planning of school locations. It is an essential planning tool to overcome possibilities of regional inequalities in the provision of educational facilities.
It means that
1. SM incorporates spatial and demographic dimensions into the educational planning process.
2. Location of educational facilities depends on the norms and standards prescribed by the authorities. On the basis of this, new schools were established after 2010, based on the model national rules which were framed by the MHRD detailing the nuances of access.
However, the two timelines of 2013 and 2015, to fully implement the Act have lapsed, and the upcoming NEP has not been able to give a direction to it. This is very unfortunate for a policy not being able to strengthen a law which gives the right to education to children of the country.
In the last 10 years of RTE, enrolment has improved immensely, particularly of girls and relatively for children from marginalised communities. Further, people’s participation in monitoring and engaging with schools has grown manifold, and access to schools was almost met in most parts of the country, in the last decade.
However, our concerns are serious, as the NEP has failed to take note of the above positive trajectory, and is paving a way in which schools are being proposed to be closed, in the name of consolidation and rationalisation. This is a contravention of the provision of a neighbourhood school in the Act. The following are the concerns of the NEP, which require to be looked at if we intend to realise the right to education of children in the country.
Establishing School Complex for effective resourcing and effective governance makes the question of school autonomy a myth. The NEP apparently has not gone into the far-reaching implications of this recommendation. Every good public school, particularly at the secondary level, needs all these facilities and services and is required to carry out the above functions. The idea behind “neighbourhood schools” was to make schools in the community autonomous and managed and governed by the community through School Management Committees. The process adopted for rationalisation of schools in Rajasthan is already pushing children from marginalised families, particularly girls, from schools, to low-quality private schools, or forcing children to walk miles to access schools. Further, this additional infrastructure will only incur additional costs.
Privatisation has been given a lot of leverage in the NEP. For the first time, there is no mention of a common school system, and private schools and public schools are being discussed on the same plane. Even though it has mentioned that it is against the commercialisation of education, throughout the document, private and public schools have been treated as equal providers of quality education. This is notwithstanding the fact that education is a public good and it is the role of the state to provide quality education. Also, it should be noted, financial allocation to strength the public education system has been increased.
It has gone further in the document to override the norms and standards of RTE as benchmarks for the regulation of compliance to RTE Act and writes that these benchmarks will be reviewed, and appropriate modifications will be made, to enable this policy and to incorporate improvements. How can a progressive law, which makes education a fundamental right, be modified? What more appropriate provisions are required than the comprehensive norms and standards mentioned in the RTE Act is the larger question.
Moving from the role of the state, the NEP has not only encouraged public-spirited private schools but also philanthropic funding to finance education. The NEP should have made the implementation of the 6 per cent GDP on education mandatory.
We welcome every suggestion which will lead to a sizeable increase in the resources for school education in India. From this point of view, the recommendation that “all States allocate 20% of their overall spends to education” and that the “Central Government expenditure has to double” is most welcome. However, this recommendation has many problems.
Firstly, a ten-year period to reach the target of 20 per cent is too long, particularly when the RTE provided for universalisation of quality elementary education within five years.
Secondly, after the 14th Finance Commission, funding from the centre, on the social sector, has been reduced drastically. However, there is no evidence to show that there has been a substantial increase at the state level. Even in the document, it does not spell out how the states will be persuaded or obliged to accept and implement this target. Will there be national legislation to this effect? Will it be possible to arrive at a consensus on adopting such legislation? How will the progress towards the achievement of the 20% target be monitored? Increased allocation is not the solution, the solution is when the state provides quality education, within a time limit, to each and every child, in the country. This is particularly critical for the increasing number of out of school children in the country. Increased public funding should not be dependent on CESS and philanthropic funding, but it should be state’s commitment of certain percentage of GDP (not less than 6%) for quality education, of not a few children, but millions of children of India.
NEP draws a very narrow emphasis on improving learning through ‘Learning to learn’ which could be described as “a skill, or more plausibly as a package of skills, involving study skills, critical analysis, time management, planning, goal setting and so on”. In India, learning is more of a cognitive concern than a systematic concern. Schools as systems have not evolved even after 10 years of RTE. The purpose of NEP should have been to make all schools RTE compliant so that all children are in ‘good schools’.
However it doesn’t talk of improving the number 12 percent to 100 percent compliance, rather it is supporting closing small neighbourhood schools in the name of consolidation of schools, establishing complex schools so on so forth. This was initially seen in the Niti Aayog’s shift from ‘inputs’ to “outcome” in defining learning. It presented inputs as antithetical to learning, while our experience says, RTE compliant schools have been able to contribute to children’s knowledge immensely.
It is absolutely important to emphasise on inputs so that children learn to know instead of a narrow focus on learning to learn a set of defined activities. A new timeline should have been proposed to achieve full RTE compliance, and build schools, where there is still no school, within the stipulated distance norm of RTE. Peer learning will also be possible when the school system is ready to teach children. Further, incentivising teachers for better learning outcomes will not help or improve their respect in the society, autonomy of teachers and strong regulated public education system will.
The NEP has proposed formative assessments to meet the skill requirements of the 21t century, and to be regulated, based on norms and standards, to be developed by a centralised body at the national level. Learning outcome has been seen through narrow lenses and has failed to understand the values of continuing and comprehensive learning for holistic development. It has reduced education to acquiring certain skills, which is borrowed heavily from the mandate of low-cost budget schools.
It is extremely important to reiterate the importance of universalisation of school education as it is built on equity and quality. It cannot be compromised by coining terms like URGs, without understanding the nuances of the struggle of a community, in asserting one’s identity, and SC/ST being constitutional status. In this context, calling NEP unconstitutional will not be farfetched. The NEP should bring back the narrative of universalisation of education and implement RTE Act within a new timeline rigorously. Only then extension of RTE as considered in the NEP will carry any meaning for millions of children of India. NEP should focus on:
(a) Universalising secondary education. For this purpose, a set of norms have to be established, a large number of schools have to be built, the schools are to be equipped, additional teachers are to be recruited and trained.
(b) The ECCE should be universalised. Pre-primary education ( 3 – 6 years) has to be integrated with the nearby primary schools.
(c) Since RTE has remained largely unimplemented, the first priority should be attached to implementing the Act. As we know, only 12.7 per cent of the elementary schools comply with all the infrastructure requirements laid down in the Act.
About the author, Dr Aparajita Sharma: Asst Professor, Council For Social Development and RTE enthusiast.
This article was first published here.