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Numbers, at the cost of quality?

By Anu Kumar

After the passage of the Right to Education Bill, elementary school education is now compulsory, and free. But several questions remain, including how children outside the 6-14 age-group will be covered, and how the neighbourhood schooling system will be implemented

The man who irons clothes in our building sometimes sends his son across to collect and deliver. The boy has only recently come from the village and is yet to begin school. The ‘presswallah’ isn’t sure which school will take his son, or if he can afford it. When I tell him about the new Bill making education free and compulsory for the 6-14 age-group, he looks blank. It won’t work, he says finally. And when I try and explain things to him, he says it still won’t work. In India, it seems, the laws are made for other people.

Earlier this year, in August, the Right to Education Bill was finally passed, after a long campaign within Parliament and also outside. It brought to fruition a dream spelled out in the Constitution almost 60 years ago. The Bill also became essential after Parliament passed the 86th Amendment Act in 2001 (the first moves were made in 1998) making education a fundamental right. The amendment was in large part because of the direction given by the Supreme Court in the J P Unnikrishnan vs State of Andhra Pradesh case, as early as in 1993, as well as in the Mohini Jain case which said that the right to education directly flows from the right to life. 

Not only is elementary school education now free, it is compulsory. That is, children of the poor, such as Santosh, will by law attend government schools or aided schools. Private schools too will have to reserve 25% of their seats for the economically weaker sections. To end any kind of discrimination whatsoever, the Bill has banned schools from holding admission tests or seeking “donations” from guardians. Also, a school cannot deny a student admission because he doesn’t have a birth and/or transfer certificate.

The Bill commits the government to implementing a “neighbourhood schooling system” in three years, ie, it is obliged to provide schooling within the block in which the student lives, and these will be managed by school management committees made up of school representatives, parents of students, and local political leaders. The idea is loosely modelled on the British comprehensive school system that caters to nearly 90% of secondary school students there. Also, no child is to be subjected to physical punishment or mental harassment. 

It speaks of a common board that will do away with the differential educational standards in the country; it bans the practice of hiring parateachers -- part-time teachers with either no training or less training than that required for full-time teachers in schools.

The provisions are radical in their scope, and idealistic. Its ambitions however remain subject to its ability to implement. And, of course, having the necessary finances, of which the government has been completely vague.

Allocations to education have seen a commensurate decline in finance over the years. Education is deemed to be every government’s pet scheme, and this government would like to take credit for a step that will be permanently enshrined. But how much will things actually change? Will Santosh go to a school of his choice, without any fear? More importantly, will he learn?

An answer means looking at some of the vital issues presented by the Bill.

Does it cover every child?

Provisions of the Bill ignore earlier constitutional provisions, as also the Unnikrishnan judgment of 1993 that emphasised the right of every child to receive education. India is also a signatory to the UN-mandated Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) that spells out basic rights children are entitled to, including the right to life, protection from abuse and exploitation. It also delineates the states’ responsibilities towards children, including the urgent matter of providing them schooling.

But the education Bill limits its ambit to children in the age-group 6–14, and ignores those under six. Education up to the 8th standard is not enough to equip a child with the basic skills required for gainful employment; nor does it equip individuals to function with a basic degree of self-reliance and empowerment. And related to the right to education, rights continue to be denied to children in the 0-6 age-group. For example, while there has been a marginal increase in the female-male sex ratio in the 2001 census, there has been a disturbing decline in the female-male sex ratio in the under-6 age-group. The 1991 census shows the female-male sex ratio in the 0-6 age-group as 945 girls per 1,000 boys. But a decade later, for the same age-group the ratio was 927 girls to 1,000 boys. And it is usually the girl-child who, even if she survives an infancy marred by poor health, malnourishment and inadequate access to food, will probably be forced to work within the household and outside, and thus in all probability be denied a proper education.

