THE entire planning for education until the enactment of the Right of Children for Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act) has been based on the assumption that poor children would not be able to join schools due to poverty and socio-cultural factors. Therefore, the education system was designed to tolerate children being out of school. In fact, it even justified the exploitation of child labour as being inevitably due to poverty, tradition and culture.
The RTE Act that makes education a fundamental right necessitated a paradigm shift in the entire governance and orientation of the education system for zero-tolerance of school dropouts and in ensuring that every child is in school. This meant that there can be no rationalisation for children being out of school. Every child must enjoy her right to education as a fundamental right. Period.
The foundation of the draft National Education Policy 2019 (NEP) is to abide by this constitutional guarantee and accordingly evolve a policy framework for the right to education of all children 6-14 years of age and also move further on to cover all stages of education from pre-school to university education.
Let me begin by welcoming the inclusion of 3-6-year olds and extending the right to education for children up to 18 years in the NEP. This would bind the State to make necessary arrangements for early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years as indicated in section 11 of the RTE Act. It would also enable secondary school education from classes 9-12 as a fundamental right.
Turf issue: why must children pay the price?
In clubbing children from 3 years to 8 years as part of preparation for foundational courses for entry into class 3 the NEP resonates with section 11 of the RTE Act that provides that the appropriate government may provide for pre-school education to prepare all children above three years for elementary education and to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete six years.
It is also in tune with the contemporary wisdom of the educationists on the matter and given considerable thought to the issue of preparation of children for school education in terms of curriculum, pedagogy, training of pre-school teachers and regulation and monitoring of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE).
However, confronted with the turf issue with the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) wherein children under six years of age are under its purview, the NEP has assigned the responsibility of education of children under six years to Anganwadi workers while all other aspects of training, regulation and monitoring would be with the education ministry.
This defeats the purpose of NEP’s recommendation that children’s education in 3-8 years be part of the education system, requiring its own cadre of qualified teachers who would deliver services. Why must children pay the price for the inability of the government to have a dialogue among its ministries in favour of a cohesive set up for ECCE under the Ministry of Education?
The serious issue of retention – volunteerism is not the solution
The NEP recognises that there is a serious ‘learning crisis’ and that retention of children in schools is a serious issue. It seeks to address this in a national mission mode and calls for the mobilisation of volunteers from the community, retired officials from the army, local intellectuals, women who would passionately contribute time during, before and after school hours to handhold children and help them improve their learning skills. It also recommends a National Tutor Programme (NTP) where well-performing students in the school would tutor their peers and a Remedial Instructional Aides Programme (RIAP) where local instructors carry out remediation in schools as well as after school hours.
Such instructional aides (IA) would be at least class 12 graduates from the village, preferably women and would have been appointed based on merit and without nepotism if the mission has to succeed. They would be trained and also given credit for pursuing B.Ed. course subsequently. The school teachers would guide them and also have technological gadgets to log in the details of children and their performance. Indeed, these peer tutors and instructors would also be given the responsibility to coach school dropouts who have been re-enrolled in schools.
The Programmes of the National Literacy Mission in the ’80s have shown how large-scale mobilisation has created energy but could not sustain on voluntarism alone. Community participation at best can create a mood and atmosphere for teachers to teach. It could help in conducting social audits and through the School Management Committees engage with the system for better infrastructure, more school teachers and compliance with the RTE Act. But voluntarism cannot be a solution for remedial tutoring.
At the same time, how unfair is this, both for the student who is asked to teach and those who are to be taught? And that enlisting instructional aides are like the para teachers’ scheme that became popular in many states, such as Shiksha Karmi Programme, Vidya Volunteers, Bal Mitra and so on.
This has been critiqued for de-professionalising the services of the teaching profession and thus lowering the quality of education in schools. Even the current NEP has categorically stated that ‘all para-teacher systems across the country will be stopped by 2022’. Why then has the NEP recommended remedial programmes to be taken up by tutors and instructors and assign to the school teachers the role to identify students who require the services of tutors and instructors, guide them and manage schools and not to actually run the remedial course?
