The Right to Education Act which came into effect on April 1, 2010, has received much publicity as one of the biggest achievements of the UPA government, which allegedly shows its commitment towards ensuring elementary education for the children of our country.
Education for their children is a deep aspiration of parents across all sections of society, to realize which they are ready to make many sacrifices. However, two years after the RTE Act came into effect,ground realities indicate that the declared legal and social goals of the Act remain very far from realization for the vast majority of our children.
The Right to Education Act requires all schools to meet strict infrastructure requirements and other standards and norms by March 31, 2013. The teacher-student ratio stipulated in the Act was to have been met by all schools by September 31, 2010. The law requires the establishment of neighborhood schools – schools in geographic areas identified by each state as a neighborhood – by March 31, 2013. But the latest Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) released by human resource development (HRD) minister Kapil Sibal in January 2012 and the latest statistics of the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) show that the progress in improvement in infrastructure, teacher-student ratio, or in implementing other requirements of the Act, since 2010, has been minimal. Projections suggest that the deadlines laid down by the Act are likely to be missed by quite a distance.
Lack of basic infrastructural facilities, severe shortage of teachers, poor quality of learning, caste, social and gender discrimination, prevalence of child labour are some of the factors that are seen as major hurdles is sending every child to school. (See Boxes)
What the facts clearly indicate is that the aim of ensuring education for every child is not going to be achieved by merely passing such a law. The right to education is likely to become yet another policy objective, with its own chronology of unmet deadlines like so many others.
Diverting from the real source of the problem
In this context, as a show of its commitment towards ensuring education for all children, the HRD ministry of the government and the Supreme Court are making a big issue of how they will enforce a quota of 25% for students of economically weaker sections (EWS) in all private schools. This is a flimsy attempt to divert public attention from the real source of the problem.
As far as private schools are concerned, granting them prime land and other facilities at subsidized rates and thus enabling them to rake in fabulous profits in the name of ‘providing education’ has been and remains a part of government policy. It is also common knowledge that many Ministers, MPs, MLAs and councilors are themselves involved in running such private educational trusts. The RTE Act does not seek to change this; all it requires is that such private schools fulfill their “social responsibility” by reserving 25% of their seats in classes 1-8 for “economically weaker sections”. And the problems of lack of infrastructure and teachers as well as quality of teaching and learning are by no means absent in private schools.
Even if such a quota were strictly implemented, this would help only a miniscule number of children. But for the vast majority of children in both urban and rural India, the problems of securing education as a right would continue.
Providing adequate infrastructure, teachers and ensuring good quality of learning is a responsibility that the UPA government at the centre had promised to the nation that it would fulfill, within the stipulated deadline. All indicators show that it is not likely to happen. But since under the existing system people have no mechanism to hold the government accountable for not fulfilling its promises, the right to education, just like so many other promises of the government will remain elusive. People merely have the right to cast their vote in the next elections but they do not have the means to decide who forms the government or what policies it adopts, what laws are made, or how they are implemented. Problems such as poverty, unemployment and insecurity of livelihood, caste discrimination and social prejudices as well as crimes against women, which are important impediments to the realization of the right to education of every child, are essential features of the capitalist system in our country with its feudal remnants. These cannot be removed by merely passing a law under the existing system.
Revolutionary transformation is necessary
Education can be truly realized as a right for every child in a society where, not private profit, but fulfillment of the growing needs of the working people will be the motive force, a society where the development of the human being is at the centre of all planning and policy. To build such a society, the present capitalist system, which is driven by the purpose of maximizing private profit, has to be eliminated. Political power has to be in the hands of the working class. Only the working class is interested in eliminating capitalism and all feudal remnants. Only the working class is interested in building socialism – where the means of production will be in the hands of the state of the working class and where fulfillment of the growing needs of the working people will be the motive force, not maximizing private profit. Only in such a society can education, together with food security, health care, security of livelihood, shelter, etc. be established as universal rights, enshrined in the Constitution with mechanisms for the working people to ensure their implementation. Without this revolutionary transformation, the right to education will remain an unfulfilled dream.
Lack of teachers
A crippling shortage of teachers and widespread teacher absenteeism are believed by many educationists to be the biggest challenge facing elementary school education in India. In schools in many states, a single person has to perform the duties of teacher, clerk, cashier and errand boy and also teach in two schools far from each other at the same time! Often, in a single class room a teacher has to simultaneously “each” students from kindergarten to class 5.
According to the teacher-pupil ratio guidelines of the RTE act, nearly 6 lakh teachers were required to have been hired by September 2010, but this has not been done.
The Right to Education Act lays down strict teacher-pupil ratios (1:30) that all schools must adhere to. It also requires that all elementary school teachers have not just the B.Ed. they needed before the law, but that they must clear a teacher eligibility test within five years. The test is aimed at improving the standard of teaching, but a severe shortage of teacher training infrastructure means that it will still take a long time before there are enough teachers to meet the RTE guidelines.
