The passage of the Right to Education (RTE) Act in 2009 was a landmark step in the history of Indian legislation, as it followed decades of efforts from civil society, executive, legislature and the judiciary alike. The Unnikrishnan judgment (1993) spurred the demand for education, leading to the 86th constitutional amendment in 2002 and the insertion of article 21(A), thus putting the right to education on a par with the right to life and personal liberty. The right to education for children between 6-14 years became a fundamental right justiciable in a court of law. Its implications on delivery of education, therefore, meant that if a child was unable to receive quality education, it would no longer remain a gap in a scheme, but a violation of her fundamental rights.
This paradigm shift, however, took longer to seep into the system, which was reflected in poor resourcing, lack of adherence to timelines, and inconsistency in the delivery system. The strength of the RTE Act lay in its details and minimum inputs, where it specified student-teacher ratios, qualifications of teachers, the no-detention-policy until the completion of elementary education, basic standards of school infrastructure, opportunities for age-appropriate schooling for out-of-school children through ‘special training centres’, distance norms to ensure accessibility of schools to the last child, and so on.
When the efforts towards drafting of a new national policy on education began in 2015, it was a welcome step. It brought with it the hope of strengthening the provisions as well as the spirit of the RTE Act, and introducing new dimensions in keeping with India’s national and international commitments. The draft National Education Policy (NEP) finally came in public domain in May 2019. It did fulfil some high hopes—it envisioned extension of the ambit of the right to education for children from 3-18 years, it proposed realigning the stages of education in keeping with latest cognitive theories, it recommended to revisit the recent amendments regarding the no-detention policy. It has been cognisant of the rising safety concerns of children both within and outside schools, and has discussed the need for ensuring the same, especially for girls. It placed special focus on capacity development of teachers and the importance of pedagogy.
However, the draft NEP misses out on an opportunity to strengthen the RTE Act and lacks a child-centric approach. In fact, its proposal to revisit the RTE Act norms might dilute some of its key components that have a bearing on the government’s responsibility to ensure quality education for all children, especially those from marginalised backgrounds. It is unfair to out-of school children and first-generation learners whose academic performance has been poor due to ineffective implementation of RTE norms and quality standards.
The draft NEP discusses the issue of out-of-school children in detail and mentions bridge schooling, but it’s silent on the ‘special training’ component that the RTE Act provides to these children. This special training enables children to reintegrate with the education system through accelerated learning. Despite being an area that improves access to education, the implementation of this RTE component leaves much to be desired. Given that we still have over 10 million child labourers (Census 2011), a large number of migrant children and children in difficult circumstances, ‘special training’ must have got due recognition. Instead, the draft NEP proposes options of distance learning or digital platforms, which would be difficult for these children to access. They would be unable to receive the necessary supervision and support through trained qualified teachers essential to bridge the learning gap.
The draft NEP suggests recruitment of ‘remedial instructional aides’ from the community and student tutors to support students who might have otherwise ‘dropped out, not attended school or been unable to catch up’. While these support systems would work under the guidance of a teacher, it is unclear who would ultimately be accountable for students’ learning or how these persons would be evaluated. The idea that this ad hoc, untrained effort should continue for another decade could mean losing an entire generation.
The draft NEP calls for relaxation of RTE infrastructure norms. The overall RTE compliance as per U-DISE 2016-17 is a mere 12.6%. The absence of basic minimum norms would lead to varying learning environments and would negatively impact the holistic pedagogy this policy offers to children. The proposal of creating school complexes would require complete overhaul of the existing structure and the policy suggestion that this would lead to better administration and resourcing of schools lacks strong evidence. Enormous efforts and resources would be needed to make changes in a country like India, and such ideas must be implemented only once smaller efforts have borne plausible results. Its suggestion to share resources within school complexes including subject teachers, libraries, playgrounds and sports equipment seems to come largely from the perspective of school administration rather than ease of learning for the child. The idea that children should travel miles just to play for specified time-periods or borrow library books reflects a lack of understanding of basic needs of children. It would be a burden on teachers also to shuttle between schools, manage school hours, ensure safety of students, resource-sharing by girls’ schools, etc.
The change in governance structure and formation of National and State Education Commission proposed would affect their autonomy, which could be detrimental to the goal of education. While for the RTE Act the responsibility for monitoring its implementation lay with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), there is no clarity on what role NCPCR would play in the new structure. The draft NEP overlooks another crucial area that the RTE missed upon as well—i.e. mandating a clear accountability structure with a grievance redress mechanism. For if the RTE Act is extended as per the directions of the draft NEP and a child is unable to access any of her basic entitlements, the struggle to identify and hold duty-bearers accountable would continue.
As suggestions flow in to improve the draft NEP, we wait with baited breath as to what would happen to children’s entitlements as guaranteed by the RTE Act and the Constitution. In the interest of children, building upon the RTE and addressing its gaps would be wiser than reinventing the wheel when it comes to education delivery. There can be no outcomes without basic minimum inputs that are common across all schools, and children, especially from vulnerable segments, must not bear the brunt of policy gaps which they are the primary stakeholders of.