Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

1465213340_75398313353957556045b4c37By Ambarish Rai, Dr. Aparijita and Alka Singh*

With the passing of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in 2009 (hereafter RTE), elementary education for every child between 6 and 14 became a Fundamental right in India, hence legally enforceable. It provisioned for schools within a kilometre from homes with good infrastructure (water, electricity, toilets, playground etc.), trained teachers, a standard teacher-student ratio, No Detention Policy (NDP) and an inclusive environment free of fear and anxiety for all children to learn in an equitable and democratic manner.

At the global front, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 4 is a welcome step in strengthening national commitments towards ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education, and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. This report focuses on the status of implementation of the RTE Act vis-à-vis the achievement of SDG 4 Targets, 4.1, 4.2. and 4.6. These state:

Target 4.1 – By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.

Target 4.2 – By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.

Target 4.6 – By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, and achieve literacy and numeracy.

Since the enactment of RTE Act, provision of quality elementary education has been fraught with challenges, such as, inadequate resources, lack of basic infrastructure, teacher recruitments, unavailability of trained teachers and in-service training, quality of textbooks and untimely distribution of textbooks. The recommendations of the 64th Central Advisory Board of Education Committee have further diluted the RTE Act on several aspects. Similarly, closure of government schools in states like Rajasthan, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, particularly has propelled girls to leave their schools due to long distance and unsafe environment.

budget2Inclusion of pre-primary to secondary schooling within the RTE

Act Provisions for pre-school education as suggested in the Act (Section 11) was not taken seriously by the Government of India (GoI). The teaching aspect of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) was also not strengthened over the years. Neither were the teaching and learning aid materials adequate nor were the teachers sufficiently trained. This period of school education in the age group of 3-6 years is critical for subsequent levels of learning, and should be included under the legal entitlement to form a good foundation to education up to secondary level.

Financing the RTE Act

The Tapas Majumdar Committee of the GoI in 1999 required the Government to spend Rs 1.37 lakh crore over a period of ten years from 1998 to 2008 to provide education to every child under the age group 6-14 years. The subsequent Kothari Commission recommended spending 6 % of the GDP on education as compared to a meager 3.5% spending.

While the RTE Act was passed in the Parliament, at the time of its passage, no financial memorandum was attached to ensure or indicate the availability of required funds for its implementation. Consequently, the budget allocations over the last few years have seen low allocation to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the vehicle for implementation of the Act. The incremental budgeting done by the Government failed to calculate the adequate resources and use it effectively for universalization of education. A study done by Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) on 10 states found that after the devolution of funds as recommended by the 14th Finance Commission, expenditure on school education has increased only in the states of Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh.

budget1From the above figure it is clear that the Central Government needs to substantially increase the share of education in the total Central Budget. Today, the provision for expenditure on school education as a percentage of the total Union budget is very low. It was 2.43 (Revised Estimate) in 2014-15, 2.44 (RE) in 2015-16 and 2.19 (BE) in 2016-17, which remained stagnant at the same in 2017-2018 budget. This ridiculously low figure needs to be brought in line with the practice followed by several developed and developing countries.

It is, therefore, suggested that like Indonesia and some other developing countries, the government should enact a law committing itself to devote a percentage of the total budgetary expenditure on education. The law should provide for two separate targets, one for the states and other for the Central Government.

However, this trend of declining allocation from 2014 continued even in the 2017-18 Union Budget. Added to this, 65 % of the budget spent on primary education is generated from cess. The budget has ignored effective implementation of the RTE and a meagre increase in the SSA budget – by Rs 1,000 crores – is far from helping the meaningful implementation of the RTE Act.

Cuts in other social sector schemes

In the Union Budget for 2017-2018, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) has not seen much increase in budget and has received only Rs. 15,245.19 crores. ICDS in its third phase of expansion towards universalisation faces many challenges, such as inadequate availability of spaces for Anganwadi Centres (AWCs), vacant posts, low focus on growth monitoring, low focus on early childhood etc. The Finance Minister announced that Mahila Shakti Kendras would be set up with an allocation of Rs 500 Crores in 14 lakh ICDS anganwadi centres (AWCs), to provide one stop convergent support services for empowering rural women with opportunities for skill development, employment, digital literacy, health and nutrition.

The Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme of the Ministry of Human Resource Development entitles every child within the age group of 6 to 14 years, studying in classes I to VIII, to be provided meal free of charge in schools. MDM Scheme observed increase of 3.09 percent in its allocation (from Rs. 9700 Crores in 2016-2017 to Rs. 10,000 Crores in 2017-2018).

