Stakeholders really need to understand the essence of the National Education Policy, 2019 and the challenges connected with it
We are our choices,” said Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, political activist and literary critic. Most people don’t realise how big a privilege it is to have the freedom of choice. I teach students ranging from five to 26 years, none of whom got to choose whether to work or study in a regular school. Eight-year-old Preiti is always hungry and 17-year-old Vijay seeks to escape a drunken father’s beatings, while fending for his siblings. Both were at a standard one learning level. However, I also had students who were receiving quality education, free of cost and guaranteed until class VIII and this was possible due to the Right to Education Act (RTE), 2009.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, is the legislation which provides free schooling to kids aged 6-14 years. A section of the Act, linked to the aspect of school “choice”, is Section 12(1)(c), which made it mandatory for all private, unaided, non-minority schools to reserve 25 per cent seats for children from a socially and/or economically disadvantaged background. This gives parents an opportunity to apply to schools they had hitherto lacked access to. The spirit of the Act, was to foster an environment of social inclusion, along with developing empathy for marginalised communities. However, there were many challenges, including clarity on the letter of the policy that had to be addressed first. Across the country, over 20 lakh seats must be reserved per year in private schools, according to the provision of the Act and there have been over 41 lakh admissions until 2018. The Draft National Education Policy (NEP), 2019, presents certain recommendations and challenges with respect to Section 12(1)(c). The recommendations are mainly centred around uniform technology usage for transparency and accountability; funding to be received on time; correct reporting of numbers; no discrimination in schools and extra support to students falling behind. An NGO working in this space, has come up with a Sustainability Benchmark, based on its experience of operations over the last six years. If implemented, it would address the recommendations/challenges mentioned in the NEP Draft, 2019 as well. States can be classified into three categories, based on their implementation standards — Mature, Maturing, and Nascent. This is not an attempt to rank States in an order, rather, a self-evaluation for them, to seek areas of improvement. Another motive of the benchmark is to highlight the bright spots in implementation in States that are doing well, in different aspects of the policy. The current scenario in the country and criticism around this policy is linked to multiple factors: A competition between Government and private schools; perceived discriminatory behaviour in private schools; low self-confidence among children enrolling through RTE due to the vast socio-economic differences; schools wrongfully claiming minority status to avoid 12(1)(c) admissions and delays in private schools receiving reimbursements, among others. However, there are many studies that highlight factors such as high self-efficacy in girls, more pro-social, generous and egalitarian behaviour in “richer” students with “poorer” classmates and also, how a lack of integrated classrooms will lead to a further segregated society. There needs to be a better system of monitoring and regulation of private schools, as there are concerns being raised about their quality. This is linked to parents making less-informed choices while selecting schools. However, a Bright Spots Report, 2019, based on its survey, shows that the top five factors affecting school choice are proximity to home; quality; transportation provision; board of education; results — in that order, thus showing that school quality is an important factor in parents’ choice.
Another current issue raging in the country, with respect to 12(1)(c) is the judgment by the Karnataka High Court in May, which accepted the petition, to read down the provision, thereby making admissions in private schools conditional upon the non-existence of Government or Government-aided schools in the neighborhood (i.e. Government schools be filled before parents can choose to send their wards to private ones). With over 6.5 lakh children studying under the provision in the State in 2018-19 and having received around 88 per cent of its reimbursement for the same year, as claimed from the Centre, it is a massive setback to the State and by extension to the nation, to see a State like Karnataka reduce the number of 12(1)(c) seats from 1.52 lakh to about 17,000 per year. The judgment was challenged in the Supreme Court (SC), through a Special Leave Petition. The SC has issued a notice to the Karnataka Government to reply and the verdict is pending. With the current version of the NEP 2019, which was released at the end of October, the stance on 12(1)(c) is lacking clarity. There are no details on implementation of the policy and hopefully the Winter Session of the Parliament will provide more lucidity. Stakeholders really need to understand the essence of the policy and the challenges connected with it, by engaging in constructive dialogue about the practical implications of the policy and how it affects lives and giving fact-based rationale for the same. It is for stakeholders to think about the choices they are making, as it impacts the right to choose, for millions of children in our country.
(The writer is Leader, Operations at a social organisation working on the implementation of the RTE Act.)