An open letter to teachers

Maya Menon

Dear Teachers,

This is an open letter to all of you who teach and toil in schools across India – big, small, urban, rural, rich, poor.

You work so hard within the confines of classrooms and schools and yet you are so often cut off from developments in education that most certainly affect your life as a teacher. Many of you may have read in the newspapers or seen on television that the Government of India has passed a Right to Education Act in August 2009. However, like all Government Acts, you may have thought it to be just another political move that really doesn’t concern us. After all we are more interested in students and what happens in the classroom. But you know what – the RtE Act does involve students and teachers and what happens in the classroom – though nobody may have really explained how it impacts us.

The essence of the RtE Act reiterates what a majority of us in education, philosophically, have no disputes with. Notwithstanding that, its implementation awaits another government notification and in any case it will be a challenge for many of you.

Let’s consider just the key features of the RtE:
Education is now a Fundamental Right for a child in India in the age group 6-14 years.
I can hear you say – of course it should be – so what’s so new about this? I agree with you – but unfortunately in our 60 years as a Republic, India shamefully still hasn’t ensured universal education for all children in this age group. All our children still do not go to school, leave alone get an education that they deserve as a right! Also, did you know that this RtE does not extend to children below the age of 6 years and young people between the ages of 14 and 18 years? What are your thoughts on this matter?

All aspects of the Act are now justiciable as a Fundamental Right i.e violation of any clause of the Act can be taken up in court by any citizen – not just the person/s involved and adversely affected.
You would need to consider the implications of this. Do you realize any child, parent or citizen can file a suit against a school or teacher if they feel a child, any child, is not receiving an education that he or she should? Suppose a child has been denied admission unfairly, or if a school has held back a child in the same class on account of poor learning levels, or if a child has been punished for a misdemeanour – all these will be grounds for someone going to court. So as education professionals, you need to be well-versed and mindful of Child Rights Act 2005 and the National Commission of Child Rights that monitors all perceived abuse of children too. And your schools must mandatorily orient you so that all legal issues concerning the profession are accurately understood and adhered to.

Adequate number of schools shall be built in all communities within three years.
This seems a tall order, doesn’t it? It means the government itself or private organizations will need to build enough schools so that all Indian children of school-going age are enrolled into schools that are conveniently located. But there will be questions that those of you who are school owners will have about how the government will facilitate the process of registration and recognition of these new schools. Or will it still be a tedious affair as it currently is in most states? Moreover, the RtE also recommends that there must be a maximum of 40 students per class. This means most schools in India, especially private schools violate this necessary condition – with students numbers hovering between 50 and 70!

There will be no discrimination when it comes to student enrollment in schools.
I’m personally in agreement with this aspect of RtE. To me, this means that schools, particularly private schools cannot be selective about who they will admit – on the basis of entrance exams and admission tests. So admission processes will need to be revamped and made more transparent. However, I do realize that there are many underlying challenges. For instance, how does one interpret ‘discrimination’? Would it mean that a sought-after-city-school cannot refuse admission owing to fear of political pressure or that schools will take in all local students who seek admission – but will not consider themselves accountable to ensure that each of these students are all learning effectively? And what about a child who may not want to go to the local neighbourhood school and would rather be bussed to a school which has an ethos more in keeping with her needs and interests?

commentPrivate schools will have to reserve 25% of their seats for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Many people think the rules should define the 25% reservation as applicable to: a) schools where government has given free land or special concessions; b) schools in the top 100 towns and cities till next 5 years. Moreover, schools should be required to publish their books of accounts and the government must reimburse the school based on the per child expenditure incurred by the school considering its facilities and overhead costs, and not what the government usually incurs in its own far less equipped schools. This last point will undoubtedly be problematic – since it is unlikely the government will agree to reimbursing private schools on a differential basis.

Norms and standards for all schools (government and private), including teacher qualifications, will be detailed without which no school will be recognized.
This is in spirit admirable, especially when coupled with the fact that the government will pave the way for more schools to be established in the next 3 years. If, through these norms and standards, the quality of education is raised for all our school going children, then the RtE would be effecting a huge boost in the development of the human capital in our country. As things stand though, the RtE has not quite detailed how the quality of teaching and teachers will be enabled, even mandated. The Act as of now mentions all that teachers should be doing – but fails to describe how the 5 million teachers in our country will be equipped to deliver what the RtE refers to as “child-centred” education that ensures that all children are learning at their own pace while they are under no pressure of being detained till class 8.

The Act aims to have a standardized national curriculum.
On the up-side this could mean that the National Curricular Framework 2005 of the NCERT could form the basis of all syllabus and textbooks in schools across all states. However since education is on the concurrent list in our Constitution, the state governments have to ratify this. It is possible they will not agree – on the grounds that a National Curriculum will be discriminatory towards the rural and poor students in the state.

I personally believe India must not dumb down curriculum at the state level – that in the long run damages young people’s abilities to have equal opportunities across all the states. However we must allow flexibility in the National Curriculum to address regional and local needs, cultures and practices.

I will be very interested to hear your thoughts on the RtE Act. So do write in and voice your views on this landmark, but belated decision.

With warm regards,

Maya

The author is Director, The Teacher Foundation, Bangalore. She can be reached at
mayamenon@teacherfoundation.org.