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Right to education at cross-roads in India

Author: Ravi S K
Posted on: Thursday 12th Jan 2017
Right to education at cross-roads in India

The Indian civil society, throughout the post-Independence times, has been working not just to impart education to children but also towards shaping a rights discourse around the varied aspects of education, primarily to establish that education is not a service but a human right.

I have been following and associated with the right to education work in India since 2000, in a myriad of contexts of my profession. 1999 to 2009 were heydays of groundswell of advocacy for making the right to education a fundamental right.  For more than three decades, civil society organizations  have worked only to strengthen State education, through their experiments in pedagogy, community mobilization, bringing out of school children to portals of education, and doing policy research to strengthen education as a human right. Their work was not to create an alternative private education system but to further the rights as defined in the Constitution of India, the vision of Ambedkar and Gandhi to universalize education, and international processes like Education for All (EFA) and Dakar Goals.

Further, they valued articulations of the, the Kothari Commission Report (1968) that laid the foundation for a rights-based discourse on education. Also, India, being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), has committed further to ensuring the right to education to all its children.

It is important to acknowledge the efforts made by the State, especially in the decades of 1990s and 2000s, on the fronts of making the right to education a fundamental right, expanding the network of schools, infrastructure and training of teachers, enhancement of enrollment, especially the gains in girls’ enrollment and participation in school education etc. These definitely led to the collapse of para-teachers, non-formal education, over-crowded class-rooms, untrained teachers etc. that depicted a substandard dispensation of education. The act of the State in the 1980s to make child labour prohibited and regulated in specific occupations and processes for children below 14 years, set a progressive discourse on making it completely abolished through legal means, social awareness and enhancement of access to education. The bringing of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 strengthened the child’s right to be in school, not at work.

Having acknowledged the role played by the State, it is equally important to also reflect on the challenges that are currently gripping the constituency of children in India, the youth and the poor in India, and also the sensitive civil society that’s taking steady steps towards furthering the cause of social justice and transformation.

Iniquitous, graded education system

The absence of a Common School System (CSS), with the civil society discourse seemingly distancing itself from demanding a common standard of schooling for all children presents a major challenge at this point. At present, the civil society appears to be more keen to promote the implementation of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act). This is not to, however, discount the voices that continue to demand for CSS.  But it is important to now re-energize ourselves on the advocacy for CSS.

The Kothari Commission had, in the 1960s, envisioned Common School System to dispense equitable school education to the rich and the poor. The Education Commission (1964-66) had recommended “… a Common School System of Public Education (CSS) as the basis of building up the National System of Education with a view to bring the different social classes and groups together and thus promote the emergence of an egalitarian and integrated Society.” The Commission had warned that “instead of doing so, education itself is tending to increase social segregation and to perpetuate and widen class distinctions”, further contending that “if these evils are to be eliminated and the education system is to become a powerful instrument of national development in general, and social and national integration in particular, we must move towards the goal of a common school system of public education.”

The concept of education with comparable quality has never been attempted by the State. There are different classes of schools in India. The 12 lakh or so government schools are of a particular quality where largely, the poor children study. The KendriyaVidyalayas (KVs) of the government have better educational standards, higher budgetary allocations and infrastructure. There is inequity, therefore, even within the government education system. Private schools with CBSE framework is another set of schools, depicting class and competition in society, between the have-nots and the haves.

Paucity of teachers and trained teachers continues to be a major issue in government schools, and these schools are for the have-not children. Key challenges that need to be addressed relate both to a shortage of teachers and their training, both pre-service and in-service.

Education sovereignty through equitable quality education for children continues to be compromised with graded schooling systems in India. This has been allowed also under the pretext of providing diverse thinking on teaching/pedagogy and curriculum. However, diversity as it exists is only promoting discrimination. The KVs and the other regular primary and secondary schooling run by the government are not qualitatively equivalent to each other. There are different classes of children in the country, those struggling to get good education, in large numbers, and those privileged to get quality education and in small numbers.

Children, especially the poor children have lost their sovereignty over right to education in India. So the question remains – Is education system really geared towards building empowerment in a democracy if only a minority gets quality education and the majority gets poor quality education?

No wonder, retention rates have not improved as much as it should have, with so much investment on school education – largely though on infrastructure.

Increasing discourse on skill-building

What is our imagination for children’s development in this country?

The current direction is to promote skill-building among the less educated, marginalized children. And this has the potential to further deepen and create divides between those who can afford higher education and those who cannot.

The government-run schools, where a majority of the poor and marginalized children study, do not offer quality education. They also do not encourage or support children to excel themselves. Subjects such as science and mathematics are left out. Hence, children from these schools lose out to their peer groups studying in private and fee-paying schools, thereby increasing the divide between them.

Privatization of education |Public service at stake

Needless to mention, in an unequal society like ours, for the socially and economically backward, public services are vital to ensure education, health and other human rights of children. There is no stance as yet to close all government schools and privatize school education or to look at Public-Private Partnership (PPP) models in school education largely. However, there are already PPP initiatives in higher education in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, and talks of the same in Andhra Pradesh. These trends may trickle down to school education. It must be remembered, however, that PPP models come with conditionalities that compromise on the autonomy of democratic populace on state services. In fact, the very act of Public-Private Partnership in higher education is a sign of dereliction of State duty to ensure accessibility to and equity in education.

The Indian State has continued to grow and fulfill educational needs of children by expansion of both school and higher education, even when the economy of the country was low. Hence, with increased GDP, the trend should have been otherwise; of one to increase quality and accessibility of education at all levels. Therefore, there is a potential challenge in the psyche of the State that is promoting PPP in education, to shift towards privatization of public services progressively/incrementally.

It must be remembered that private schools are currently market-driven, commercial ventures by individuals to trusts formed only to commodify education. Hence, our advocacy efforts should be geared towards strengthening education in the government schools since only these schools will ensure an inclusive society for the poor and socially excluded families that are still to come in the continuum of school and higher education.

Internationally, there is a movement against privatization of public education, and it’s time the Indian civil society joins the same through efforts on the ground strengthening government schools, and engaging in research to argue for education as a public good.

It can’t be denied that there are issues of quality in government school education but there are also instances of best efforts and corrective measures by the State to improve their quality. The State must be pushed to take measures to improve the same further and in a speedy manner.

School closure at rapid speed

The growth in the number of private schools, both recognized and unrecognized, has drawn children from the rural middle classes and the elites into the private schools. States like Karnataka, Orissa, Rajasthan etc., since 2009, have been reporting school closures and mergers at a rapid speed. And the reason is insufficiency of children in schools, thereby making the running of those schools untenable.

There is an estimated 80,000 to 1,00,000 schools being closed or merged in India. There is no empirical data to prove, however, if the competing schools are recognized schools, or if they are in violation of the RTE Act, or how many children are out of school in the area etc. The mere shrinking numbers of children in schools is provided as a justification to close and merge schools. The handful of children left in the government schools belong to deprived communities.

Have we ever thought – What is their future?

Disclaimer: The article is part of a comprensive write up by the author published already. Views expressed in this piece are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation. You can reach the author at


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