Though the Constitution of India guarantees free and compulsory education to children upto the age of 14, a third of the 200 million children between the ages 6 and 14 are not in school. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that there are just not enough schools to cater to all the children of school-going age, and the few schools that are there are so short staffed, the children don’t learn much in school and so are pressured to drop-out.
Studies have borne out the existence of the high drop-out rate. While enrollment in Grade 1 is nearly 85%, by the time they reach Grade 5, the figure drops down to less than 60%. Families that send their 6-year old children to school take them out almost as soon as the children become functionally literate.
The government machinery has failed totally where it comes to making education accessible for all.
Rather than look for viable alternatives, the Parliament of India, last week, passed the Right to Education Act making education a fundamental right of all children in the age group 6 to 14 years. In a nation which already guaranteed free and compulsory education, the intent of the Act doesn’t go much beyond semantics.
The only significant change is that the government has made it mandatory for all private schools to reserve 25% of their seats for economically disadvantaged children at the entry level. Since privately run schools necessarily need to make profits, the government would reimburse the expenditure incurred by the schools in making the seats available to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
On the face of it, it seems like a great idea- when private schools are flourishing across the country, why not use that infrastructure to provide education for all? But is it really such a great idea? Tution fees account for only a small proportion of the total expenditure incurred in sending a child to private schools – there are uniforms and sports uniforms, books and stationary, field trips and costumes for annual days. Will the government reimburse all those expenses, and if it does not, will the parents be able to afford it?
Even if children from disadvantaged backgrounds enroll at the entry level, they are sure to drop out before the end of the year, leaving them no better off than they would have been in the absence of such reservations.
The situation seems almost hopeless. The government doesn’t have the infrastructure to provide education for all, and if accessing private schools is not a workable solution, does that mean children are destined not to get an education?
Not at all. The solution is there for all to see, but for some reason, the Government chooses to ignore it. Non-formal education!
Across urban and rural India, there are non-profit organizations that provide basic education to children of various backgrounds. There are organizations that conduct classes in workshops that employ child labour and there are organizations that conduct lessons within school buildings beyond school hours. There are organizations that train volunteers to conduct classes for small groups of children, and there are organizations that replicate the government system of one teacher schools in rural areas.
Instead of offering to reimburse private schools, if the Government pumps the same amount of money into non-profits, primary education for all need no longer remain a dream. I can only hope that the Government realizes it sooner rather than later.
I believe that “Education for All” is neither a slogan nor a dream- it is a basic entitlement, and while the Right to Education Act recognizes the fact, it is unlikely to go very far in actualizing it.