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RTE Act can be a model for the world: Kapil Sibal

Government run schools, Quality, Right to Education

The RTE Act is an opportunity to break gender, caste, class and community barriers that threaten to damage the social fabric of our democracy and create fissures that could be ruinous to the country, writes Union HRD minister Kapil Sibal.

The Supreme Court judgment upholding the constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act has once again focused public attention on education. While there has been enthusiastic praise of the judgment from most, there continues to be veiled criticism of the provisions of the act from some.

Not withstanding the obligations cast on private educational institutions by the RTE Act, the major responsibility for universalizing elementary education, without doubt, lies with the state. Universalizing access and retention, bridging gender and social category gaps in enrolment, and improving quality of elementary education are the primary focus of government’s interventions through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

The provisions relating to private schools in the act do not mean that the Central and state governments are absolved of their primary responsibility of providing infrastructure and facilities, and an enabling environment to meet the objectives in the RTE Act. More than 90% of households in the country will have to continue to enrol their children in government schools – even after children belonging to disadvantaged groups and weaker sections obtain 25% of the seats in preschool/Class I in private schools every year.

The provision for admitting 25% children from disadvantaged groups and weaker sections in private unaided (nonminority) schools is an attempt at affirmative action and social integration. This provision in the RTE Act will enable schools to ensure that their student bodies contain different types of children, so that each student brings something new and different to the school community, thereby enriching and adding value to it, and consequently creating a more democratic learning environment. The RTE Act is a modest effort to bring about social integration.

It’s undeniable that this means a major transformation for private schools. It is true that transformation does not take place on demand. Recognizing the difficulties involved in making the change, the act has adopted a “gradualist” approach, and provides for admission of children from weaker sections at entry stage only.

With children admitted in preschool/ Class I moving up, and a new cohort entering the school each successive year, the school will gradually have a more diverse population spread across all classes.

At this pace children will have the opportunity to grow up together and create bonds; bonds that will survive social walls. Progression at this pace will also allow schools to develop professional capacity to respond to the intellectual and emotional needs of children from diverse backgrounds. Children from adverse living conditions can bring rich experiences of coping with life, and sharing these experiences with well-off children can be invaluable. It is this mixing of children from diverse backgrounds that may change the character of the school in many positive ways.

It is possible that in the initial years, some children from disadvantaged households may face difficulty in coping with the curriculum, especially if they are first-generation schoolgoers. But many children from disadvantaged groups have shown that, given a facilitative environment, they can cope with the curriculum as well as, and often, even better than other children.

Indeed, statistics show that increasingly it is children from relatively poorer households who gain admission into IITs. In the sports arena too, it is largely children from poorer households who have excelled. Many schools managed by charitable and religious trusts already have a policy to admit a large number of children belonging to disadvantaged groups – without any compromise on quality.

The long gestation period provided in the act would enable the schools to put in place institutional structures to ensure that the quality of education is not compromised. It is not going to be easy but can be done.

The concern on the issue of financial implication on managements may be genuine in several cases. However, the per-child expenditure by many private schools, especially in rural areas and small towns, is lower than that in government schools. Reimbursement provided by government, therefore, will be adequate to meet the costs of educating children from weaker sections in such schools. But states must put in place open and transparent systems, preferably online, for reimbursement in a timebound and efficient manner.

It is, however, true that some schools in metros have per-child budgets much in excess of those in state schools. These schools would have to find innovative ways to meet the gap. Philanthropic individuals, charitable trusts and corporate funding may be some ways out.

The Times of India, 20 April 2012

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