A stalwart, a pioneer and a change-maker in the space of education, Farida Lambay requires no introduction. Her countless years of contribution to founding Pratham, an innovative organization for quality education, drafting and advocating for national policies in the sector, this social activist was closely associated with the dawn of the right to education for all children. In a candid conversation with her, we peel the layers of the Right to Education Act, 2009, 8 years after its inception.
1. 8 years on, which would you rank as the top 3 positive outcomes and challenges of the RTE?
Ans: I am personally happy that the RTE is in place. India is a democratic country and needed a positive and progressive legislation. The RTE is definitely that. Firstly, for me, one of the positives of the RTE has been the enrolments they have definitely gone up, at 97% now. Growing aspirations of parents, coupled with the RTE has contributed significantly to this rise. Secondly, key infrastructure like the presence of schools in every village, functional toilets, clean drinking water have certainly been an improvement. While schools are not still completely complying with the provisions of the RTE, they are slowly making headway. Thirdly, all supporting elements like the mid-day meal, provision of books, etc are taking shape. After the first 5 years of the RTE, these are visible changes we have noticed.
The age of admission under the RTE Act changed to 6 years, from the original constitutional provision (Article 45a Directive Principles) of all children. I felt cheated and upset. Today, the pre-primary is not under the ambit of the RTE – putting a cap on the minimum age for who can access the RTE is a regressive step. The Act covers children between 6 to 14 years or completion of 8th standard. What happens to children after the 8th standard? Why should they be let off before they complete the 9th and 10th standard? In Maharashtra for example, a lot of schools don’t have an 8th standard division . What happens then? The 6-14 years age limit pushes children to fend for themselves to pursue a complete education, with lean options. Many a times, schools that have these standards are not in their neighbourhood or don’t give them priority as they come from other schools. This becomes a serious cause for drop outs, taking to odd jobs and incomplete education leading to bleak prospects in the future, defeating the purpose of the RTE. Another serious challenge/ concern is the drop out rates amongst girls, particularly adolescent girls. As per the ASER report, the trend is that while there are fewer dropouts in the lower grades, the rate of dropouts especially in case of girls increases in the higher classes. The major reasons are lack of High Schools in the neighbourhood, looking after younger siblings and involvement in household chores are other reasons . Safety too is a major issue including journeys to school. In one of the Unicef sponsored recent studies done across the state, several girls have said that they found it uncomfortable to go by road to school due to presence of boys/men who indulge in eve-teasing and the likelihood of violations within the school premise. What adds to this predicament is that there is no definition on drop outs. A lot of children go missing, with no system of accountability. Numbers related to attendance are disappointing. Only 64% of students are present in a class on a particular day, what about the balance children? What the RTE doesn’t talk about, but I would like to address are the learning outcomes. Children are in school but don’t learn. After the 8th standard if children are not learning no one is accountable. A child might get a pass certificate from school, but what he has learnt and understood is mentioned nowhere. Quality education and its subsequent outcomes need to be made priority.
2. Under the banner of the Government’s Digitial movement, The Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) has come up with a couple of interesting initiatives to improve the state of education in schools. The mobile application ePathshala, that enables learning on the go, and Saransh, that allows schools to identify areas of improvement to facilitate and implement change… Given the realities on the ground that haven’t been addressed, are these initiatives supplementing or retracting from the ambition of providing education to all?
Ans: The digital movement in India cannot be looked at in isolation. Today, it is the way of life – for you, me and every Indian. It is a reality… children and schools are exposed to all forms of digital mediums, via computers and mobile phones and social media, even more than their teachers. Digital literacy would be required to make education relevant. There’s nothing wrong with the concept but one cannot just give smart phones to children and teachers , give them apps and assume that it is digital education! This will work well for reaching out to children in unreached areas where there is paucity of teachers or for training large masses of teachers. Many schools now have virtual classrooms and computer labs, but we cannot get education digitised assuming children know everything in that space. 75% percent people in both urban and rural India have mobiles , therefore this might be a progressive step towards optimising this fact. One is still to look into the availability of electricity, and internet to get access to these initiatives. I personally believe that education needs to be relevant, and in tandem with the times…Similarly, teachers need to be relevant too. Children are increasingly moving to other forms of gaining knowledge…not like in our time when teachers were our only source of information and learning. Therefore, it is important for teachers to adapt to changing times too. Digital education if undertaken with the objective to supplement classroom learning, or for distance learning for those students who don’t have access to a classroom, makes a lot of sense. I would call the process of exploring the digital medium- self learning… a process most children are moving towards to gain knowledge beyond school. This way we are redefining school as not the only fountain of knowledge but that children go to other sources and want to explore, learn, also enhancing their problem solving skills.