Instead of examining the ‘systemic crisis’ of not meeting the mandate under the RTE Act, the NEP has decided to address the issue of ‘learning crisis’. It lay in addressing systemic issues and working out the details to implement Section 8 of the RTE Act, that provides for infrastructure, school building, school teachers, good quality education, monitoring attendance and completion of elementary school education.
The NEP should have elaborated on how to hold the education system accountable for its inaction. If only the State did not violate the RTE Act these children should have been learning and enjoying the fundamental right to education and not be out of school. Should not addressing the systemic crisis become a precondition for taking up all the actions recommended by the NEP to rectify ‘learning crisis’?
The NEP’s critique of the RTE Act is not justified
The NEP’s critique of the RTE Act for focussing more on inputs and not on learning outcomes is not justifiable. There is a flaw in dichotomising inputs and outcomes and not seeing it as interdependent. Can there be any successful learning outcome without mandatory provisioning of all infrastructure? Why is it assumed that all infrastructure is in place and in spite of it there is a ‘learning crisis’? To lament that there is no quality of education and children are not learning is like the fable of the cunning fox that invites the stork for dinner but gives no food. This has led to an overemphasis on educational outcomes in order to assess schools. In the present context assessment of schools are to be judged on the bases of their inclusivity, retention of children in schools and regularity in attendance of children and teachers in schools, accountability of the education system and its compliance with the provisions of the RTE Act.
The NEP recommended that in order to improve schools and teaching process it would have a ‘census examination’ for all students in grades 3, 5 and 8. Although the purpose of such a census is to examine the performance of the schools and not that of individual children any centralised mechanism of data collection could result in the distortion of data. It must be noted that there is already a data war on the exaggerated numbers of children enrolled and retained in schools, as if every child is already in school and that the issue is that of learning outcomes!
The continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) of the child, as provided in Section 29 (2) of the RTE Act,to ensure learning against the expected learning outcomes within the academic year, is a good indicator of the progress of the child and could form the basis of gauging the teaching process at the school level. The greater the decentralisation and autonomy of the schools the more there is ownership of the goals and objectives of education.
The NEP has also recommended that the RTE Act have more flexibility and allow for alternate models of education such as gurukulas, paatashaalas, madrasasand homeschooling to enable ‘local variations on account of culture, geography and demographics’ and educational choices for ‘healthy competition among schools etc. The peril of not following a universal system of education especially for the poor leading to their exclusion and further marginalisation cannot be understated.
Further, the NEP questions the efficacy of section 12 (1) (c) of the RTE Act which is the only provision that fosters inclusion in mandating admission into private schools of at least 25% of children belonging to weaker section and a disadvantaged group from the neighbourhood. It is well founded that in states like Delhi and Rajasthan where private schools have implemented section 12 (1) (c) there has been a vast improvement in values of inclusion. Disregarding the evidence, the NEP would rather not force private schools but encourage them to build diversity and inclusion. As if private schools that are for-profit would volunteer to be inclusive.
Indeed, while discussing the issue of equal opportunity and equitable distribution of resources there is no attempt in the NEP to correct the enormous stratification there is in the public school system itself in terms of resources and learning outcomes. Should not the NEP have focussed on critiquing the differentiation in the school system against values of equality and social justice and argued for the best to be provided for all schools in the country?
In sum it is important to work out details of curriculum and pedagogy, how teachers are to be recruited, their duties and responsibilities, introduction of the concept of school complex and governance mechanism of schools at the sub-district level, inclusion and extra investments underserved regions and for the marginalised sections belonging to Dalit, Adivasi and minority communities, girls and children with special needs.
However, there is a need to overhaul the education system at the national and state level to fulfil all these obligations. There a need to carve out the function of every department within the education system at the national and state level towards getting every child to school, and ensure that they are given respect, treated as equal citizens and given all facilities to realise their fullest potential.
Shantha Sinha is an anti-child labour activist who headed the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights for two consecutive terms. She is the founder of Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation, popularly known as MV Foundation, and a Professor in the Department of Political science in Hyderabad Central University.