Teacher absenteeism is rampant, given the multiple roles the teacher is supposed to play or the multiple schools the teacher is supposed to teach in or simply because of a lack of accountability. Absenteeism among teachers was recorded to have increased nationally from 11 % in 2009 to 14 % in 2011.
Problems of girl students
While surveys suggest that the dropout rate for girls in schools has dropped significantly over the past few years (5.2 per cent girls in the age group 11-14 are out-of school today, compared to 10. 3 per cent in 2006) as has the gap between girls’ dropout rate and that of boys, the problem continues to remain particularly at the secondary and senior secondary levels, where the difference in dropout rates between boys and girls remains higher.
Social prejudices and increasing crimes against young women is a big deterrent to sending teenage girls to school since, on an average, they have to travel twice the distance to go to secondary school. The number of secondary schools in a region is about half that of primary schools. Other important factors are absence of girls’ toilets and lack of women teachers.
Lack of infrastructure
In many schools across the country, students from kindergarten to class five sit stuffed together in a single classroom, with one teacher issuing different instructions for the students of the different levels, often in more than one language.
According to the RTE Act, a school must have at least one classroom for each teacher, a room that serves as the office, headmaster’s room and store, separate toilets for boys and girls, clean drinking water, kitchen, playground, library and a boundary wall or fence by April 1, 2012.
But over a quarter of all elementary schools across India don’t have enough classrooms. Not only in rural India but in many urban areas as well, students have to sit out in the open, in the blazing heat or bitter cold, and have to sit on the floor in the absence of any benches. In states facing severe monsoon such as Assam, many of the rooms are flooded, compounding the problem.
One in every four schools has no access to drinking water for children to quench their thirst. 46% of the country’s elementary schools don’t have a boundary wall, 37% don’t have a playground, 16% don’t have a kitchen and 29% don’t have a library. 56% schools have no functioning toilet for girls. Almost four out of every 10 schools in rural India have unusable toilets – because of a lack of water or any sanitation. These include not just government schools but private schools as well. These are all infrastructural requirements each school (government-run or private) is supposed to have by March 31, 2013 in order not to be de-recognized, under the RTE Act.
While the actual figures vary from one state to another, no state, not even Kerala, the state with the highest literacy, or advanced industrialized states such as Gujarat and Tamilnadu are anywhere near meeting these basic infrastructural requirements.
The RTE Act requires that there should be at least one school in each neighbourhood, i.e. within a 3 km stretch. But the latest Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan report shows that this target too is far from being met.
The mid-day meal scheme is often touted as one of the great success stories of Indian education and credited with having helped to raise the school enrolment rate dramatically over the past decade. But in the absence of proper storage facilities in schools, food grains meant for the children are often infested by rats and insects and sometimes are completely unusable and have to dumped.
Quality of learning
According to the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), less than 50% of children in rural India in class 5 cannot read text books meant for students of class 2 and only 20% of students in class 8 can read these text books meant for class 2. 25 % of class 5 students cannot recognize numbers up to 99 and 45% of class 8 children do not know how to divide. This number appears to be multiplying according to latest surveys, which include both government schools and private schools. There is also a severe shortage of remedial teaching facilities.
The RTE act bars schools from failing children up to class 8, in order to eliminate academic pressure and prevent children from dropping out of school. But this has not ensured the quality of learning. Given the huge problems of infrastructure and teacher shortage, as described earlier, this is hardly surprising.
According to the NSSO’s latest statistics – about 4.5 million children of school-going age continue to spend their days working for a livelihood for themselves and their families, instead of attending school. There are several aspects to the problem. First, the law -- which bans child labour in 18 industries and 64 processes, including domestic work and working in dhabas – has been rarely enforced. Second, the law at present allows child labour in most rural industries and agriculture, in contradiction with the declared aim of the RTE Act to get every single child in school.
Poverty is the largest factor behind sending children to work instead of school. Hiring cheap young labour is more profitable for employers in many industries and services. Children of migrant workers such as construction workers have to keep moving and therefore rarely manage to go to school.
Caste and social discrimination
The RTE act promises equal opportunities for education to children irrespective of their caste or social background. However, according to the UNICEF, dropout rates for Dalits is as high as 44 per cent. And the odds are high against them completing school, and against them receiving equal opportunities at school.
The mid-day meal, which has been promoted as a success across India, has been an area where discrimination has repeatedly reared its head – with Dalit students in UP for example, being asked to sit separately. In Gujarat, children of manual scavengers are often made to clean the school courtyard and toilets. Dalit children are frequently not allowed to participate in cultural programs with other students. Instances of dalit children being abused and physically attacked by upper caste students are rampant.