Let’s keep the alternatives

Sangeeta Menon

The state of education in India is in a state of “emergency”, declared the Nobel Laureate, Prof. Amartya Sen. Commenting on H.G. Wells’ statement that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe,” Prof. Sen felt that “if we continue to leave vast sections of the people of the world outside the orbit of education, we make the world not only less just, but also less secure.” He further goes on to add that “basic education is not just an arrangement for training to develop skills (important as that is), it is also a recognition of the nature of the world, with its diversity and richness, and an application of the importance of freedom and reasoning as well as friendship. The need for that understanding – that vision – has never been stronger.”

It is then extremely important to close the gaps in education and to remove the tremendous disparities that exist in “educational access, inclusion and achievement”. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act is an attempt in this direction. The Statement of Objects and Reasons attached to the RTE Act states that “…it is anchored in the belief that the values of equality, social justice and democracy and the creation of a just and humane society can be achieved only through provision of inclusive elementary education to all.”

A UNESCO report on progress in primary education claims that three-fourths of the number of children around the world who are out of school reside in 15 countries including India. India is ranked 105th among 128 nations with one-third of the world’s illiterate. There are 26 crore children of school-going age in the country today. One set of statistics reveal that about 18 crore of these children are in school. That still leaves a staggering number of 8 crore who are not. The Right to Free and Compulsory Education for Children was made a Fundamental Right under Article 21 of our Constitution by the 86th Amendment which was passed by Parliament in 2002. This historic Act came into force on April 1, 2010.

The Act promises

  1. Free and Compulsory education to any child in the age group of 6-14 years which is referred to as elementary education (Class 1 to Class 8).
  2. Schools should be within a radius of 1-3 kms from where the child lives.
  3. All government-aided and private schools have to reserve 25% of their seats for students from “economically weaker sections and disadvantaged groups and they will be sponsored by the government.”
  4. All schools except private unaided schools are to be managed by School Management Committees. Seventy five per cent of the members of this committee will be parents or guardians of the children. Of these 50% will have to be women.
  5. All schools except government schools are required to be recognized, by meeting specified norms and standards within 3 years to avoid closure.
  6. The Centre has framed a subordinate legislation, the Model Rules – guidelines to the States for implementing the Act. The States are now required to frame their own rules.
  7. All states have to set up state education advisory bodies. State Child Rights Commissions will monitor implementation of the RTE Act in their respective states.

Ever since it was drafted in 2005, the RTE Bill has been the subject of much scrutiny amongst educators and allied stakeholders. The provisions of the Bill and their myriad implications have generated a discourse in the social and educational sector where its possibilities of success and failure have been discussed at great length. The key words that need to be borne in mind all through this oceanic mass of material surrounding the subject are the words “Right” and “Education”. Since the Act is part of Child Rights, it is good to examine what these words mean for the children of our country. According to the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) “Child Rights are minimum entitlements and freedoms that should be afforded to all persons below the age of 18 regardless of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinions, origins, wealth, birth status or ability and therefore, apply to all people everywhere.” Of the four broad classifications of basic human rights that should be afforded to children, education would fall under the Right to Development which stresses the right of the child to all forms of development – emotional, mental, and physical. While emotional well-being would encapsulate the safety and security concerns of the child besides the importance of being raised in a caring and loving environment, the physical aspect would cover the health and nutrition of the child. Education and learning would then largely cater to the mental development of the child.

The RTE tries to take the implications of both these words into consideration. What it does, however, is make the State an overarching custodian of this right and limits the scope of education and learning to a certain kind of school environment. While the biggest challenge before the government is to ensure that all children in the country have access to education in government recognized schools and that they stay in school from age 6 to 14, it has, in the process, set up norms and standards that seem more geared towards the minimum inputs that a school must have in order to exist under the new regulation, quite disregarding the learning outcomes expected from these schools. Implementing the Act would require a massive effort at sensitization of teachers and school management to the needs of all children, especially those coming from economically weaker sections and those with learning difficulties. A school is not just supposed to be a space of learning that a child goes to for a set number of hours through the week and teaching is more than just delivering the prescribed syllabus and evaluating the written performance of the children. Education is providing a holistic development of the child by nurturing and safeguarding the child’s sense of self. Is RTE going to enable and empower all schools to do this or will it take away the chance and opportunity of schools already working towards this end by denying them their right to exist and continue their work because they don’t fulfill all the norms laid down within its framework? This is the question confronting schools that fall under the category of Alternative and Innovative Schools (A and I schools).

*Alternative and Innovative schools have mainly been set up to serve the marginalized and less privileged in our society which include the scheduled castes, tribal children, rural and urban poor. Children who have not found a place in mainstream schools because of their learning or other challenges have been included in schools such as these where the learning environment is supportive and non-competitive. Also a broader curriculum that is locally contextualized, an assessment that is not standardized, a pace of learning that is based on the child’s capacity and teaching methodologies that are evolved out of the needs of the children characterize these schools. There is a definite comfort of learning for children in these schools where the pressure to conform to certain rigid norms and expectations is absent. This truly frees the child to learn without fear or limitations and there is a sense of security and confidence that this gives rise to, thus preparing our children to be well-integrated, balanced individuals in harmony with themselves.

*However, these alternative and innovative schools foresee certain difficulties that they might face from the enforcement of the Act in its present form. Their recognition might be subject to the following criteria: Schools must have infrastructure such as all-weather school buildings, one-classroom-one-teacher, head teacher cum office room, adequate-sized library with a specific number of books, toilets of specific dimensions, drinking water facilities, playground, fencing and boundary walls. Since the Alternative and Innovative schools either collect no fees or just token amounts, they are run on very tight budgets. While they do address minimum requirements of safety and hygiene, it might be difficult for them to meet all the specifications.

According to the RTE, teachers must have a B.Ed degree. But teachers in these schools may not possess B.Ed degrees. They are often dedicated individuals drawn to the teaching line because of their social concern about education and also local people who have been trained in the methods of teaching in these schools and are in complete consonance with their philosophy. These schools also have a flexible curriculum which is relevant to the local context and embraces the pace of learning of different learning capabilities. The standardized curriculum of the RTE might, on the other hand, require the following of a prescribed set of textbooks and transacting a time-bound syllabus.

Does the Right to Free and Compulsory Education also include the right to choose the type of education appropriate to the child? Since children may not be able to exercise this right by choosing correctly this has to be done for them by their parents, their first educators. But for parents who have chosen a particular A and I school for their child, putting these schools under threat of closure for failing to comply with all the provisions of the RTE is depriving them of their choice. Meeting the infrastructural, teacher-training and curricular expectations of the RTE may not necessarily translate into quality education where the emotional and social well-being of the child is fully protected. The RTE must allow for reform in education and this means sanctioning and legitimizing Alternative and Innovative schools which are bringing about a quiet revolution in the education and schooling that is available in our country.

*The contents in these paragraphs have been based on “Note on Behalf of Alternative and Innovative Schools with Regard to Certain Provisions of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009.” It can be accessed at www.swarj.org/shikshantar/RTE_alt.pdf.

The author has been a high school English teacher and is passionately involved in the process of education in the country. She can be reached at sangmenon@yahoo.com.

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