By Abhay Vaidya
Take the example of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which inspired many successful microfinance initiatives across India and elsewhere. Similar is the spectacular story of the Anand milk cooperative movement in Gujarat, popular by its brand name ‘Amul’, which inspired farmers in other states, notably Maharashtra, to supplement their income through cooperative dairy development.
E Sreedharan’s Delhi Metro is yet another example of a project implemented superbly and demonstrating that it is not impossible to adhere to high standards even in a country like ours.
Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal is likely to have egg on his face unless he is able to effectively demonstrate the correct implementation of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act). Sibal needs to either create models of the school he has in mind under the RTE Act, or identify at least a handful of exemplary inclusive schools in each state, to make it easier for others to follow. If he is able to do that in the short span of time that he has before the 2014 general elections, he will get the benefit of the news hounds chasing him for a good story.
Although the media is often blamed for highlighting negativity all around, the truth is that journalists are craving to report positive stories like the Delhi Metro. If Sibal makes the mistake of taking it easy and leaving the RTE Act’s implementation to education inspectors in various state departments, he should be prepared for a disaster in the face.
India has witnessed a lively debate on the state of school education in the country and the strengths and weaknesses of the RTE Act ever since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the legislation last month. This landmark act provides for free and compulsory education to children between the age of 6 to 14 years and mandates government/government-aided and non-minority unaided schools to reserve 25 percent of the seats for children from weaker sections of society.
Almost everyone has had an opinion on the RTE Act ranging from children and their parents to educationists, scholars, journalists, economists, politicians, bureaucrats and the common man. Various issues relating to education have been highlighted in the media. The fact is that the RTE Act has a very limited role and is not intended as a panacea for all the ills and lacunae in the school educational system in the country.
In a signed article in The Times of India on April 20 ( RTE Act can be a model for the world: Kapil Sibal), the minister provided much-needed clarity when he said that even after the 25 percent provision, "more than 90% of the households in the country will have to continue to enroll their children in government schools." The 25 percent quota is primarily "an attempt at affirmative action and social integration."
Sibal noted that in view of the enormous difficulties involved in implementing the act and making the change, "a 'gradualist' approach” has been adopted providing for admission of children from weaker sections at entry stage only."
As he explained: "The long gestation period provided in the act would enable the schools to put in place institutional structures to ensure that the quality of education is not compromised. It is not going to be easy but can be done."
While Sibal sounds good on paper, it is important to pay heed to those educationists who have highlighted the practical difficulties involved in running inclusive schools. Madhavi Kapur who runs the Aman Setu inclusive school in Pune wrote in The Indian Express about the strong need for a "properly defined strategy to integrate poorer children into schools" (Get the basics right; 25 April 2012).
"After visiting many homes in rural and urban India, I have realised," wrote Kapur, "that learning to read without decent instruction, without enough nutrition, without electricity and water, without a place to keep your possessions or a corner to do homework, without a parent who knows what is expected and a peer group that challenges and motivates, is quite a miracle, deserving of applause."
Kapur noted that merely admitting poor children in privileged schools won't be enough. A well-trained social worker would be required to have a continuous dialogue with such children and their parents and the school staff will need to be mission-oriented. From her own, rich experience, Kapur has given numerous tips such as the use of songs and stories in the mother-tongue "to bridge the divide between mind and heart, home language and school language"; bilingual books in the school library and extra instruction for children without access to English...
Good intentions are not enough, says Kapur, and must be backed with an action plan that fills in the learning gaps and makes resources available to the teacher who has to implement the act in the classroom.
Creating a “demonstration effect” by establishing model schools under the RTE Act is the first step. The next step would be to goad others to follow. People need to see to believe in the change proposed. For this, Sibal must identify and encourage existing inclusive schools to show the way and chart the path for others to follow.