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Proposing closure of govt schools, why is NEP 'silent' on universalising school education?

By Dr Aparajita Sharma*
The Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 has been pioneering in many ways, It defined changes to be made within a definite timeline for realising children’s right to education. For the first time in the history of India, children in relevant age groups were conferred the right to free and compulsory education as a fundamental right, which is legally enforceable.
It provided for a set of norms, which are also legally enforceable. These norms when applied to all schools seek to address structural deficiencies built into the school education system in India that have kept children out of school and to ensure equality not just in terms of access but quality. 
Implicit in this enactment is the obligation assumed by the government to commit all resources required for its implementation. In other words, it laid the foundation for universalisation of school education.
The framers of the RTE Act 2009 considered “access” as one of the most critical parameter for ensuring equity and inclusion in school education. The report on Basic Education in India by the PROBE team in 1999 demonstrated that the major problem in universalising elementary education was not on the demand side, which is the most common alibi of policymakers, but in supply.
It portrayed a dismal, even shameful picture, of dark and dirty classrooms in which little children were crowded together ‘like herds of sheep and goats.’ The PROBE report states 29 per cent of the schools operated in huts, tents and open spaces, 27 per cent schools had one teacher for five classes, and 26 per cent were without a usable blackboard. PROBE also found a depressing child-teacher ratio of 68, unimaginative and uninspiring teaching methods, and even social discrimination and gender bias in the classroom.
The RTE Act ensured availability of neighbourhood school, as specified in the section 6 of the Act, and made appropriate government and local authority duty bound to establish school where it is not established. It didn’t provision only for the physical school in the neighbourhood but ensured every child belonging to the weaker sections and disadvantaged groups are not discriminated [9(c)] including children of migrant families [9(k)].
Besides social and physical access, it sought to make schools functional. It developed norms and standards so that every school is able to impart elementary education, ensuring twin principles of equality and quality for universalization of elementary education.
For ensuring equal access of opportunity to elementary education for all children in the 6-14 age group in the spirit of RTE Act, a process of school mapping (SM) was undertaken by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). SM is a normative approach to the micro planning of school locations. It is an essential planning tool to overcome possibilities of regional inequalities in the provision of educational facilities.
It means that
  1. SM incorporates spatial and demographic dimensions into the educational planning process, and
  2. Location of educational facilities depends on the norms and standards prescribed by the authorities. 
On the basis of this new schools were established after 2010, based on the model national rules which were framed by MHRD detailing the nuances of access. However, the two timelines of 2013 and 2015 to fully implement the Act lapsed. And now we have the New Education Policy (NEP), seeking to give another direction. 
No doubt, over the last 10 years of RTE, enrolment has improved immensely, particularly of girls, and relatively for children from the marginalised communities. Further, people’s participation in monitoring and engaging with schools has grown manifold and access to schools was almost met in most parts of the country in the last decade.
However, NEP has failed to take note of the above positive trajectory. Instead, it is paving the way for closure of schools in the name of consolidation and rationalisation. This is contravention of the provision of neighbourhood schools in the RTE Act.
Following are the main concerns for NEP, which require to be relooked for realising the right to education of children in the country:

School autonomy

Establishing school complex for effective resourcing and governance turns the question of school autonomy into a myth. NEP apparently has not gone into the far-reaching implications of this recommendation. The idea behind “neighbourhood schools” was to make schools in the community autonomous, managed and governed by the community through school management committees.
The process adopted for rationalisation of schools in Rajasthan is already pushing children from marginalised families, particularly girls, out of school. Alternatively, they are being pushed to low quality private schools, forcing children to walk miles to access schools. These additional infrastructure would only incur additional costs.

Privatisation

Privatisation has been given a high leverage in NEP. For the first time there is no mention of common school system, and private schools and public schools are being discussed on a same plane. Even though it has mentioned that it is against commercialisation of education, and so has increased financial allocation for strengthening public education system, throughout the document, private and public schools have been treated as equal providers of quality education.
It has gone further to override the norms and standards of RTE as benchmarks for regulation of compliance to the RTE Act and wants benchmarks reviewed and appropriate modifications made to enable policy to incorporate improvements. How can a progressive law which makes education a fundamental right be modified? What more appropriate provisions are required than comprehensive norms and standards mentioned in the RTE Act?