As experienced in previous budgets, child protection sector continues to be on the periphery with the lowest share in the total Union Budget as well as Budget for Children (BfC). This year, child protection received only 0.05 per cent of total allocations in the Union Budget and 1.49 per cent within BfC. Like other sectors, this sector too remains under resourced despite an allocation of Rs. 1062.43 Crores, an increase of 54.80 per cent.

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) emphasized on the principle of universality and inviolability of child rights and focuses on protection of all children in the 0 to 18 years age group. The NCPCR has been allocated a total sum of Rs. 19 Crores in the Union Budget 2017-18, the same as in previous year’s budget. This neglect in the overall budget scenario will severely impact on implementation of the RTE Act, grievance redressal mechanisms and complete universalisation of education from pre-primary till the secondary education.

As per recent official data, around 63 lakh children aged between 6 to 17 years are working for more than 180 days in a year.113 These figures display how the ruling party ignores the promises made in their election manifesto to enhance financing education up to 6% – which if implemented could have made education accessible to every child. The lurking question remains: How can digitalization of education and skill training be possible without universalisation of basic education?

Addressing Human Resource Gaps

A deplorable Pupil Teacher Ratio (PTR) continues according to the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s (MHRD’s) National Education Policy (NEP) Report of the Committee for Evolution of New Education 2016. There is a shortage of five lakh teachers in government primary schools; and 14% of secondary schools don’t have the prescribed minimum of six teachers. There are delays in teacher appointment and deployment.

In fact, teachers continue to be appointed on contractual basis, in violation to provision of the RTE Act. Around 20 percent permanent teachers and 30 percent temporary teachers have not obtained the professional qualifications required as per the RTE Act (DISE 2015-2016). On the other hand, the service conditions of teachers remain poor with a continued delay in the payment of salaries. Due to the shortage of support staff in schools, teachers are often burdened with administrative work beyond school hours. 10% schools are single teacher schools, which gives additional duties to teachers (DISE 2015-2016).

Although the RTE Act clearly indicates the non-academic duties besides working on Census and election duties for which teachers may be appointed, in reality, the teachers are burdened with persisting non-academic tasks instead of spending time in the classroom. Until teachers are freed from all these additional responsibilities, it is challenging to expect improvements in the quality of learning.

School Closure

School closure has emerged as a pressing challenge in the current context. This aspect is primarily linked with commercialization of primary education and maintenance of schools where there are lesser number of children. This is particularly so in the hilly and sparsely populated regions. One of the norms in the RTE Act is to provide for schools within a kilometer of walking distance. Any move to close down such schools on the ground that their full capacity is not being utilized will be a violation of this norm. This affects the children from the tribal areas and economically backward families adversely.

According to media reports and department education officer, last year 368 schools have been closed in the state of Uttarakhand. More than 4000 schools are on the verge of closure due to policy paralysis or promotion of privatisation of education. In several states like Telengana, Orissa, and Rajasthan, school closure has impacted children from marginalized areas especially girls belonging to tribal communities.

Increased Privatisation of Education

In the past two decades, post the onset of the so called ‘economic liberalization’, the role of private sector in education has grown rapidly in India. This is in sync with what has been happening in the rest of the developing world going through similar economic processes. Private schools have existed for a long time in India. What is new is the increasing emphasis on handing over the function of elementary education to the private sector to replace the existing government school system.

Private education is being promoted and explored in many parts of the world as a solution to lack of sufficient public provisioning of education or perceived underperformance of public schools. This aspect of privatisation of education needs to be questioned on aspects like quality of education, equity in educational opportunities and availability of free education for all children. In India, the recent news in the Business Standard reads- “Bridge International to partner with AP state Government: Press Trust of India” (Vijaywada, September 9th, 2015).

This raises concern not only for Andhra Pradesh but for the rest of the country also as this would be flashed as a model for other states to follow. Bridge International Academies (BIA), one of the largest education for-profit companies in the world, plans to sell basic education services directly to 10 million fee-paying children. In India, its impact has been especially on children belonging to marginalized sections of the society.

Neighborhood Schools and Community ownership

While the Act laid down certain holistic measures to involve the community (through the creation of School Management Committees (SMCs) in the functioning and monitoring of schools, multiple problems have emerged with respect to the SMCs. These are mainly related with the selection of members of the SMCs, the process of SMC formation, ability to carry forth their responsibilities, their capacity to prepare School Development Plans, and their autonomy and their ability (and inability) to question the school authorities where their children are currently enrolled. SMCs continue to remain unequipped to carry out their assigned tasks due to their limited or weak empowerment, or inadequate training. Resultantly, they have limited decision making authority and as widely reported their recommendations are neither accepted nor respected.

