? The landmark passing of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009 marks a historic moment for the children of India. For the first time in India’s history, children will be guaranteed their right to quality elementary education by the state with the help of families and communities.
Few countries in the world have such a national provision to ensure child-centered, child-friendly education to help all children develop to their fullest potential. There were an estimated eight million six to 14-year-olds in India out-of-school in 2009.
The world cannot reach its goal to have every child complete primary school by 2015 without India.
India’s education system over the past few decades has made significant progress. According to India’s Education For All Mid Decade Assessment, in just five years between 2000 and 2005, India increased primary school enrolment overall by 13.7 per cent and by 19.8 per cent for girls, reaching close to universal enrolment in Grade 1.
Even with these commendable efforts, one in four children left school before reaching Grade 5 and almost half before reaching Grade 8 in 2005. Learning assessments show the children who do remain in school are not learning the basics of literacy and numeracy or the additional skills necessary for their overall development.
Out-of-School Children: The number of out-of-school children has declined from 25 million in 2003 to 8.1 million in mid–2009. The most significant improvements have been in Bihar, Jharkhand, Manipur and Chhattisgarh. The percentage of out-of-school children in highly populated states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar remains a cause of concern.
Social Inclusion: Although there have been significant improvements in the proportion of children from socially disadvantaged groups in school, persistence gaps remain. Girls are still less likely to enroll in school than boys; in 2005, for upper primary school (Grades 6-8) girls’ enrolment was still 8.8 points lower than boys, for Scheduled Tribes (ST) the gender gap was 12.6 points and 16 points for Scheduled Castes (SC).
In addition, ST and SC children are less likely to access their right to 8 years of schooling; the drop-out rate for ST children being 62.9% and 55.2% for SC children compared to a national average of 48.8% leaving school before completing Grade 8.
Teachers: Children have the right to have at least 1 qualified and trained teacher for every 30 pupils. Currently, the national average is about 1 teacher to every 34 students, but in states such as Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal 1 teacher works with more than 60 students.
Approximately 1.2 million additional teachers need to be recruited to fill this gap. Currently, about 1 in 5 primary school teachers do not have the requisite minimum academic qualification to ensure children’s right to quality learning.
Sanitation: 84 out of 100 schools have drinking water facilities overall in India. But nearly half the schools in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya do not. Sixty-five out of 100 schools have common toilets in India; however only one out of four schools in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Chandigarh, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Orissa and Rajasthan have this facility.
Fifty-four out of 100 schools have separate toilets for girls. On average, only one in nine schools in Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur have separate toilets and one in four schools in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand and Orissa.
The RTE Act will be in force from 1 April. Draft Model Rules have been shared with states, which are required to formulate their state rules and have them notified as early as possible.
RTE provides a ripe platform to reach the unreached, with specific provisions for disadvantaged groups, such as child labourers, migrant children, children with special needs, or those who have a “disadvantage owing to social, cultural economical, geographical, linguistic, gender or such other factor.”
RTE focuses on the quality of teaching and learning, which requires accelerated efforts and substantial reforms.
Creative and sustained initiatives are crucial to train more than one million new and untrained teachers within the next five years and to reinforce the skills of existing teachers to ensure child-friendly education.
Bringing eight million out-of-school children into classes at the age appropriate level with the support to stay in school and succeed poses a major challenge. Substantial efforts are essential to eliminate disparities and ensure quality with equity. For example, investing in preschool is a key strategy.
Families and communities also have a large role to play to ensure child-friendly education for each and every one of the estimated 190 million girls and boys in India who should be in elementary school today.
School Management Committees, made up of parents, local authorities, teachers and children themselves, will need support to form School Development Plans and monitoring. The inclusion of 50 per cent women and parents of children from disadvantaged groups in these committees should help overcome past disparities.