Should elementary education in this country be provided by the government because it is running a Welfare State, or is it because every citizen is entitled to such education as a right? The debate seemed to have been settled for good when Parliament ected the Right to Education Act (RTE) of 2009. “I want every Indian child, girl and boy, to be so touched by the light of education. I want every Indian to dream of a better future and live that dream” — so said the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when this law granting free and compulsory elementary education became operatiol the next year on April 1. But presently the Central government is doing some serious rethink on RTE Act, particularly Section 16 which stipulates that ‘No child admitted in a school shall be held back in any class or expelled from school till the completion of elementary education’. This in effect meant that all students till Class VIII had to be passed as part of Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) under RTE to ensure their all-round development. On Saturday, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar reiterated in Guwahati that the Central government now wants to bring back exams in classes V and VIII. Why? Because students are not learning what they are expected to learn in a given class, but are still getting promoted to the next class as they don’t have to sit for exams. This deterioration has been evident in surveys over the last seven years, particularly in Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER).
From 2010 to 2016, the percentage of class V students in rural India who could read class II level textbooks fell from 53.7 percent to 47.8 percent. As for arithmetic, the figures were even more alarming — the percentage of class V students who could do division fell from an already low 36.2 percent to 26 percent. The HRD minister has informed that to junk the ‘no detention’ policy, a bill to amend the RTE Act has been drawn up and will be placed before the Cabinet soon. The changes could be implemented as early as next year. Students will be given two chances to pass at the end of class V and class VII, one in March and another in June after remedial classes. If they fail both chances, they will be detained in that class. In this context, Javadekar referred to last year’s Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) meet, in which Education ministers of as many as 25 States had opposed the ‘no-detention’ policy. It is clear therefore, that there is much disenchantment with the RTE Act as far as improving learning outcomes, particularly in government schools, is concerned. But RTE activists have pointed out that providing elementary education as a universal fundamental right in a country as varied as India is a multi-layered matter involving many stakeholders. Learning outcomes depend on several other factors than just students being insincere — like the quality of teachers, teaching practices, school infrastructure and environment, availability of books and socio-economic background of students.
It is a fact that lakhs of teaching posts in government schools remain vacant; many teachers lack tiolly recognised professiol qualifications; the problem is aggravated by burdening school teachers with non-teaching tasks. Unless these gaps are filled and distortions straightened out, it is unfair to put the blame for poor learning outcomes only on students, RTE activists contend. They point out that there are lakhs of children from poor, margilised families who are actually the first in their families to attend school, that there are many of them constantly facing the pressure to drop out and start earning a living. Motivating such families to send their wards to school and keeping them there, at least till end of elementary level, is an achievement in itself. The State has much to do in ensuring a school environment free of anxiety and fear, hostility and undue pressure. Detaining such students will only make it easy for them to drop out. On this point, other observers are asking whether governments in this country are at all serious in ensuring whether school students are learning anything useful or not. It is all very well for governments to insist that teachers complete their syllabus (despite their additiol duties). But should not the focus of teaching change so as to actually help school students read and understand, to write meaningfully, to tackle numbers? Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal during Saturday’s programme spoke of his government’s decision to start ‘Gunotsav’ to ensure quality education in schools. Education being a state subject, the onus is on the Assam government to frame a well-considered response to the amended RTE Act when it comes about. No child in this State should be deprived of education due to factors for which it is not responsible.