I worried that the round-the-clock coverage of Agni V would detract from the much needed focus on the RTE Act, but today's papers provide some reassurance on this score. The Hindu features an insightful op-ed by Professor Krishna Kumar, a former Director of the NCERT. After endorsing the approach of the majority judgment, Kumar focuses on the perspective of teachers:
"For well over a century, India has treated its teachers like messengers who need not know or understand the message themselves. They occupy the lowest rung in the ladder of authority and status in the system of education. The younger the age-group they teach, the lower their own status and salary. That is why the nursery teacher has no status at all, and no university-level training course, which might explain why certain practices are good and others are bad, exists for nursery professionals.
Primary level teaching is similarly regarded as a drill devoid of intellectual effort. Delhi University stood alone when it started offering a four-year course called Bachelor of Elementary Education (B.El.Ed.) in the 1990s. Though this course has produced outstanding teachers, the Delhi government still denies them the status of trained graduate teachers. In its recent verdict, the Supreme Court characterised education “as a process involving many actors,” starting the list with “the one who provides education,” namely, the teacher. The list then goes on to include the owners of institutions, parents, the child, society, and the state. This clarity of analysis runs through the entire verdict which should become a compulsory reading for administrators and teachers alike if RTE is to reach its ambitious goals."
Kumar addresses the concerns raised by owners of unaided educational institutions and concludes as follows:
"Indeed, this may provide to private schools an opportunity to set their own priorities in order. Over the last few decades, a culture of extravagance has engulfed many of India's elite private schools. Many private schools now uninhibitedly flaunt their five-star luxuries, ranging from expensive furniture and marble floors to air conditioning and CCTVs. When you visit one of these schools, you wonder whether you are in a hotel. Their plea for sympathy over the inadequacy of state subsidy for 25 per cent free seats is a bit cloying.
It will be nice if they shift their anxiety to the challenges that RTE throws at everyone concerned with children's education — teachers, trainers, parents, state and society. For teachers, the critical issue is to absorb the new curricular and pedagogic perspective which focuses on learning in place of marks. RTE asks for continuous and comprehensive evaluation, and a ban on corporal punishment and private tuition. These are tall demands and our systemic preparation to meet them has barely begun. Search for short cuts has ominously surfaced in matters like the selection of distance education for teacher training and dependence on NGOs for monitoring. The state and the university system cannot any more neglect the task of regulating teacher training institutes, most of which are now in the private sector."
The need for concerted action by a host of actors has been emphasised by other commentators. Writing in the Hindustan Times a few days ago, Vaibhav Purandhare emphasised what parents will have to do on their part:
"But it is not these questions of logistics that will hold up the Act; answers to them can be found, after consultation with all groups involved (Mumbai, in fact, has an excellent model of egalitarian education in the form of many Jesuit institutions). It is the attitudinal approach that's the key to ensuring integration, and this approach begins, develops and ends at home.
Young parents have been brought up in an environment in which the idea is to compete stiffly, get ahead of others and emphasise the distance travelled from others in terms of social, educational and economic status to the extent possible. Having itself exploited the benefits of free, state-sponsored education, this class abuses Nehruvian socialism which, in the first place, gave their families a toehold in society and helped them create the groundwork for all the success ahead. Will this class, which gives its children iPads and all the new toys to hit the market, also tell them that those who do not have iPads are equals and must be treated as equals? Will parents tell their kids that we ourselves, too, were, not too long ago, in the same situation that the poor are in today? Will Mumbai's even older privileged classes, who are loath to share their elite clubs and gymkhanas with the rest of society, not resist this invasion of their world? And will we, having moved as a society from the deification of poverty to the other extreme of vilification, not commit the crime of patronising the kids who will come to our schools in an attempt to show ourselves as civilised?
Worrying as the prospect is, here is also an opportunity for a genuine social revolution. What we could do not do in the 65 years since Independence, we could do in just a few years if parents approach this revolution in schooling correctly. We could take a leap from feudalism to democracy, from an essentially unequal society to a genuinely transformative one, and we can bridge the gap between Bharat and India Shining. Such an opportunity to wipe out inequality, at least to some extent, does not present itself to all generations."