Private schools are in great demand. It is clear to everyone that this demand is a consequence of the decline of credibility of schools established by the state in complying with the constitutional mandate to provide free and compulsory education to all children till they attain 14 years of age.
The RTE has provisions for children in the age group of six to 14 years only. One need not be an Amartya Sen to visualise how the increasing privatisation at the elementary and secondary stages sows seeds of lasting discrimination that relegates a majority of children to a second-rate citizenship for life. The constitutional mandate had a strong moral, social and economic imperative, which cannot be achieved simply in terms of increase in statistical figures. The National Policy on Education, NPE 86/92, emphasised that three aspects—access, participation and attainments—had to be looked after comprehensively. As numbers indicate, the system has extended ‘access’ to most of the children; the retention rates, too, have moved up, but the learner attainments and overall quality of education has dipped to levels that cause serious concern. Two ever-widening divides in education confront not only the system but also the nation: rural vs. urban and private vs. public! Over the years, one has witnessed total apathy of state governments, mainly in major states like UP and Bihar, toward improving the public-funded government schools.
These have not cared even to provide trained and qualified teachers, particularly in rural areas, urban slums and minority pockets. Bihar has decided not to fill vacancies of schoolteachers on a regular basis. In UP, 72,825 teachers selected in 2011 had to wait for Supreme Court orders to the state government to let them get their jobs. The state government has promptly regularised over 1.50 shiksha karmis who aren’t qualified by any standards, as has been indicated by the NCTE and Supreme Court instructions. Suddenly, the Bihar government has decided to give ‘grades’ to its para teachers! In both cases, it is pure election politics. Politicians safely play their caste cards, regional favoritism and other election games without caring for anything or any directive of the regulatory mechanism. When there are no teachers, any expectation of schools functioning regularly with adequate facilities is meaningless. The RTE’s image and objectives have been tarnished by crafty and myopic politicians, who don’t see beyond the next election. They create the mess, but children and their families suffer and languish for the want of education and skills. Private investors in school education have a field day. They provide impressive infrastructure and right teacher-taught ratio, regularity, discipline, good results and accountability. People and parents contrast it with government schools and find that even within the government system, discrimination has been perpetuated by creating well-endowed systems like central schools, army schools and several others.
Though it is no source of solace, it is now being debated globally that education is no longer the privilege of select groups, but a universally accepted natural and fundamental right of every child. The state fulfils its obligation only when it provides infrastructural and professional inputs and ensures that the learners have reached the expected levels of learning and skill acquisition.
International agencies like the World Bank encourage private investment in education; these have little interest in concepts like ‘neighbourhood school’ or the ‘Common School System’ that are a must in India to ensure greater social cohesion and religious amity. Children from diverse socio-cultural, economic and religious backgrounds must study together—not encouraged in private schools. The encouraging sign for government schools comes from public awareness that is spreading fast even in rural areas: to get a functional school is our right. In Sri Ganganagar district of Rajasthan, several villages have gone on hunger strike: give us teachers! If governments must act fast, ignoring this trend would be a grave miscalculation.
Rajput is a former director of the NCERT