Vinod Raina, April 20, 2013 So much has been made of the 25% quota for underprivileged children in private schools, mainly because it is an issue that affects the middle and upper-middle classes.
But the biggest challenge in implementing the Right to Education Act is not the 25% quota. Because private schools make up for only 20% of India's schoolchildren in the RTE age group; 80% are still enrolled in public schools. The true challenge is in providing quality education to children in these schools.
Ever since 2000, when the Sarva Shikhsa Abhiyan (SSA) scheme for universal education was launched, the focus has been on offering some form of schooling to children. Often, this took the form of 'guaranteeing' a single untrained contract teacher.
With the focus on increasing enrolments, the bodies responsible for ensuring quality in textbooks, teacher capability and classroom transactions atrophied, since they were kept out of the SSA.
Then, for implementing the RTE Act, the government decided to use SSA as the vehicle because it already existed. The mindset of the departments is to see it as an extension of the erstwhile scheme - when actually it is a new fundamental right that requires a different attitude and governance mechanisms.
We have gone from the original Constitutional provision that asked the government to 'endeavour' to provide education to every child, to a law that makes it an obligation on the state. The governments are legally bound to provide education of equitable quality, which includes one teacher for every 30 students and a neighbourhood school for every last child.
The real challenge is to fulfil these Constitutional obligations for that 'last' child - whether homeless, migrant, nomad, tribal, disabled or trapped in a conflict zone. This requires different approaches and solutions and that makes it challenging, but the challenges are not insurmountable.
One significant advantage we have is that the Centre has not extended the 2013 targets of the Act. That means that the courts can now get involved.
It also means that the state governments, which spent the first two years of the three-year deadline arguing back and forth about implementation, are now beginning to realise that they can face legal challenges.
It has been the same in other countries where such legal provisions were made, like the US and Japan. There too, it took the involvement of the judiciary to push implementation.
It will take time, but it needn't take very long. In most states, quality education for all children aged 6 to 14 could be achieved in two or three years - maybe five for states like Bihar. What might take longer is changing mindsets, the mindsets that dictate that education is best achieved through fear of failure or of corporal punishment.
But minds have been changed before. We have had reasonable success in outlawing child marriage; we must change mindsets in favour of universal education of equitable quality, which is without fear, trauma and anxiety to the child.
(Vinod Raina, one of the architects of the Right to Education Act, is a member of Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti)