Monday, April 23, 2012

Implementing the RTE: Practical Solutions

Since the government passed the Right to Education Act (RTE), the nation has been feverishly debating the tenets. Now that the Supreme Court has validated the act, the reality has finally set in. This act is law and thus, has to be implemented.

In the last few days may educators and pundits have written about the RTE, from both positive and negative points of view. As expected, Left leaning commentators like Mihir Sharma have lauded the act, while others like Meeta Sengupta have been more critical (see here, and here). Basically in a simplified fashion, the points for and against the act are these:

  • India is an elitist country and quality education has been restricted to a few. The RTE democratises education.
  • Schools that have taken government aid or land at subsidised rates have a duty to abide by government rules and policies. In any case the government already mandates many rules for private schools.
  • Education needs to be more democratic to give real life lessons to kids. In foreign countries, every one studies together regardless of social background.
  • It is the duty of private citizens to provide for their less fortunate brethren in terms of education, in terms of increased fees.

  • This is forced social engineering. You cannot put different societies into a room together and force them to get along. There will be grave adjustment issues.
  • The government should not have a say in what private schools do or who they admit, especially since they are not helping in any way.
  • The law is illogical and un-implementable. There are too many unanswered questions and the government has taken no step in trying to even provide a practical approach to addressing them.
  • The government is outsourcing, free of cost, its duties of educating society, while not caring about abysmal standards of its own schools.
  • The school fees of children in private schools will increase, as they will have to subsidize 25% extra children and the school will obviously pass the burden on to them. This will cause a huge burden to middle-class families who struggle to send their children to private schools.

Personally, while I understand the social concern, and support the concept of egalitarian education, I find the the law to be more theoretical than practical. I feel it's badly thought out, badly framed, and has little connection to the real world it will impact. There are little or no guidelines for implementation, and based on the Education Minister's remarks it would seem that the law will be implemented, in most cases, on a wing and a prayer. Supporters of the law could call me biased and there's a case to be made for that, since I send my daughter to a private English medium school, automatically catapulting me to the ranks of the “elite”. However, my attempt is, independent of personal preferences, to see how best it can be implemented. The law is passed and the die has been cast. I am more focused on the addressing the real-world problems that implementation will undoubtedly throw up. 


It has to be implemented, we all know that now. The question is - what is the most effective (I was admonished for using the word "painless") in a previous draft) method in which it can be implemented to the best benefit of everyone it affects? What are the practical ramifications of the law? Most importantly, what practical measures can a school take to ensure compliance with the least amount of disruption? I think there are three main angles that need to be considered by schools while implementing the RTE. These pertain to Social, Educational, and Financial disparities between the children.

1. Educational Disparity

Adjustment issues can be mitigated by initially creating a separate section for underprivileged children. Now please note, I am not advocating segregation. What the separate section will do is provide a path to gradually assimilating them to a new culture and way of schooling they might not have been used to in the past. This will work like a remedial education class, with the objective that after a fixed time period, say a year at most, all the children will be integrated into mixed classrooms.

The temporary separate academic activities for the underprivileged kids, would ensure that the teachers can concentrate on coaching them to knowledge and skill levels equivalent to an ‘elite’ child before they can study together. This will ensure that the poor kids do not feel inferior or insecure at the beginning, and also that the class is not interrupted while the teacher has to repeatedly explain linguistic concepts to some kids, where the others are proficient already.

2. Social Disparity

Along with education, the school will also have to ensure that there is a path towards a future where the social disparities between the children do not impact their growth and education negatively. This is easier said than done because class biases are frequently ingrained in children from an early age on both sides of the social tracks. However, children are also very adaptable and far more willing to abandon their biases when presented with the correct opportunities and education – both by teachers and parents. One way of doing this effectively is through sporting activities.

