Lucknow: In an upstairs classroom at a residential school in Mal, near Lucknow, the girls are revising for their exams. As the light starts to fade at the glassless windows, each girl takes a brightly coloured plastic lamp and carries it to her space on the floor. There is no electricity, but the lamps are solar powered. They have been donated jointly by Swedish company Ikea and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) to Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) schools in Uttar Pradesh, for girls from minority groups and impoverished backgrounds. In the dark, little pools of light gather around each bent head.
That’s an improvement no doubt, yet a challenge; and it is something that would have struck a chord with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who too once struggled similarly in the absence of electricity. On 1 April, Singh spoke in Delhi as the Right to Education (RTE) Act came into force, and said, “In my childhood, I read under the dim light of a kerosene lamp. I am what I am today because of education, and I want every Indian child, girl and boy, to be so touched by the light.”
Thanks to RTE, all children aged 6-14 now have the constitutional right to receive a good quality education. The plan includes proposals to upgrade existing schools and open new ones; train thousands of new teachers for a mandated 1:30 teacher-pupil ratio, and institute a 25% reservation in private schools for minority students.
It is one of many efforts to boost school attendance in India. Census data shows a countrywide increase in literacy from 52.2% to 64.8% between 1991 and 2001, and since then, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) programme claims to have placed a primary school within 1km of nearly every child in the country.
But there is much to be done.
Official estimates say 8-10 million children are still out of school (other sources claim the figure is much higher, up to 40 million), and child labour numbers and dropout rates are high.
According to a 2010 report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), nearly four out of 10 children who enrol in first grade don’t reach the 12th; and many students are unable to pursue their education consistently, and are forced to take breaks depending on the seasonal migration between cities and villages by their parents in search of jobs.
Predictably, children from the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward castes have lower enrolment rates, as do girls, who are disabled or from minority communities.
Concerns such as these prompt doubts on the feasibility of the Act. Ashish Rajpal, chief executive of iDiscoveri, a social enterprise that works to transform teaching methods in India, is one of those with reservations.
“Every right-thinking person in the country has to welcome this Act,” he says. “It’s been overdue for 50 years. But having forward-thinking documents doesn’t necessarily mean that change will occur. In terms of form, there is almost nothing missing at the moment. We have the schools, we have the complete system, but where is the substance?”
In Uttar Pradesh (UP), a state with one of the lowest literacy rates (56% in 2001), the problem is particularly pressing. Yet, the state director of SSA, Lalita Pradeep, is confident that progress is being made. “RTE is the best thing that ever happened to our country,” she says. “UP is the largest state so it has a big challenge before it; we are totally ready.”
India reported a fall of almost 15 million in out-of-school numbers in the two years following SSA’s 2001 launch, according to the Unesco report. Now, the country faces the challenge of maintaining those results and pushing harder in the state’s major cities.
Urbanization in UP has flooded cities with the children of migrant workers and heightened competition for real estate. In Lucknow, much school space is rented and, with high rents and scarce space, SSA struggles to renovate and extend its existing buildings, says Pradeep. Because of the temporary nature of their housing and jobs, immigrants are often slow to enrol their children in school and quick to pull them out. In Lucknow, the pressure on urban schools to keep up with this erratic enrolment means that the required materials, registration documents and funds often come too late or not at all.
At the Chandganj Primary School, teachers voice their frustrations over the delays in acquiring these documents. Rekha Yadav says that the parents of most students are migrant workers—labourers, rickshaw drivers and vegetable sellers—who are less interested in the quality of their children’s education than in the material benefits (uniforms, free meals and the Rs300 incentive fee) that come with it. “I have to make the children understand the importance of learning,” she says, “I have to persuade them to study.”
“They don’t come regularly,” agrees headmistress Maya Dixit. “In the harvest season, the kids go back to the villages to work. It’s very frustrating, we can’t teach them properly.”
Dixit says that most parents are below the poverty line and consider education to be of secondary importance. “First comes food, then education,” she says.
It is more difficult to measure and enforce enrolment in city schools, but rural schools find it harder to attract trained teachers. Pradeep estimates that the state will need to train 300,000 new teachers and retrain some existing ones, as the RTE Act doesn’t permit untrained teachers to work. “Quality has been the biggest challenge for many decades, and it still is,” she says. “We have recruited good teachers with good backgrounds and training, but sometimes that doesn’t translate when they are in the school.”
In fact, teaching standards vary greatly, and private schools can seem like a better option to parents, says Vinobajee Gautam, an education specialist with Unicef in Lucknow. “There is a widely held perception among the urban poor that government schools are inefficient,” he says. “Some people’s perception is so bad that they prefer to take their children out of education altogether if they can’t afford the private option.”
Accusations of teachers playing truant and working on the side during school hours are frequently made, and Uma Bisht, the UP director of the National Literacy Mission, says this is due to a lack of regulation. “Even today, especially in rural areas, the teachers don’t attend regularly,” she says. “If the teachers aren’t behaving responsibly, we cannot motivate the parents, we cannot motivate the children. We have to blacklist these teachers.”
The RTE promises to set up school management committees (SMCs) to address such problems. At Unicef, Gautam is working to spread awareness about the new rules. “With this Act, the government has managed to transmit the sense of responsibility to the communities themselves,” he says. “When we hand over the school to them, we’ll see the results.”
SMCs will be made up of local community leaders and parents, acting as watchdogs for their local schools, responsible for everything from admissions to fund allocation. “I think it’s ownership that will make a difference in these areas,” Pradeep says. “Once 75% of the SMC is made up of parents, things will look different; we can ensure good results and there will be a lot of transparency of these funds.”
The final hurdle will be empowering those who remain marginalized. Belonging to a scheduled caste or tribe or being a girl still lowers a child’s chance of getting an education in India. The girls at the school in Mal come from these backgrounds and SSA’s KGBV schools, basic as their infrastructure might be, offer what is often the only chance for pupils such as these to realize Singh’s dream.