To safeguard the rights of the under-6 age-group, the Supreme Court had passed orders on the universalisation of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme -- every child under 6, as well as pregnant and nursing mothers, are entitled to services that include supplementary nutrition, growth monitoring and promotion, nutrition and health education, immunisation, health services, as well as referral services, and pre-school education. In interim orders passed in 2001 and again in 2004, the apex court directed the government to increase the number of anganwadi centres (for the ICDS) from 6 lakh to 14 lakh and to ensure that all scheduled caste/scheduled tribe hamlets and slums in urban areas be provided with these centres. In December 2008, the court issued its most far-reaching directive when a timeframe was given to state governments to create these proposed anganwadis. More radically, the court mandated that all rural habitations, tribal hamlets and slums with at least 40 children under 6 are entitled to an “anganwadi on demand”. This is an explicit recognition of the ICDS as a right for all children.

Who pays for it all?

The Bill remains silent on increasing the outlay for government schooling. Instead, it shifts the responsibility of ‘poor students’ to private schools (the 25% reservation clause), which has in the past raised objections to such a proposal. Developed economies like the US, UK and France allocate 6-7% of their national budgets to public education and health. India however allocates just 3% for education, and around 1% for health. To really make a difference to children’s lives, the country needs to spend at least 10% of GDP on school education and health. Currently, the spending on schooling is 1.28% (the total government outlay is 3.3%) of GDP. In fact, successive governments have tried to bring down allocations on education, as with every other social sector.

The Tapas Majumdar Committee set up in 1999 estimated that an additional investment of Rs 137,600 crore would need to be made over a 10-year period to bring all out-of-school children into the school system (not parallel streams) and enable them to complete the elementary stage (Class 8). This meant an average investment of Rs 14,000 crore a year, which, in 1999, amounted to 0.78% of GDP, ie, 78 paise out of every Rs 100 India earned. However, the Financial Memorandum to the Constitution (93rd; later it became the 86th) Amendment Bill, 2001 then being debated in Parliament, stated that a sum of Rs 98,000 crore would be required over a 10-year period to implement the right to education for children in the age-group 6-14 years. This worked out to Rs 9,800 crore a year on an average (0.44% of GDP in 2002-03), 30% less than that estimated by the Tapas Majumdar Committee. In reality, however, the sum required is much more.

Indeed, proper implementation of the Bill will need a huge infusion of funds. Most schools in rural areas suffer from poor or absent infrastructure. The government will have to spend a large amount of money to bring them up to scratch and to ensure that there are enough trained teachers to impart education at the elementary level. As educationists have argued, the government will have to cough up Rs 55,000 crore annually to execute this law. With state governments always complaining about lack of funds and about the Centre not coming forward to assist them, the law is certain to face a serious funds crunch.

The government for its part has made some effort to address the issue of providing adequate funds. The Bill has a provision whereby it can request the President to direct the Finance Commission to allocate funds to the states for implementing the provisions of the Bill. But besides sounding arbitrary, it remains to be seen if this will be enough.

Where will the child learn?

The Bill is vague on the definition of “neighbourhood”. It appears that it has misrepresented the universal notion of a neighbourhood school, as advanced by the Kothari Commission and as practised in countries such as the USA, Canada, France, Germany and Japan.

In these countries, each school is assigned a predetermined neighbourhood and all children residing in the neighbourhood are required to study in the neighbourhood school. However, in this particular Bill, “neighbourhood” is defined in terms of the child; this means that poorer children will be directed to attend sub-standard schools while those of the middle class or the elite will have access to central schools or private schools. The HRD minister is on record as saying that state governments will frame rules with regard to neighbourhood schools in their domain. But how will state governments bring in the notion of a neighbourhood school when it does not exist in the Bill itself?

The Bill’s schedule has norms and standards for all schools to follow, but will these improve the status of government schools? As seen from the enrolment figures, almost two-thirds of existing government primary schools will continue as “sub-standard” schools (two-room and two-teacher, three-room and three-teacher). One of the classrooms will, in all likelihood, be turned into a storeroom for midday meals since a separate provision has been made only for the kitchen. The Bill also says that government school teachers can be deployed for census, elections and disaster relief duties. When this happens, the universal malaise of a teacher teaching more than one class in one classroom will see a commensurate decline in quality of teaching. While the Bill is against deploying the teacher for any “non-educational purposes”, it has cleverly left adequate scope for deploying him for ‘non-teaching tasks’ such as surveying children and arranging for inoculations. It is also possible that, as some educationists argue, the government will end up subsidising private schools, as it is going to pay for the economically weaker students who make up the 25% quota demarcated for the latter.

