The fanfare around the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (RTE Act) is dissipating. Soon the reality will hit as the Act has to become ‘operational’. The powers that be are yet to ascertain the exact modalities of how this will work — the resources, the monitoring and tracking, the exact role of the private schools and a multitude of other issues.
Now is the time to take stock of the landscape and see what can strengthen the implementation of the Act. Equally important is to be cognizant of the challenges that come with this ambitious goal and pre-empt some, if not all of them.Enabling factors
There is no dearth of innovations in the education sector and many of these can address systemic gaps. Social entrepreneurs behind these innovations have demon-strated that these can work not just in small settings but even when taken to scale.
A time-tested example is what Rama and Padmanabha Rao have developed through the RIVER (Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources) project. As we know, most rural schools are single-teacher schools and have no choice but to take up multi-grade teaching, thus limiting a child’s ability to learn well. RIVER has been able to re-design the teaching methodology so that single teachers who are teaching different grades at once are able to do it effectively. Their success has already been demonstrated in 75,000 schools that are using this model in 13 different languages, and nearly 1,20,000 teachers have been trained to use this approach. Beyond this, the Raos have been able to help develop teaching materials involving the local communities. This makes it low-cost and the children can easily relate to them. All this put together has addressed issues of teacher and student absenteeism, made learning a joy and filled the disconnect between schools and communities.
There are many such innovations, which when coupled with the existing infrastructure, can do wonders. Technology can play a pivotal role too — empowering teachers and students alike. An extensive mapping of these innovations and integrating the truly promising ones into the mainstream is the need of the hour. Quality and metrics
Efforts like Read India, undertaken by Pratham, emphasise quality and not just the number of children in school. Tracking and monitoring results is integral to the success of what the Act hopes to accomplish. Pratham is also behind the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in order to assess the national success: the numbers as well as the quality of education attained by the children. ASER has served as the proverbial mirror revealing what has worked well and what has not — including the geographic disparities. Pratham also conducts bridge schools for children who are out of school to prepare them to re-enter mainstream schools. Porous system
Then there is the issue of those children who fall through the cracks despite the best of intentions of all stakeholders. A case in point is children of migrant labourers. Millions of poor rural Indians migrate from their villages in search of work for up to 8 months every year. They work in brick kilns, sugarcane plantations, salt pans and other labour-intense sectors to provide for their families. Typically, their children migrate with them. Such migration usually results in these children dropping out of school at a very young age and starting work, often under hazardous conditions. The LAMP (Learning and Migration Program),run by the American India Foundation, reaches out to these communities and their children and ensures that they have access to education. Children can stay back in seasonal hostels in their native villages and continue to learn or attend site schools where their parents end up working. Lessons to learn
While it is a totally different issue, there are some interesting parallels with another major Act passed recently to deliver another social good — employment. The NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) has had mixed results. While some states have been able to access close to 50 per cent of funds available under NREGA, other states have used less than 10 per cent of the funds. RTE could go the NREGA way if not handled well.
There are voices of dissonance being heard in the context of resources. On whom does the burden lie? The centre or the state? What kind of micro-planning is needed? For resources to be allocated, village level planning is needed and aggregated information from villages has to flow upward for allocation of funds. How realistic is this and how will this be executed?Teacher recruitment
The challenges are many and being cognizant of them is the first step. The Act has not mapped out a plan to address the gap in the number and quality of teachers. Large numbers of teachers must be recruited instantly, trained and retrained adequately, placed rapidly and monitored regularly. Partnerships with private schools can help with setting up such training facilities. The second challenge is incorporating the voice of the marginalised communities in the resource allocation process.
Many of these people are illiterate themselves and therefore unaware of policy changes and unable to comprehend their rights. The government must take steps that include these communities and the civil society must provide a platform for them to be heard. Social awareness is what will close the final gap. Many communities do not see this as an investment in their children’s future. ‘If my child is going to eventually work in the fields, what is the use of years of being in school?’ This is the question posed by many remote rural communities. Other stigma and challenges need to be addressed — such as keeping the girl child in school.
The key is for the government not to reinvent the wheel, but to form partnerships with the stakeholders to replicate, build on and scale up models that work to overcome some of the challenges.
As one leading educationist in the country put it, ‘Stratospheric debates on education and RTE alone are not enough’. Governments, philanthropists, the citizen sector, businesses — all have a major role in enabling India achieve its educational success. It will take lots of resources and many creative solutions to ensure that the children are actually able to exercise their right that the Constitution of India has now handed them.