Strong public pressure and political will are key drivers of change in making the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act more effective, according to panellists at a public discussion on this issue, organized by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy in Chennai on Wednesday, January 8.
The members of the panel discussion were Dr. V. Vasanthi Devi, former Vice Chancellor, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Dr. Akshay Mangla, Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School, Dr. S.S. Rajagopalan, former headmaster of Sarvajana School, Coimbatore, who had also served on several committees on education, Mr. M.P. Vijayakumar, retired IAS officer, and Dr. Balaji Sampath, Secretary and CEO, Aid India.
The RTE Act in itself, stemming from Article 21-A incorporated in the Indian Constitution to provide free and compulsory education to all children in the age group of 6-14 years as a ‘Fundamental Right’, is a commendable milestone. But there is much that was “flawed” in the central government’s legislation which only public action and determined initiatives by the political leadership could help mitigate, Dr. V. Vasanthi Devi asserted.
Chairing an over two-hour absorbing public discussion on ‘Making RTE Effective: Strategies, Constraints, Outcomes’, Dr. Vasanthi Devi, made it clear that the RTE Act was at best a starting point towards the goal of achieving universal school education in the country where ‘’hierarchy and exclusion’’ acted as huge impediments to a broad-based common school system with neighbourhood schools. Even advanced capitalist societies had such a system as opposed to elitist, class-biased system in India, she lamented.
Flagging some key concerns for the discussion, Dr. Vasanthi Devi was highly critical of the country’s “monumental failure in providing quality, basic education to our children’’. Asking why this abysmal record persisted in India despite the detailed diagnosis and clear prescriptions by several commissions, she said even the budgetary spend of six per cent of the GDP on education annually remained a distant dream.
“Quantity, quality and equality’’ were the three sides of the triangle to ensure universal primary education, but without any one of them, ‘’the triangle will collapse,’’ Dr. Vasanthi Devi said. The RTE Act, which came into effect from April 1, 2010, has only legitimized multi-track schools, leading to fragmentation of school education, even as the legislation has left out children below the age of six and those between 14 and18 years, she pointed out. Even after three years of the RTE Act, not even 10 per cent of the schools in the country have implemented its mandate, she underscored.
Dr. Akshay Mangla, Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School, presenting his findings based on research in three north Indian States, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, said “inclusion and integration’’ were as much important as providing infrastructure for expansion of school education.
In Himachal Pradesh, for instance, flexible bureaucratic norms and unwritten rules within the State helped in the delivery of better outcomes in education in various parameters including examinations, said Dr. Mangla. The model employed in taking basic education to Gujjars, a scheduled tribe, in Himachal Pradesh, involved discussions among lower level officials and civic groups in shaping the policies, in addition to some ‘rule bending’ to suit the needs of the ‘Gujjars’, he said. But Uttarakhand turned out to be a counter-example to this model where the bureaucracy went by a more legalistic model, he said.
In his presentation, Mr. M.P. Vijaykumar, former State Project Director, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Tamil Nadu, who was instrumental in introducing the activity-based learning (ABL) in about 40,000 government schools in Tamil Nadu, said the RTE Act has uniquely provided for access to free, compulsory, quality education. Children should not only be able to solve problems, but among others, imbibe democratic values, think and act independently, he said. Though hierarchy mattered in a government system, the need of the hour to effectively implement the RTE Act was more sensitive and humble bureaucrats, rather than officers who are brilliant but arrogant, he added.
Emphasising that political will was central to implementing such a legislation, veteran Educationist, Dr. S.S. Rajagopalan, explained success of the initiatives when the late Congress leader, K. Kamaraj was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. These included a series of steps, including the late Chief Minister travelling to every village and pleading with parents to send their kids to the nearest government school, appointing dedicated officials committed to education of the masses, entrusting Panchayat Unions with the responsibility of providing primary education and constantly holding ‘School Improvement Conferences’ involving the parents, made the programme a huge success in the State. But today, the whole school curriculum was middle class-driven, he pointed out, and asked, “unless the dignity of the child is upheld in schools, how will they learn?’’. In that phase, 98 per cent of the kids were in the ‘common school system’, Dr. Rajagopalan pointed out. This prompted Dr. Vasanthi Devi to remark that now the ‘public school system’ has suffered a complete collapse.
Another educational expert, Dr. Balaji Sampath, Secretary and CEO of ‘Aid India’, was of the strong view that education was too important to be left to the government and bureaucrats alone. There was a need to continuously engage with local communities and NGOs’, Dr. Sampath said and pleaded that choice of parents to switch their wards to other schools, if government schools were not doing their jobs, should be respected. He also pointed out that the overall impact of the RTE Act was not much, even while backing the need for community involvement in education to improve the quality of learning.
Former Judge of the Madras High Court, Mr. Justice K. Chandru, pointing to several lacunae in the RTE Act, dwelt on some of the critical issues like exemption of unaided minority schools from its purview after a recent Supreme Court judgment, what a ‘neighbourhood school’ meant and who was to decide it. More children might be on the rolls of government schools now to show higher enrolment, but they were also on the rolls of private schools in the area, indicative of a large scale muster roll scandal, he noted.
When Dr. Vasanthi Devi sought his clarification on whether someone could file a ‘Public Interest Litigation (PIL)’ against the absence of any ‘Financial Memorandum’ in the RTE Act that commits the State to at least some responsibilities, Mr. Justice Chandru suggested that public pressure should be brought to bear on the government to act on such issues. A PIL could at best be the “last resort’’, he advised.
An alleged upper class/caste bias in curricula designing, hefty premium on English education leading to rapid proliferation of private schools even in rural areas, well-paid school teachers turning money-lenders in villages, teachers being reduced to a status of a clerk and the sneaking in of the ‘neo-liberal economic agenda’ in the National Education Policy, were some of the contentious issues the participants raised during the interaction. Earlier, Dr. V.S. Sambandan, Chief Administrative Officer, The Hindu Centre, welcomed the gathering. Mr. M.R. Venkatesh, Chief Political Coordinator, proposed a vote of thanks.