gfiles magazine

July 17, 2011

School a pipe dream for 6 crore children

A year after its passage, the RTE Act has achieved precious little in changing ground realities
THE country’s performance regarding implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) in the year since the Bill was passed is not very encouraging. Although there has been a significant increase in budgetary allocation there are still serious challenges relating to access, inclusion and quality of education. India still bears the stigma of having the largest number of illiterate adults and out-of-school children. Every third illiterate person in the world is an Indian.
Education for all those between the ages of 6 and 14 became a legal right in April 2010. But the Union Minister for primary education himself concedes that enrolment rates in primary school classes have dropped, and independent research reveals that the quality and equity of education has also fallen.
Crores of them are engaged in child labour. Many are in bondage and trafficked. A large number is trapped in factories, mines and agriculture or forced to live as domestics.

Education was enshrined as a fundamental human right by the United Nations in 1949 but India amended its Constitution in this respect in 2001, thanks to a forceful and persistent civil society movement. It took nine years to translate this Constitutional provision into enforceable legislation. Yet, according to a recent study, only 6% of the people are aware that education is now a legal right. Regarding the decrease in primary school enrolment, three questions arise. Who are these out-of-school children? Where are they? And why are they not in school?
There is confusion regarding existing data. The government claims that 75,00,000 children are out of school (based on the 2001 census report). If the latest NSSO report is taken into account, the figure goes up to 2.1 crore. On the other hand, the demographic projection shows that India must have 22 crore children in 2011 out of which 16 crore attend school, which would mean that six crore are out of school. This figure tallies with the non-governmental estimates of five crore children engaged in various forms of child labour. Clarity on these statistics is urgently required because this has direct implications on state policies and budgetary allocations.
Regarding the decrease in primary school enrolment, three questions arise. Who are these out-of-school children? Where are they? And why are they not in school?

THE out-of-school children are not idle. They are the hardest to reach, or belong to socially, economically or politically excluded families, or are victims of age-old discriminatory cultural practices and gender bias. Crores of them are engaged in child labour. Many are in bondage and trafficked. A large number is trapped in factories, mines and agriculture or forced to live in domestic servitude.
Some are part of child prostitution and are child soldiers, some are pavement dwellers. Millions belong to displaced and migrant families, nomadic tribes and are victims of abject poverty. About 10% of India’s children are born with disabilities; this constitutes one-third of the country’s 60,000,000 disabled people. Studies reveal that children with disabilities are five times more likely to be out of school than the average child.
Similarly, around 22 lakh child victims of HIV and AIDS cannot be ignored. They require special attention and facilities for education. Girls, in general, but especially those belonging to minority groups and Scheduled Castes and Tribes are more likely to remain out of school, many being married off at an early age. Even if schools are built, teachers hired and other learning facilities provided, such hard-to-reach children are not going to appear magically inside classrooms and complete their education.
So far, no sincere effort has been made by the government to address this serious obstacle. It requires thorough identification, social and geographical mapping exercises, additional resources, innovative techniques such as preventive measures, engagement of communities through cultural and religious groups and so on. Moreover, an expansion of endeavour beyond the education sector is called for. Policy coherence and coordination among Ministries like Labour, Women and Child Welfare, Social Justice, Rural Development, Home Affairs, Health and Education are imperative because the Ministry of Education alone cannot ensure the freedom, withdrawal, repatriation, rehabilitation, health and safety of the hard-to-reach children.
Also, in the present context of a global economic recession, food crises, and environmental challenges, a broad multi stakeholder partnership is essential. So is a genuine public-private partnersip, with the rider that it should not lead to the privatization and commercialization of a fundamental right.
The second major obstacle in the enrolment and retention of children in school is the overall poor quality of the public education system. First, in spite of clear recommendations from all statesponsored commissions on education during the last several decades that at least 6% of the total GNP be invested in education, the government is still nowhere near this target. Neither the Central nor the State governments have ever considered education for poor children a political priority.
Second, the RTE law is silent on the common school system. State policies have reduced this fundamental right to a mere commodity. The rich can buy the best that is available and the poor are denied even the bare minimum. Third, it is the children that are the worst victims of poor and corrupt education governance.
According to the three most recent research projects and public hearings, conducted by Pratham (ASER 2010), BBA (Public Hearing on Education 2011) and National Coalition for Education (Edwatch report 2011), almost half of all fifth-grade children in government schools lack the reading skills expected in second grade. The ASER report also underlines a decline in overall maths skills in children between 2009 and 2010. Only 65% of first-grade children recognize the numbers 1-9, in comparison to almost 70% a year earlier. The ASER report also emphasizes the decrease in popularity of government schools over private ones in rural areas, which has resulted in a significant growth in enrolment in private schools (from 21.8% in 2009 to 24.3% in 2010).
The third hindrance to the provision of primary education is the lack of basic amenities and requirements in schools. The public hearings conducted by BBA in nine States reveal that only 60% of primary school-going children have access to clean drinking water. There are no functional toilets for more than 50% of students and, in the case of girls, the situation is even worse as only 30% have access to toilet facilities. This directly impacts the dropout rates substantially, especially among girls. Also, it was seen that only one-third of schools have playgrounds and only 10% of children are provided sports equipment and play material. Corruption regarding the midday meal was also seen everywhere, with both the quality and quantity of meals affected. The situation is compounded by inadequacy in the number of teachers hired, teacher absenteeism and long distances to schools.
According to the Edwatch report, more than half of upper primary schools are at distances ranging from three to 10 km away from children’s homes. The same report found that almost one-fourth of teachers are not full-time teachers but appointed as para teachers on an ad hoc basis. Also, shockingly, only 72% are able to perform classroom duties as they are often allocated non-teaching duties. Also, in spite of the fact that education has been mandated to be available free of cost, in a majority of cases students have to pay substantially in many other forms – infrastructure costs, extracurricular fees, uniform and stationery fees, and so on. This also contributes to a heavy dropout rate.
NONE of these problems is unsolvable. A sense of urgency, adequate political will and appropriate budgetary spending, as well as a comprehensive and time-bound action plan with conrete intra-agency coordination and a clear accountability framework would see effective enforcement of the new law and attainment of all internationally pledged goals for education.
Undoubtedly, India’s educated youth is largely to be credited for its fast and sustained economic growth, particularly in information technology, software engineering, medicine and other life sciences. In the present era of knowledge economies, the key to sustainable development, poverty reduction, economic empowerment of individual households, fighting climate change, attainment of social justice and gender equity lies in education. It is the best vaccination against epidemics such as HIV and AIDS and the best prevention against high maternal and infant mortality.

The writer is the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan.

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