RTE Act can open our minds, not just gated schools

The Supreme Court ruling could not have come at a better time, given widespread distress caused by mercenary priorities in the education sector.

hidden April 17, 2012 18:32:37 IST
RTE Act can open our minds, not just gated schools

by Abhay Vaidya

Children's education, which ought to be the fundamental substructure for imparting values, has been rapidly transforming into one of the foremost symbols of class divide in urban India.

Just as India's upper middle class wants to live in gated housing societies while condemning the urban chaos outside, it wants its children to go to gated schools and have nothing to do with the rest of society. Through their policies and high fees, such schools generally ensure they are closed to the poor.

Listen to what middle class parents of children in such schools have to say and you will learn that children are getting into a "lifestyle competition" in such schools. This is especially visible in secondary schools where the competition among children is over which smart phones they possess, what gadgets — iPods and iPads — they can boast of, which sedan they own and where they are headed for their summer holidays.

RTE Act can open our minds not just gated schools

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the RTE Act could not have come a day later. Reuters

The popularity among children soars not just with what pricey birthday gift they are able to give to their friends but more so when they are able to do the same with return gifts during their birthday bash. This brings in the shock value and they become instant celebrities by giving out something electronic and expensive, like an imitation iPod or a pocket MP3 music player.

The environment at home, at school and on television is money-driven and children quickly learn to become acquisitive. Money is viewed as the fountainhead of happiness — an end in itself rather than the means for achieving goals that bring in fulfillment. Since money is the mother of success and happiness, having money, by whichever means possible — including corruption — is important than being poor.

Thus, corruption too becomes deeply ingrained in the system.

This is the underlying message that becomes all-pervasive as children grow up and enter college, become edgy about competitive exams, professional courses and donations in a race to secure their future. They get jobs and get married; have children and aspire for gated communities and gated schools. This has become the reality of contemporary India in which the education sector has been rapidly transforming from a social mission to a profit-driven industry.

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling upholding the constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, could not have come a day later given the widespread distress and despondency caused by the mercenary priorities of the education sector in India. This Act provides for free and compulsory education to children between 6 and 14 and mandates government schools, government-aided and non-minority aided schools to reserve 25% of their seats for poor children. This is landmark legislation and the biggest challenge will lie in its implementation.

One of my unforgettable memories from school days in Goregaon, Mumbai in the mid-1970s was when a friend had invited me home. We were studying in a convent school and what I remember vividly is that he lived in a slum. His mother showered a lot of affection towards her son’s school friend and gave some coins to another child to get a glass of milk to offer to their young guest. This affection and generosity, in spite of the poverty, unfailingly left a mark on the young mind.

In later years I went to a secondary school on Napean Sea Road (the same one that Maximum City author Suketu Mehta studied in) and not all my classmates were children from wealthy families. It was a mix of children of super-rich Jain businessmen, small traders, central government officers- and even the son of a taxi driver. Some of the wealthy children stood out with their imported gizmo digital watches, Japanese erasers, magnetic pencil boxes and expensive cloth for their white uniforms. However, since this was not a gated school like some of the upper-crust schools in parts of Mumbai, students who were not wealthy did not develop an inferiority complex and academic performance was the leveler in class.

When we look back and think of our school and college days, what we remember most is the impression made on us by our teachers. The lessons that we cherish most are not those from the textbooks, but those in values taught by our teachers.

An unforgettable part of our childhood is the memory of those teachers who inspired us with their brilliance, creativity, kindness, generosity and warmth. We don’t also forget the teachers with a nasty attitude. I especially remember one primary school teacher for her selfishness- she had told each of us students what gift to bring for her on Teacher’s Day because she didn’t want repetition in the 30-35 gifts she would get from her class on that day. I remember pestering my mother about the gift I had to take to school that day.

What we value most and remember for life are the deep, lasting impressions left on us by our teachers and not so much the furniture, the texture of paint in the classrooms or the general infrastructure. By and large it was the same in all schools and didn’t seem to matter much.

The much-admired ex-president APJ Abdul Kalam who did his primary education at the Rameshwararam Panchayat Elementary School has written an entire essay, "My Teachers", in which he speaks of how they influenced his mind and helped shape his life. He begins his essay by stating, "I was always fortunate and blessed to have one or two great teachers during every phase of my educational period between 1936 and1957."

More than ever, in today’s age, teachers need to be mentors and not focus so much on providing content says the innovator and entrepreneur Sam Pitroda, made famous afresh by the Congress for belonging to the carpenter caste.

The immensely successful 'Super 30' IIT-JEE entrance educational programme for poor students from Bihar is an example of how high quality education can be imparted to bright but poor students. Initiated by mathematician Anand Kumar in Patna, this programme which coaches poor students successfully for India's toughest entrance exam to the prestigious IITs, has received praise worldwide.

More than anything else, education is about mentoring and firing your students with imagination and values. The Indian diaspora of professionals who started migrating to the US from the early 1960s is testimony to the fact that the Indian educational system which was affordable to all in the past is fundamentally sound. The Right to Education Act is a much-needed corrective step amidst the trend of gated schools and a brilliant masterstroke by HRD minister Kapil Sibal. Implementing this new legislation will be a challenge for India, and it should be implemented firmly and efficiently. This is one of the corrections that India needs in its reforms process.

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