And what will he learn?

This law promises centralisation of syllabi and standardisation of education in three years -- a huge challenge before the government. Once enacted, the law will centralise almost every aspect of elementary education, ie, syllabi, methods of admission of students, etc. Yet, it is silent on the process of centralisation of education.

One way forward is the National Curricula Framework (NCF) put in place in 2005-06. In 2004, the Ministry of Human Resource Development enabled the NCERT to build the National Curriculum Framework with the help of the Central Advisory Board of Education. The NCF has tremendous potential to ensure long-term reforms in the entire system of school education. As many as 21 national focus groups were set up to cover all major points and areas relevant for curricular redesigning; each focus group included not only academicians and educationists from various universities and institutes of teacher education but also schoolteachers from across the country, especially rural teachers whose voices had hitherto been largely ignored. The draft NCF also received wide attention and participation from some states. Approval of NCF 2005 was followed by the preparation of new syllabi and textbooks.

The NCF process has been fruitful in bringing about a major shift in perspective. It permits the child’s view to become the centre of teaching. It is implemented in all CBSE schools, yet very many school boards in different states continue to have their own syllabi.

The Right to Education Bill will now have to be implemented in the states. Centre-state relations in education, as in other areas, are complex and have not been properly defined or even examined in the current context. For instance, the Kothari Commission back in the 1960s recommended a pattern of 5+3+4 years of schooling, but more than 10 states continue with the practice of four years of primary education. Similarly, there are multiple boards of education. Moreover, year after year, figures show that even though outlay has increased, most states use only a fraction of what is allotted. 

Who will teach?

While the Bill stipulates that every school should have a student-teacher ratio of 40:1, experts say it does not go into how this is to be achieved. Most schools in West Bengal, for example, have a student-teacher ratio of 90:1; there are some single-teacher schools as well. The Bill does not lay down any guidelines on how to meet the severe shortage of schoolteachers.

The scenario of teacher education presents by far the bleakest picture -- there is rampant commercialisation on the one hand and a lifeless, uninspiring B Ed curriculum on the other. Quality teacher education programmes such as Delhi University’s B El Ed, which focus on the specific needs of elementary education, are rare. Drastic reforms are needed in the B Ed course and other teacher training programmes for the primary and pre-primary classes. 

Numbers at the cost of quality

In the end, the fear remains that the government will be more obsessed by numbers such as literacy and enrolment rates, and that the quality of education will not really matter. A report released by the Bal Hakk Abhiyan on ‘The State of Primary Education in Maharashtra’, in 2001, holds truths that are relevant even today. According to the 2001 census, Maharashtra saw the maximum progress in literacy in the last decade. But girls continue to remain out of school. Moreover, the government claimed to have launched several schemes to reach out-of-school children. The Mahatma Phule Guarantee Scheme was supposed to provide education centres where there are no schools, ie in tribal areas. But there is no data to indicate whether the scheme has made any difference.

The schemes also failed to reach landless dalit families who still seasonally migrate from impoverished parts of Marathwada to sugarcane-growing areas of western Maharashtra. The children of these families cannot hope to attend school unless their special circumstances are recognised. But this wasn’t done. The new Bill promises to correct lacunae such as these. In Marathwada, thus, there are schools and teachers, but no children. In tribal areas of Maharashtra, on the other hand, there are insufficient primary schools. If there are schools, there are no teachers. The story is replicated in very many other states too.

The need of the hour, then, is to gear up to bridge the many gaps, to make sure that quality education is available for all. An ideal Bill would work within the framework of a public-funded common school system based on neighbourhood schools from the pre-primary stage to Class XII, with everything possible looked into -- teachers, syllabi, ideal norms, etc. Will Santosh then be able to go to a school of his choice, and learn without fear, with the full joy of a child, as indeed all education should be? The Bill makes sure it has the answers, or at least some. But it remains to be seen how and when these questions will be answered.

Infochange News & Features, September 2009