However, it is essential to note that there is a possibility for the SMCs to emerge as a strong voice in the community. In certain pockets within states, SMC members (with the help of civil society) are beginning to assert their rights. At the same time, several states are beginning to form federations of SMCs (formal or otherwise). Thus, Karnataka has a School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC) Federation that precedes the notification of the RTE Act. Manipur also has an SDMC Federation, whereas CSOs in Jharkhand and UP have also taken steps to form SMC federations.

Clean Schools for Healthy Minds

The Right to Education Act 2009, seeks to make all schools centres of both academic knowledge as well as important life-skills like good health and hygiene. In the first few years of the RTE, the emphasis, understandably, was on ensuring adequate infrastructure, enough number of schools, and an optimum pupil-teacher ratio. On these targets, the Government of India and civil society have performed satisfactorily even though some gaps do remain to be filled.

However, while the Mid-day Meal scheme has boosted enrolment rates in schools, an emerging concern, both in rural and urban areas, is the need to ensure that schools are equipped with functional toilets for boys, girls as well as teachers. Although conclusive evidence linking poor hygiene with poor cognitive abilities is yet to be generated in the context of India, there is more than enough anecdotal as well as qualitative evidence to show that only a healthy child can perform well academically as well as otherwise.

Under the RTE Act, all children are supposed to spend at least six hours in school. Naturally, they would need to use toilets during this time, and the lack of the same would force them to ‘go outside’, which is fraught with risks. While some of them may not return to class, in some cases, children might be at risk of sexual assault. If they are forbidden from taking a ‘loo-break’ then they are likely to be penalised by the teacher. Both scenarios essentially encourage ‘dropping out’ from school.

In the third scenario, even if a toilet exists but is non-functional, children are exposed to faecal bacteria and related diseases, that is if they use the non-functional toilet at all. In fact, it is unthinkable for most well-to-do parents that their wards go to a school without a well-maintained sanitation complex. Most private schools, in fact, employ staff to take care of children when using the toilets. However, in most government schools, the situation is not as satisfactory. Both in the rural and urban areas the need is to ensure that schools are equipped with functional toilets for both boys and girls.

Diarrhoea kills more than one million children under the age of five in India every year. Although, most of these deaths are of children under the age of five and not of school-going children, the fact remains that even when not lethal, bouts of diarrhoea and other similar infections, significantly erode the cognitive ability of young children.

The government in the last nearly three years has made impressive strides with its national campaign of Swachh Bharat, and according to the ASER 2016, there has been improvement in the number of schools with toilets but, even now nearly 200,000 are running without toilets. In these schools, children are, it can be safely said, exposed to the risk of contracting diseases like diarrhea.

Safety and Security in Education

Issues of safety and security are increasingly becoming a barrier for education of children belonging to marginalised regions, especially girls. Parents are less likely to allow daughters to travel long distances to attend school in an unsafe environment. Even boarding or residential schools are not a solution as children are alienated from their culture and roots and fail to learn from the milieu, which is integral for development of the individual as well as the community. Boys often experience beating and bullying; girls more likely to be called on for service tasks like cleaning or be vulnerable to sexual assault or harassment.

Besides, gender based violence, lack of separate toilet for girls, lack of proper infrastructure, invisibility of girls and their experiences in curriculum, lack of an environment free from fear and anxiety and cultural practices like child marriage, preference for male child etc. are barriers for promoting education for girl children in a massive way.

Way Forward

There is an urgent need to strengthen public education system in the country. Certain violations of RTE Act at the state level have further weakened the implementation of the Act, for example, making Aadhar Cards mandatory for RTE admissions, participation in events and application for scholarships under the Kerala RTE rules. The government in Kerala has decided to distribute benefits to children from disadvantaged groups based on a unique identification number. Further, it has also been decided that no child would be failed till Class 5 in violation to the “No Detention Policy” (NDP) mentioned in the Act, and the model schools set up in some states run contrary to the provisions of the Act. All these factors also adversely impact the universalisation of education.

Even though the Cabinet has passed the decision to extend the deadline of teacher training till the 31st March 2019, what is required is the complete implementation of the Act within a new time frame. Similarly, for achieving these ambitious Goals, it is extremely important to solidify and strengthen community and local institutions for bridging the gaps and providing free and compulsory twelve years of school education.

reportStrengthening collaboration of key stakeholders will only be able to respond to the key challenges that may arise in the coming years and raise the profile of the issue of universalization of education as a human rights concern. Additional human and financial resources are needed, as well as organised coordination by way of more clearly defined political commitments reassuring implementation of RTE and making pre-school-secondary education a legal entitlement.

*Right to Education Forum and Save the Children. Excerpts from the chapter “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” in the report “2017 Sustainable Development Goal: Agenda 2030”, released by Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNDA). To download full report, click HERE

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