Sunday, June 13, 2010

Right to Education Act: Practicable? Or, is it "herding children together in the name of education"?

It seems small coincidence that no sooner did I write about a retired railway employee’s passion for contributing to poor schoolchildren than The New Indian Express today devoted five full pages to ‘Children and the road to empowerment’. Several stories make up the feature, but what struck me was that many points mentioned in the stories matched exactly with what Balasubramaniam has been trying to highlight all along.

The Right to Education Act, passed in April this year, talks about providing free education to all children ages 6 to 14, including children with disabilities (the Act does not say anything about children up to 6 years of age). The Express points out there are 9.2 million children in this age group who do not go to school. Significantly, the Act makes a provision that from the coming year, 25 percent seats in all schools, government as well as private, must be set aside for children from weaker sections of society. How this will translate on the ground has to be seen – as somebody told me today how can you straightaway bring children from two extreme ends of the spectrum together! I agree.

There are many things that seem impracticable. For instance, according to the Act, it is the duty of the local government or authority to establish schools in all neighbourhoods within three years of the commencement of the Act. Students must have access to school within one km of their homes. Is this really possible? What we haven’t been able to do in more than 60 years of Independence, are we going to achieve in three years?

If the Act talks of free education, what about expenses incurred by each school? How much will the government bear? No child can be denied admission for lack of age proof, says the Act, and warns of fines of a minimum of Rs 25,000 if capitation fee or any such fee is demanded by the school.

Then, there are various norms schools have to fulfill to be considered eligible to be recognised. This means having at least one teacher in a class, separate toilets for boys and girls, teaching equipment, a playground, a library, drinking water, a kitchen shed for mid-day meals… (read the previous blog and see how all this matches with what Subramaniam has been saying). Teachers must possess minimum qualifications prescribed; the student teacher ration must not exceed 30:1 (Balasubramaniam says 1:25 is ideal).

The overall cost for the programme, according to the Express report, will be Rs 1.71 lakh crore (how many millions of rupees is that?). Lakhs of teachers will have to be recruited. The Act debars teaches from being deputed for any work other than for decennial census and elections. No private tuitions please, says the Act.

Overall, the objective seems to be to make schools responsible and responsive to children’s needs, to provide every child an opportunity to study and come up in life. Whether all this is really possible in our country is difficult to tell. Who will ensure the rules are implemented and followed? Will all private schools agree to admitting children from weaker sections? Will the quality of education suffer f this happens? These are hard questions.

Chennai’s veteran educationist Mrs Y.G. Partahsarathy, dean and director of the Padma Seshadri group of schools, terms the whole exercise as “herding children together in the name of education.” Children can’t just be “plunged into school”, she says in a report. She is more for teaching children in rural India basic aspects first, such as cleanliness and hygiene. This obviously seems to practical thing to do. But our political system and government functions differently.

Mrs Parthasarathy may have been bold to have said all that (she is usually quite outspoken), but we need many more views from academicians, principals, teachers and parents across the country before the Act is implemented. Healthy debate is necessary for progress. Sadly, there is very little of it happening in our country. Even the TV talk shows have become jarring with the same people appearing all the time. Education of children is so very vital for India and it is time that those who matter aired their views about the Right to Education Act in the open.

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