A country of a size 60 times smaller than ours and a population barely touching 5 million is not in the least comparable to the enormity and complexity of India. However, there is much we can learn from the Central American paradise Costa Rica. The country’s emphasis on education, with almost 20% of the state budget dedicated to it, reflects not just the realisation that investing in education can transform a nation, but more crucially the will of the state to prioritise the same. As they understood what it meant for the nation to be educated, a paradigm shift was witnessed not just economically, but in entirety as a society.
Of course, we realised this as well, way back in the mid 1960s, when the Kothari Commission recommended a complete overhaul of the education system. It categorically mentioned education as the instrument necessary to achieve social, economic and cultural transformation essential to realise national goals. Based on this premise, India formulated its first education policy. Almost half a decade later, education for every last child remains an unfulfilled goal. Inadequate resource allocation and half-hearted implementation continue to plague the dreams of millions of children.
The government’s intent isn’t flawed. The historic Right to (Free and Compulsory) Education Act 2009 is a testament to this and its huge impact on the country’s education indicators is indisputable. Today, as we complete seven years of implementation of this landmark Act, the pace and reach of reforms, however, highlight the dire need for another overhaul.
The universalisation of elementary education with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the flagship programme under the ambit of RTE, hasn’t quite lived up to its aim of reaching every last child and ensuring they finish basic schooling. While the enrolment numbers witnessed a sharp increase post the years of RTE implementation, there still remain concerns at every level of education—for instance, with access to upper primary education in many areas.
Girl children, especially, continue to struggle in terms of access in many parts of the country. The case of an enthusiastic nine-year-old Usha, living in a far-off village in Badaun in Uttar Pradesh, having finished her primary schooling but unable to access upper primary school, is one of the many examples. The upper primary school, at a distance of 10 km, for her is a far-fetched reality as of now. There are many such stories dotted around the country.
According to estimates—based on data from RGI Census population projection 2016; DISE Data 2015-16—there are 1.28 crore children in India who are unable to attend school for varying reasons. While the RTE has been successful in many aspects, there is much to be done for inclusion of these children, who might be on the streets or in a far-off marginalised community, deprived of the basic right to education.
Even while the government’s strategic focus shifted from provision of basic infrastructure and access to the current focus on quality learning, indicators in both aspects remain deficient. Having brought about few amendments and changes, the intent of addressing these issues is clear—the larger vision needs to encompass systemic changes.
The government, very recently, introduced important amendments to the Act. They recognised teachers’ training being a critical area to bring about the change and thus extended the period of their training by another four years to 2019, the earlier one being 2015.
This amendment is to ensure that all teachers in position acquire the minimum qualifications prescribed by the academic authority, which has not been achieved as yet. While the emphasis on training of teachers is much appreciated, if we bring about incremental amendments, the changes are going to be incremental
What is required urgently is a macro-level shake-up of the entire system. The complete overhaul can only be achieved if one issue is not looked as independent of another. Teachers, for instance, have been recognised as an important pillar of the education system. However, the emphasis on teacher training will be futile if adequacy of teachers is not addressed simultaneously. Their availability, training and adequacy … all aspects need to be looked at. In India, there is a shortage of 9.4 lakh teachers in government schools and about 20% teachers are untrained. Similarly, filling up teaching positions will hold no value if ensuring that all students have access to schools, at every level, is an issue the government remains oblivious towards.
As the need to re-look at RTE strategically remains a priority, India also has to work towards ensuring a continuum of education to all its children, as envisaged by the sustainable development goals as well. Pre-schooling in the age-group of 3-6 years is a critical step, which if missed, impacts the entire continuum and quality of education in later years. The emphasis on providing a solid foundation to children in this age-group will also address drop-out and learning outcomes at primary level, which is a huge struggle area.
Likewise, having benefited from free education till class 8th, many poor and disadvantaged households are unable to sustain continuity of education for their children. The extension of universalisation of education to the secondary level is essential to ensure that children finish schooling—this was first mentioned in 2005 in a Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) Committee report. Ten years down, the gross enrolment ratio for 2014-15 was 78.51 while net enrolment ratio (age-appropriate enrolment) was at 48.46. Around 37% of children in the 14-plus age-group do not have access to education, and 13.2% girls and 8.8% boys continue to be illiterate.
The achievement of these goals requires much greater investment in children’s education. The budgetary spending on school education has remained stagnant at 2.7% of GDP in the last four years. If well-designed and adequate, it has the potential to transform the lives of millions of children in this crucial phase of their life.
The author is director, Policy, Research and Advocacy for CRY (Child Rights and You). Views are personal