I feel that digital literacy cannot be left to children alone but that as adults, teachers or parents we must mentor these children and facilitate learning . I see this as the children’s ability to learn to learn.
3. Many states across India are fractured due to conflict, namely, Kashmir, Chhattisgarh etc. Bamboo schools for example are cropping up in Chhattisgarh as an attempt to provide education to children. How effective are these?
Ans: Unfortunately, Kashmir was a complete shut down till recently. We have teams working with the state government to ensure learning is happening. In conflict areas, formal education moves towards becoming informal in nature like evening schools, Bamboo schools etc. When you start education after a tsunami or earthquake, or during a conflict, it starts a routine for children and distracts them from what is happening around them. It remains a question mark whether learning is happening or not? But learning might not even be a priority given certain circumstances. At Pratham, we’ve been using our methodology in Bamboo schools, and its working. It’s a matter of adapting, making it relevant and beneficial to children. We cannot possibly achieve everything, but this is step 1 in providing a safe space to children. The common feedback has been that parents want their children to go to school, they want to have something to look forward to, and school makes for a safe haven.
4. Given the number of private schools on the rise, how will students graduating from a government school compete with their counterparts for higher education or even employability? How does the RTE address this reality and abide by its essence of equal education for all children?
Ans: Let’s first define these schools. There are Government funded , Government run schools like the Municipal Corporation (MC) and Zilla Parishads. There are several non aided low fees private schools that don’t have great infrastructure, in fact, schools under MC’s have better infrastructure and better trained teachers. Our latest ASER report reflected that there isn’t much difference in the learning levels of these schools. What creates the gap is the literacy levels of the parents who participate in the learning process of their children. For those whose parents are busy with their survival and cannot engage in their children’s education, the onus for learning falls solely on their teachers. Teachers have little incentive and almost no intrinsic motivation, therefore it becomes a problem and teachers begin to get blamed for the quality of education provided.
As far as competing with private schools is concerned, yes it is difficult. We need to give opportunities to every child and develop capacities within children who will compete.
5. There are still many children who are out-of-school in India. What strategies does the government employ to ensure every child goes to school?
Ans: For one there is the mid-day meal which works in many positive ways to get children to school. Besides, there is an attendance allowance, the Municipal Corporations are also distributing free items like tiffin boxes, water bottles, uniforms and of course books. Actually the BMC gives 27 free items to children/ students in Mumbai. Additionally urban schools are beginning to start pre-schools. This has acted as a significant push in enrolment in schools, the reason being, if a school has a pre-school it automatically means children can go to the 1st standard. In fact, no provision of pre-schools was a reason why parents were admitting children to private schools. Most Municipal Corporations in the city have seen a sizeable increase in enrolment due to this addition. Also, public schools are becoming semi-english medium, which is fulfilling the aspirations of parents and children. Many state governments too have started focusing on learning outcomes. The Central Government too has budgeted for learning outcomes and assessment tools as a new budget head under primary education. There has been a realisation that children will eventually stop coming to school if they aren’t learning anything. Therefore, states are trying out innovations and collaborating with effective models with the intention that all children must learn.
