India is home to 19% of the world’s children. What this means is that India has the world’s largest number of youngsters, which is largely beneficial, especially as compared to countries like China, which has an ageing population.
- The not-so-good news is that India also has one-third of the world’s illiterate population. It’s not as though literacy levels have not increased, but rather that the rate of the increase is rapidly slowing.
- To combat this worrisome trend, the Indian government proposed the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, making education a fundamental right of every child in the age group of 6 to 14. This act recently completed five years of operation.
- The Act mandates that schools reserve 25% seats for students from the disadvantaged groups. However, in many states this is not followed strictly. For example, in Uttar Pradesh, only 12 out of 75 districts have admitted students from disadvantaged groups to private schools.
- There are rumours that due to the pressure exerted by the private schools’ lobby, even Karnataka may dilute the Act.
- A large number of Dalits, Adivasis and girls discontinue education because of discrimination in schools.
- And more than 60% of urban primary schools are overcrowded, and about 50% of Indian students cannot do basic mathematics or read a short story when they complete elementary education.
According to the 2011 Census, the average literacy rates of people aged above 15 among Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are about 9% and 17.4% less than the national average, respectively.
- The female literacy rate is 19.5% less than that of males. This difference increases to 23% and 23.5% among the SCs and STs, respectively, indicating the double discrimination faced by Dalit and Adivasi women.
- The dropout rates among SCs and STs are significantly higher than the national average and more girls discontinue schooling than boys.
- There is also a wide variation across States and the gap is wider in rural areas as compared to urban, but these statistics suggest significant inequalities in the distribution of educational opportunities.
Equity and quality parameters:
- The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014 reveals that enrolment in private schools has increased from 18.7% in 2006 to 30.8% in 2014. But, this increase has not been accompanied by a proportionate inclusion of disadvantaged groups. The report also suggests that private schools fare only marginally better in terms of imparting quality education compared to government schools.
- The National University of Educational Planning and Administration’s 2011-12 report shows that only about 16% of students from SCs and STs attend private schools and the average Indian household spends five times more money on each child annually if s/he is enrolled in a private school compared to a government school. It is reasonable to say that private schools are ordinarily more accessible to higher income groups.
These statistics suggest that our education system has fared poorly on both equity and quality parameters.
Common school system (CSS):
To address the above mentioned issues and to bring the different social classes and groups together and thus promote the emergence of an egalitarian and integrated society, the Kothari Commission recommended a common school system (CSS).
- The CSS was adopted by both the 1968 and 1986 national policies on education.
- While the interventions from ‘Operation Blackboard’ to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan brought universalisation and quality to the forefront, the CSS was somehow relegated to the background.
The RTE Act provides for minimum quality standards and mandates 25% reservation for children belonging to weaker sections. This provision has caused much debate. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has clarified that “the larger objective of this provision is to provide a common place where children sit, eat and live together for at least eight years of their lives across caste, class and gender divides in order that it narrows down such divisions in our society”.
Four caveats could be issued here-
- One, in conceiving ‘disadvantaged groups’, we must also include children of sex workers, transgendered groups, disabled persons and minorities.
- Two, equality also means the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
- Three, the government must not abdicate its responsibility to make its schools inclusive. If Dalit children sit separately and clean toilets and girls perform stereotypical gender roles, then we have only engrafted inequality and entrenched hierarchies.
- Four, education itself needs to celebrate the diverse ways in which knowledge is transferred and acquired.
Responsibility of the state:
- Article 39 directs the state to frame policies that distribute the “ownership and control of the material resources of the community” such that it serves the “common good”, and “provide opportunities and facilities that enable children to develop in a healthy manner in conditions of freedom and dignity”.
- Article 37 commands that they shall be “fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the State to apply these principles in making laws”.
Initially, universal elementary education was a Directive Principle under Article 45. But, it was made a fundamental right vide the 86th Constitutional Amendment.
It is time that the central and state governments carry out a thorough review of the RTE and take remedial action. There is diffused responsibility and lack of accountability in states towards goals set by the Centre. Co-ordinated action is indeed lacking and implementation tends to fall between two stools. A greater level of seriousness on all sides is the need of the hour. Like many attempted social changes in India, this too has to start at the community level, requires a widespread change of an age-old mindset and must make people at the helm of affairs accountable.