Who cares for the lost children?

Our education sector has not performed as per expectations. Its poor performance has been often attributed to insufficient allocation of government funds. In fact, every failure of the education sector has been rooted to insufficient funds. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Reports indicate that approximately 60 lakh children within the relevant age groups are out of school. 

The actual figure, however, is almost double. Experts ascertain that the transition from home to school is difficult for many children, especially those from poorer backgrounds. Students from these families often drop out within the first few years of attending school. Little attention has been given to rectify this problem. The rigid form of schooling in this country is perhaps unsuitable for many children from rural and less privileged backgrounds. This could be the reason for such high dropout rates. We need to think of different types of schools that are suitable for a plethora of socio-cultural groups.

Since 1990, when India signed the UNESCO-sponsored Education for All (EFA) document at Jomtien, Thailand, a lot of funds have been allocated to the primary education sector. There are two important areas which need to be mentioned – infrastructure creation and teacher education. One look at the buildings constructed for elementary schools would have us believe that a lot of money has been spent on creating the requisite infrastructure. 

A recent review of the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) would also lead us to believe that a lot of funds have been spent on elementary teacher training.  So how do you explain the growing number of children dropping out of school?  How do you explain the inability of our schools to retain children, despite great effort and advocacy? The imminent answer is that buildings don’t teach. In other words, the teachers responsible for imparting quality education are ill equipped.

There needs to be a greater focus on retaining children in school and bringing back those who never joined or were pushed out. Most children out of school are first generation learners. It is not as if their parent do not realise the importance of imparting education to their children. To reverse the current trend, we would need to augment the quality of teaching. Most of our teachers possess little understanding of the education process. 

The in-service teachers need immediate remedial training as they are ill equipped to impart even the minimum levels of learning. Most illiterate parents, who send their children to school, often forego much-needed income generated through child labour. Under the current education system, the loss is two-fold– loss of wages and little academic gain.

We cannot have a single national policy for a country like India. Every policy on education reinforces the importance of girl’s education. But visit Meghalaya and it would be apparent that the plight of a male child is as pathetic as his female counterpart in Bihar. We need to change our policy perspectives. Similarly, our policies for differently-abled children show little concern for different sectors of disability. Often the concession granted in all disability sectors is permission to use a writer in an examination. 

However, a writer is not required for children across various disability sectors. It is unfortunate that children with hearing impairment are clubbed with children with autism or visually impaired. We have not been able to design and develop separate norms for different disabilities. Nearly four percent of the population suffers from one disability or the other. So we should have specific norms for each disability sector which we have not been able to design and develop.

The Right to Education Act 2009 has a special section for bringing out of school children (OoSC) back to school and mainstreaming them to join the relevant class/age group. Teachers trained for this purpose are not available in schools. There should be a national drive to train teachers who can mainstream OoSC. We also need to do a house to house survey, based on the pattern of our very successful polio drive.

The curriculum design through the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) has ignored children from rural and less privileged sections. Courses and curriculum relevant to these groups do not find a place in the NCF. Why should all children be forced to study the academic subjects – physics, chemistry, economics etc.? Why can’t singing, dancing, painting, pottery, furniture, not be areas of study? We keep quoting the Finnish and Swedish examples. But we make no effort to introduce the best practices from these countries.

The liberal, non-formal education provided through open schooling is treated like a step child in India. It has neither been given recognition in the RTE nor does it get any government support in imparting education to those most in need. Many decades back Denmark established folk schools to provide a second opportunity to those who wish to go back to schooling, and it still survives as a vibrant system. 

We have not been able to provide an alternative system to those for whom the traditional face to face schools are not very suitable. Why can we not have evening/ night school for those learners who cannot attend day schools?

(The author is Professor of Education at IGNOU. The views expressed are strictly personal.)
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