The provision for reserving 25 per cent seats in Class I for private unaided schools in the Right to Education Act is a red herring. About 30 per cent of the 76 lakh primary school children in Karnataka go to unaided private schools, mostly in urban areas, according to District Information System for Education (DISE) data. A 25 per cent reservation in Class I for the marginalised in these schools would impact about 1 per cent of the school-going child population. Based on the current scenario, over the next eight years, this will go up to about 7.5 to 10 per cent. Despite that, it has captured the imagination of the urban middle class, some of whom are paranoid at the possibility of “our kids” mingling with “those children”. Anyone who knows better would see it as a much-needed social leveller in a heavily class-divided school system. So, while this provision has symbolic value and may even be a door opener for some marginalised children, the heart of the matter lies in more mundane stuff.
In the last decade or so, we have seen an unprecedented expansion of the primary school system, largely due to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). With the proportion of habitations having access to a primary school and the number of children enrolled in these schools at all-time highs, the focus should now shift to quality of education, and that too in the government school system, where the bulk of our children will go for the foreseeable future. While most children have reasonable access to a school building, the RTE Act has rightly focussed on availability of basic infrastructure, such as qualified teachers, classrooms, playgrounds, toilets and safe drinking water in these schools. However, it has only gingerly ventured into the very important issue of the learning taking place in these schools. Sure, there are some circuitous attempts at it by mandating qualified teachers and the minimum number of instruction hours, but the matter has not been dealt with head on. Far too many children simply drop out of school because of this — they rightly see going to school as a waste of their time.
The RTE Act is a historic piece of legislation because it gives a legal right to free education to children between the ages of six and 14 and makes the government responsible for providing it. In rights lingo, children are right-holders and the government, mainly state governments, is the duty bearer. The focus, then, as is the case in a rights-based approach, should be to ensure that there is sufficient awareness and empowerment of the right-holders to demand quality education, and that there are sufficient resources and adequate capacity building by the duty bearer to offer quality education. It is when the children and parents (especially the marginalised) start demanding quality education in government schools, and the education department gears up to provide quality education in these schools — not only in terms of school infrastructure but also in terms of learning — that the RTE will be implemented in spirit. Making parents and children aware of their rights is an important first step; empowering them to make these demands is a close second. Similarly, building delivery systems in the government for efficient delivery is important. Civil society and the media have important roles to play here.
This dialogue can be enabled by the availability of accurate data. There is a widespread belief that enrollment numbers are over-reported, while out-of-school numbers are under-reported in government reports. A recent report pegged the number of children out-of-school children in Karnataka at around 40,000. A friend who runs a bridge school for the children of rag-pickers in a Bangalore slum estimates that there are more than 2500 out-of-school children in that one area alone. Similarly, data on infrastructure reports the installed rather than functional infrastructure. It is good to know that a school has toilets, but more important to know if the toilets have running water and whether they are accessible to children or simply locked up. Reporting on learning achievement in schools is only available through surveys such as the Annual Survey of Education Report, which are great for an overview of the system, but grossly inadequate to base focussed, school-level decisions on. The need of the hour is to have all this data at per school and per child levels so that focussed action can be taken to remedy an undesired situation through community empowerment and systemic capacity building. One such attempt at this is the Karnataka Learning Partnership (klp.org.in). This website provides data for all schools in Bangalore and some other locations in Karnataka. A similar database should be available for every school and every child in the state.
It is by addressing day-to-day issues such as these that the RTE can help improve the level of education in our society. One hopes that we move on from discussing the 25 per cent reservation clause to more substantive issues of ensuring that every child is in school and is learning well.
The writer Vikas Maniar is head of the In School programme at Akshara Foundation