BY PRABHAKAR TIMBLE
THE recent judgment of the Supreme Court upholding the constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act has cleared only the legal blocks on the path of ensuring that all children of India between 6-14, regardless of caste, class, gender and economic status would be given elementary education by right and by law.
RTE recognises the right to equal opportunities of learning to every child. The unaided private schools and minority institutions had questioned the validity of the Act on the ground that it infringed on their fundamental rights to establish, administer and maintain educational institutions and particularly of those who do not receive any aid from the government.
The Supreme Court has ruled that all educational institutions whether government, private, aided or unaided have to follow the provisions of the RTE in respect of the teacher-student ratio and the minimum norms of physical infrastructure. All institutions should also provide free education to a minimum of 25 per cent of students from economically weaker sections between 6-14 years of age. The exemption from this clause is provided only to unaided institutions run by minorities.
At the outset, I want to make it clear that this exemption, though stipulates minorities, should not be read as a special treatment based on religion or faith only. With reference to educational institutions, it is the religious, cultural and linguistic minorities. Minority tights are enshrined in the fundamental rights chapter to enable citizens of minority and majority communities to preserve, protect and promote their language and culture. It is the constitutional recognition of the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of this country and the commitment to preserve these identities of all the communities.
Our language diversity manifests in 18 major languages and over 1600 minor languages and dialects. The cultural diversity is reflected in the lifestyles, traditions, customs and cultures of the ‘Pathan’ in the extreme North-West to the Tamilian in the deep South. Twenty eight states and 7 Union territories radiate this diversity. The Hindu majority also enjoys minority rights. The Manipal Academy of Higher Education is entitled to minority status in Karnataka. The South Indian Educational Society comes under the purview of minority in Maharashtra. Educational and cultural institutions of the Gujarati community receive the minority privileges in all the states of India except Gujarat. Hindus whose mother tongue is Hindi are classed as minorities in Punjab. The same is the case of a Tamilian Hindu in states other than Tamil Nadu.
The RTE Act was notified in April 2010. The commitment expected from private schools including the unaided to my mind is based not only on a socially sound pedestal but also an educationally sound principle. The classrooms and primary centres of learning should reflect the Indian social reality. Education is not only the learning of the textual materials but also grounding in the multiple cultural and social values of the soil. This can be imbibed better through inter-mingling, participation, togetherness in learning and play. RTE and now the stamp of the Supreme Court reinforce these principles.
At the same time, let us not read answers to the challenges faced in the implementation of the RTE in the order of the Supreme Court. This is only a small battle won; the war is long, difficult and hard. RTE expects a pupil-teacher ratio of 30:1. At present over 60 per cent of our primary schools do not meet this requirement and we still need more schools. Though officially, 12 million are engaged in child labour, the unofficial estimates put it at 40 million. Added to this, we have the challenge of providing primary level of learning to migrant children and children of tribal families. It is estimated that we need strength of 12 lakh trained teachers to meet the minimum level of effectiveness under RTE. The present state of government schools is despicable in terms of bare basic infrastructure and quality of teachers. In comparison, the aided schools under private management seem better but still over 40 per cent do not meet the minimum standards of teaching.
Educating Poor Students
I am of the opinion that all educational institutions irrespective of state aid or privileges of minority status or the so-termed ‘elitist’ branding should follow a well-planned and deliberate policy of providing admission to pupils from backward communities and less privileged economic status. Such a policy should be religiously implemented. This is not only for giving opportunity to the lower strata of pupils but also to ensure that the pupils from the affluent families do not grow with a skewed mindset which later proves to be a major handicap. This is as important and in fact more impact oriented than the mechanical routine recitation of the “national pledge”, the national anthem and the singing of the Vande Mataram in the school assembly. If we call ourselves as educationists and crave that we should be known as so, then what is stated under RTE should be implemented. In fact, educationists should not wait for laws to be framed and punitive action to be laid down.
The assumption that a pupil from the SC/ST/OBC or migrant labour families is weak in learning is itself the weakest argument put forth largely by those who want recognition as teachers and educationists fully funded at public expense with security of service till retirement. This mindset has to change. The challenge before RTE is not only of money resources and higher budget spending for primary education. The major challenge is to scout and pack our primary schools with quality teachers with skills of transmitting knowledge to each differently placed child and wedded to the values of love and compassion. If teachers, educationists and private managements consider RTE as a populist law and primary education as a product meant for the elite and affordable families, we will understand the difficult road that needs to be travelled by people who espouse the cause of free and compulsory education for all.
For the country as a whole, the problems are diverse and hence need innovative and out-of-box solutions. Many NGOs and initiatives by educationally charged and spirited individuals have shown alternatives to reach the millions of marginalised children. In the eyes of the law and the standing rules and conventions of the departments/boards of education some of these initiatives and experiments may be classed as “unrecognised” institutions, though they are achieving the objectives of the RTE. Along with the formal institutions established by the government and the private sector, the informal sector in education should be pulled to harness the benefits for RTE since it has proved to be effective in terms of delivery and costs.