Financing

Seeking to move away from the role of the state, NEP has sought to encourage public spirited private schools, even as encouraging philanthropic funding for financing education. NEP should have made the implementation of the 6 percent GDP on education mandatory.
No doubt, suggestions for sizeable increase in the resources for school education in India are welcome, especially the recommendations that “all states allocate 20% of their overall spends to education” and that the “Central government expenditure has to double”. However, this recommendation has many problems.
First of all, a 10-year period to reach the target of 20 percent is too long, particularly when RTE provides for universalization of quality elementary education in five years. Secondly, after the Centre’s 14th Finance Commission funding for the social sector was reduced drastically, there is no evidence to show that there has been substantial increase in the sector at the state level.
Increased public funding should not be dependent on cess and philanthropic funding; it should be the state’s commitment
The document does not spell out how states would be persuaded or obliged to accept and implement this target. Will there be a national legislation for this? Will it be possible to arrive at a consensus on adopting such a legislation? How will the progress towards achieving 20% target be monitored? Increased allocation is not the solution; the state should provide quality education within a time limit to each and every child in the country.
This is particularly critical for increasing number of out of school children in the country. Increased public funding should not be dependent on cess and philanthropic funding; it should be the state’s commitment to provide a certain percentage of GDP (not less than 6%) for quality education of not few but millions of children.

Quality education

NEP’s emphasis on improving learning through ‘learning to learn’ is narrow; it is described as “a skill, or more plausibly as a package of skills, involving study skills, critical analysis, time management, planning, goal setting and so on”. In India learning is not cognitive but systematic concern.
School as a system has not evolved even after 10 years of RTE. The purpose of NEP should have been to make all schools RTE compliant, so that all children are in ‘good schools’, compliant with RTE norms and standards, so that learning becomes possible. However, it doesn’t talk of improving compliance among all the schools, rather it supports closing small neighbourhood schools in the name of consolidation.
One saw this in the Niti Aayog’s shift from ‘inputs’ to ‘outcome’ while defining learning. It presented inputs as antithetical to learning, while experience suggests, RTE compliant schools have been able to contribute to children’s knowledge immensely. It is important to emphasise on inputs, so that children learn to know instead of a narrow focus on learning a set of defined activities.
A new timeline should have been proposed to achieve full RTE compliance and build schools where there are still no schools within the stipulated distance norm of RTE. Peer learning will be possible when school system is ready to teach children. Further, incentivising teachers for better learning outcomes will not help or improve their respect in the society; only autonomy of teachers and strong regulated public education system will.

Skill requirement

NEP has proposed skill requirements for the 21st century regulated on the basis of norms and standards to be developed by a centralised body at the national level. Clearly, learning outcome has been seen through a narrow lense and has failed to understand the values of continuing and comprehensive learning for holistic development. It has reduced education to acquiring certain skills, borrowed heavily from the mandate of low cost budget schools.
It is extremely important to reiterate the importance of universalisation of school education built on equity and quality. It cannot be compromised by coining terms like under-represented groups (URGs) without understanding the nuances of struggle of communiting in asserting their identity, especially when SCs/STs have constitutional status. In this context, calling NEP unconstitutional will not be farfetched.
To conclude, NEP should bring back the narrative of universalisation of education and implement the RTE Act within a new timeline rigorously. NEP should focus on:
  • Universalising secondary education. For this purpose, a set of norms have to be established, a large number of schools have to be built, schools are to be equipped, additional teachers are to be recruited and trained,
  • Early childhood care and education (ECCE) should be universalised. Pre-primary education ( 3-6 years) has to be integrated with the nearby primary schools. 
  • Since RTE has remained largely unimplemented, the first priority should be attached to implementing the Act. Only 12.7 per cent of the elementary schools comply with all the infrastructure requirements laid down in the Act. 
---
*Assistant professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, RTE enthusiast

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