Quality education and learning: India’s children and future cannot wait
The enactment of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 marked a historic commitment to the children of India with regard to their education, development and future. With its guarantee of an elementary education, the Act provides the opportunity to all children, irrespective of their background, to develop to their fullest potential.
Six years since the Act came into force, it is important to reflect on how far we have come towards meeting this commitment.
Data show that India has made significant progress in ensuring children’s access to school with near-universal enrolment in primary education. The number of out-of-school children has reduced from approximately eight million children in 2009 to just over six million in 2014 (SRI-IMRB surveys, 2009 and 2014). The Act spurred progress in recruiting teachers and approximately 80% of teachers are trained (U-DISE Flash Statistics 2014-2015). Furthermore, the RTE Act and the Swachh Vidyalaya campaign have led to the construction of over 400,000 new toilets.
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Despite these achievements, challenges remain in moving beyond ensuring access to education to promoting learning. Over one-third (36%) of children drop out before completing elementary education (Educational Statistics at a Glance, 2014, MHRD). The majority of children not in school are from vulnerable and marginalised groups. Evidence from the latest National Achievement Survey (2015) indicates that children are not learning what we expect them to know, with less than half of reading comprehension questions and mathematical questions posed as part of the survey answered correctly by class 5 students. Thus, education quality and learning remain critical issues to address.
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Ensuring access and improving quality and learning are two sides of the same coin, requiring efforts to address both. This is important not only in fulfilling the RTE Act but also towards achieving Education Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.
When children enter primary school without quality preschool education, they are more likely to drop out. West Bengal has established model centres that implement child-friendly early education and promote intersectoral and interagency collaboration. This is critical to ensuring a child’s smooth transition to primary school.
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Experience in India has shown the positive impact of child-centred practices on learning. But there is still a long way to go to foster the needed shift in teachers’ attitudes and practices.
The New Education Policy being formulated in India is timely and opportune towards these aims. Meeting the policy’s vision of India as a knowledge superpower calls for building on the vision of RTE and moving beyond elementary education to include preschool education and completion of secondary education. This will help in building a skilled workforce and towards long-term impacts on the lives of adolescent boys and girls and their families. This is especially true in the case of girls’ education, with impacts on combatting child marriage, and on reducing total fertility rates and under-five mortality.
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It is imperative to redouble efforts at all levels if these national and global commitments are to be met. This also calls for employing innovative strategies, including using technology and working with the private sector, to achieve the bold targets. There is no time to waste — India’s children and future depend on it.
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Louis Georges Arsenault is UNICEF representative to India