Right to Education is defined as a universal entitlement to education for every child. It’s a concept that’s prevalent in the Indian scenario too. Our Right to Education Act of 2009 has provisions for free and compulsory education for every child up to the age of 14. It lays down the foundation for the basic requirements for schools and institutes to be able to facilitate this right. As for the actual implementation of the scheme, we are nowhere near the beginning of what’s ideal.
Right to education goes hand-in-hand with Inclusive Education. "Inclusion is to ensure that every child in the classroom feels included in the teaching-learning process," says Dhir Jhingran, UNICEF Advisor on Education. "To be included means children get good learning opportunities that are at their level and help them to learn.” However, the concept of inclusive education sits snugly only on paper. Despite the provisions of the RTE Act and the existent educational policy, inclusion (even in its rudimentary form) is hardly seen in schools. It is largely looked at from the point of view of special needs students. The necessity for the inclusion of children from tribal communities and socio-economically backward classes rarely gets any attention. In either scenario, inclusion remains restricted to a handful of institutions across the country.
What are we doing wrong?
Lack of infrastructure and resources is one of the primary causes for concern. We simply do not have enough qualified teachers in our schools, especially government schools, believes Dr Shalu Nigam, advocate, activist and researcher. “Government school teachers are overburdened. They are required to take up too many classes, too many students, and other responsibilities like election duty. This takes a toll on the attention they can provide to every individual student. Hence, quality suffers.”
“The present student-teacher ratio in schools across the country ranges between 11 and 57. This gives you an idea of the inappropriate distribution of resources. Another major problem is getting teachers to schools in small towns and villages. Every time we appoint a teacher from an urban area to a school in a remote village, they don’t stay there long. They manage to get a transfer from that school to another in a matter of months,” says Jhingran. This again affects the availability of enough teachers in a school, let alone qualified teachers.
Students too have quite a few obstacles piled up against them. “Free education is made available to a child up to the age of 14. However, if we consider the current system, a 14-year-old child will be studying in class 8 or 9. Should we say that she should not complete her education up to grade 12 at least? There are many such existing controversies which need to be re-examined,” says Dr Nigam.
What has to change?
Several studies suggest that India would benefit from a school system based on the Finnish model. Finland’s education model is built through a system of public schools in every neighbourhood. The system offers free education and subsidised meals for every student. Their education programme includes one year of kindergarten, nine years of ‘basic comprehensive education’, three years of secondary education in a vocational or academic field of study and higher education. The result - Finland has one of the highest Education Indices in the world. According to the Education Ministry of Finland, the success is mainly because of ‘the education system (uniform basic education for the whole age group), highly competent teachers, and the autonomy given to schools.’
According to Dr Nigam it has been recommended that our education system should be transformed to convert it into a fully public-funded 'Common School System' based on neighbourhood schools that are governed in a democratic, decentralised and participative mode. "Children of all citizens, whether from a poor class or a political class or a business class, should study in the same school. The quality will then improve dramatically when a Chief Minister’s child and a poor man's child share the same classroom.”
But, is India ready for such a transformation? “It requires a huge change in the way we think,” says Jhingran. "The profession of teaching has a very high prestige in Finland. It’s a governance issue, prioritising education and providing greater funds for it.”
Lack of appropriate funds to ramp up the resources for a Common School System is one major aspect. Dr Nigam offers her opinion about the issue. “The corporate sector must invest in a common pool of resources rather than coming up with its own educational institutions. These funds may be utilised to implement the Right to Education as envisaged in the Unnikrishnan judgement*.”
[*The Supreme Court judgement on Unnikrishnan versus the state of Andhra Pradesh ruled that Article 45 of the Constitution that provides early childhood care and education should be looked in collaboration with Article 21 (Right to Life).]
Why should we do it?
Education is the birthright of every child. Inclusion is the only way to ensure that no child misses out on education simply because he speaks a different language or comes from an indigenous community. "Many teachers believe all children cannot or shouldn’t learn," says Jhingran. "Our teacher education system has never focussed on beliefs and attitudes. The belief in equity is needed.”
Inclusion benefits not just a child from a disadvantaged background, but also one from a privileged place of life. “What privileged children gain in a mixed environment is cooperation, tolerance, understanding the background and language of other children,” says Jhingran. To sum up, Dr Nigam opines, “Respecting diversity is a vital issue in a shrinking world and children get to learn about that in school, in the community and while dealing with others.”
Let’s support inclusive education to make this world a better place to live in.