RTE admissions: Will disadvantaged students be able to cope?

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE for short) is certainly a landmark development in India’s attempts to universalise elementary education. However, there is some confusion in its pedagogical and curricular vision, which, if not cleared in time, can mar its potential for achieving its objectives.

The RTE in Section 4 stipulates that if a child above the age of six years is either not admitted to school or left school without completing elementary education “he or she will be admitted to a class appropriate to his or her age.” Suppose a child of 10 years of age has never been admitted to school, under RTE, when she goes to school now, she shall be admitted to class 5. Since she has never been to school before it would be impossible for her to cope with the learning expectations as per the curriculum; one can hardly imagine a child starting mathematics straight at the level of multiplication of fractional numbers, or language straight at reading short stories without ever acquiring proficiency in reading and writing.

Therefore, the Act makes a provision that “he or she shall, in order to be at par with others have a right to receive special training in such manner, and within such time-limits, as may be prescribed.” Such special training can be extended up to a maximum of 2 years (as per Bordia committee on RTE) and the children admitted to an age appropriate class in this manner are entitled to receive regular support even after the special training till they are fully integrated into the class. Admission to an age appropriate class could be sought at any age between six and 14, and at any time during the academic year (Section 15).

Studying with children of the same age is positive and beneficial in terms of socialisation, social interaction, motivation, and learning speed as per development level. A10-year-old child is likely to feel embarrassed when placed with six-year-olds to learn, and is likely to be socialised in to low confidence levels, which may cause her to lack requisite levels of self-assertion in social situations in her later life.

However, the concept of ‘class’ and the following idea of ‘special training’ are both problematic. While ‘class’ is a central concept in RTE pedagogy and curriculum, the practical implications of implementing RTE stipulations  based on it can be notional and pretentious at best.

‘Special training’

Usually speaking, a ‘class’ is a group of children learning at a particular rung in curriculum organised as a learning ladder. The idea of ‘special training’ in order to be at par with others comes in because one has formulated curriculum as a learning ladder and not as a learning continuum, and each rung of the ladder has to be completed in a given time.

There is no reliable data available on how long an effective so-called special training should be for different ages and how certain we can be of children’s learning through such training. Training is actually a fit description for most (not all) bridge courses and special learning camps. But the question is, can it substitute for the missed opportunity of education and bring the children at par with those who have had an opportunity of good education over the years?

When a child, for instance, enters the school system at class 5, with no prior formal education, under special training, her curriculum is different, she does not sit in the same class as class 5 children, and uses different learning material. In what sense then is this child admitted to class 5? She derives none of the benefits of learning in the same age group as stated above.

What happens then to the notion of class? If one says that a class need not have all children learning the same curricular content, then why specify curriculum in a graded ladder fashion? Why organise the school in a class-structure? If you do away with both, how does one comply with stipulations of completion of elementary education, completion of curriculum in stipulated time, and school norms about infrastructure and teachers?
Clearly, compliance with RTE stipulations is possible only on the basis of very spacious interpretations of class and completion, and will amount to compliance only to the letter of the Act, devoid of any spirit.

This conundrum arises because we organise our education system and schools according to the authoritarian tradition of primary schools whereas our pedagogical and curricular recommendations come from a tradition of progressive education. One can hardly ride two horses galloping in opposite directions. We should either drop all progressive pretensions and accept the implications of the authoritarian tradition or accept a more liberal view of education and dismantle the authoritarian structure. If we do not have the courage to make that choice, we will be parading at the same place without covering an inch of ground in the desired direction.

(The writer is a professor at Azim Premji University)

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