Data available on out-of-school children is not dis-segregated which doesn’t highlight required specific areas, districts. Different districts have different social realities, cultural contexts and reasons for children not attending schools are varied, but one common observation across the country is that children will not come to school if they are not interested and no learning takes place. In a survey we did in 1996, 2.5 lakh children were out of school in Mumbai. Today, in cities, majority of children are enrolled . Children who are not enrolled in school are only at 4%, and these are the most marginalised who get into child labour, or are on the street or on railway platforms. So my suggestion is that we need to define the concept of drop out. The ASER report shows that even though the enrolment is high, actual attendance in school is low. On any given day, it is observed that only 66 % are in class and the rest are regularly irregular or are missing from school. So, we need to look at not drop outs alone but these children who are irregular and are in fact potential drop outs or at-risk children.
6. Recently, there was news that children would not be able to access the mid-day meal in school without an Aadhar card… Your comments on the same, please.
Ans: Many children don’t even have the documents to procure an Aadhar card. In few states children are not being admitted without the Aadhar card, which is a complete violation of their fundamental right. While nothing has been finalised on the need of an Aadhar card to access the mid-day meal in school, collectively we need to do something before it gets too late.
7. In a country where the right to education has been accorded the status of a fundamental right, it is high time the government realised that the enjoyment of this right cannot be limited to only abled children. Instead of taking robust measures to ensure the full enjoyment of this right by persons with disabilities on an equal basis, the government’s proposal to set up a separate university for the disabled reeks of being unequal. What are the realities of children with disabilities being fully integrated into schools?
Ans: There are plenty disabled children. In Mumbai alone, 1200 students have been admitted by Pratham. We are all for inclusion, but in reality there is no bandwidth to manage them. Teachers are not trained, there are no facilities or infrastructure in schools that keep them in mind and the mindsets too don’t help the situation. Many children are out of place, while with some children we have seen good results where the teacher has played a significant role. However, the Government is not forthcoming to give more teachers. They are currently focusing on providing equipment to these children – like hearing aids. We have the National Open School (NOS) that is a program designed for children with special needs that takes them right through school – upto the 10th standard. It is combination of special and inclusive education, a dire need of the hour. Very good things have been happening under the Persons with Disabilities (PWD) Act, but implementation remains to be the key problem.
8. There exist conflicting views about the RTE’s ‘no detention’ policy. Which side do your views fall? And why?
Ans: This is a very difficult question to answer. Principally, I am with the no-detention policy. However, the issue has been with the implementation of the Act. Every child is unique , learns and performs differently. Therefore, stigmatising children is not the solution. Schools have not looked into this very seriously. For example, a child should be given the next 6 month to achieve the necessary competencies . The recent discussion has been around what the Government of Maharashtra wants to implement – there should be a scholarship board exam at the end of the 4th and 8th standard which is a public exam, on the basis of which children must be evaluated and sent to the next standard.
9. How has the CSR money in education helped propel the RTE?
Ans: Well, CSR has just only begun. Earlier, charities were doing their bit irrespective of CSR. My worry today is that the money is not always going in the right direction, and not fulfilling the need of the hour. While the CSR is prioritising education as a thrust area much more can happen. Today, most of the CSR money is going into national projects or in foundations set up by companies themselves. What we need is collective action- to get all nonprofits and corporates together along with the government and decide a joint plan of action for education. This will enable coordination and duplication can be avoided too.
10. What should the focus areas be for the next 5 years?
Ans: If the focus is on learning outcomes, the rest will fall into place. There must be a ZERO TOLERANCE attitude towards the fact that children even though in school are not learning. Another focus area must definitely be vulnerable children, from tribal children to child labourers, the strategy must be to ensure all of them are in school. The RTE Act must cover children from pre-school upto 10th standard (provision of middle and high school post the 8th standard). Even if the Central Government doesn’t push for it, many states would be able to push it and achieve it at their level. Lastly, one cannot forget the spirit and ethos of the RTE – it needs to be an equaliser and not a divider. One needs to work on the mindsets of the middle class and the rich towards education and its essence of inclusion. We need to work with the aim of enhancing the quality of our Government Schools as if this system fails, the most marginalised will be deprived of an education. We need to do this soon, rather act now, as you all will agree that a child cannot wait for tomorrow as his/her name is TODAY.