It is my belief that even as the academics is disaggregated at the beginning via different classrooms, the games/sports time SHOULD be spent together, giving the kids from different social and financial level/strata an opportunity to interact while at their most equal, carefree, and happiest.  And it has been observed, and you might agree, that children bond best while playing together without being influenced by social encumbrances. Other non-academic areas of integration would include cultural activities – music, singing, poetry, and dramatics – where all kids can participate at equal levels. This non-academic interaction will foster a healthy respect for each other’s abilities and talents outside of the pressure of academic comparisons and performance.

This phased integration will help in ensuring that the “culture shock” is reduced and dispersed over a period of a a few months (maybe a year at most) and the children can ease into studying, and interacting with each other on an equal basis.

3. Financial Disparity

One of the elephants in the room that “elite” parents fear but don’t talk about, except in the safe confines of their living rooms, is the fear of their kids being targeted because of their financial status. This targeting, they fear, can take the form of snatched away food from tiffin boxes, or stolen watches, compass boxes, pens etc. This fear, however unfounded, makes them hesitate to put their kids in mixed settings.

While this fear might rarely realized in practical life, there still is the  possibility that a "poor" child will be enticed at the sight of a shiny new compass box that his parents would not be able to afford him/her, especially given the predilection of rich parents nowadays to gift expensive baubles to the apples of their eyes to prove their love on a continuing basis.

The only effective way to address this bias is for the school to decree that the students not carry any item to school that be above a certain monetary value. The school can, for example, mandate a couple of brands of reasonably priced compass boxes that everyone should purchase. The same goes for notebooks, calculators etc. Kids have no need of wearing watches in junior school, in any case. Cellphones and PlayStations should be banned outright. Many schools have actually implemented this rule already, with fair success. Now this will have to be done not just as a nice-to-have, but a need-to-have.


I feel these measures would ensure that the act can be implemented with the least amount of disruption in the educational lives of our children. It is not going to be easy, and there will be many barriers to the successful implementation of the RTE, but since implementation is imminent, the best way to do it is in a planned, calm, and practical manner. To do this we have to both confront and address our experiences, biases, and conditioning and take measures to mitigate as many possible problems as we can think of.

Finally, I sincerely believe that the school boards like (ICSE, CBSE, the state and international boards will have to get into the act to ensure that their curriculum is amended to address the new requirements. Innovations like multi-track curricula, incorporation of regional language education into the main curriculum, and flexible scientific testing will be needed to allow all children to perform at a certain level. It is only when the curricula are flexible enough to adapt itself to changing realities that the act will really be successful in implementation. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Old Man In The Housing Complex

I first heard about the old man in our housing complex from my daughter's 16-year old babysitter. I mean before that I had seen him walking around the complex but didn't really know anything about him till the babysitter spoke to me about him. Now a bit of background - our housing complex is similar to hundreds in Bombay, a group of buildings aggregated together in almost haphazard fashion in a certain area with a common boundary wall. Each building was a different housing society sharing a common area where the kids played every evening. As you'd expect there are many kids in the complex - ranging from a few months old (in their mothers' arms) to preteens playing "lukka chhupi" to teenagers knocking a football or a shuttlecock around.

Coming back to this "uncle" - he was seen every evening walking around the complex a few times carrying his infant grandson in his arms - the very picture of a loving, doting grandfather. After a while, a little tired due to his age and the burden of lifting a young child, he would down on a chair near where the kids play and watch them, an indulgent smile on his face, intermittently talking to his grandson in his arms. Sometimes he would call out to the playing kids and talk to them. Sometimes he would shout encouragement in their sporting endeavours. Sometimes he would ask the girls to come closer him and tickle and play with his cute baby grandson in his lap, as young girls are wont to.

So apparently this old man was very fond of the young girls who play together in the complex. A little too fond, according to the babysitter. He would call them, run fingers through their hair, caress their cheeks, put an arm around them - all pretty innocent gestures, except that the hand would remain in their hair just a tad too long, the pat would last just that little bit longer, the arm around the waist would squeeze that little bit harder, than the girls were comfortable with. Added to that were some inappropriate comments. Once he said to the babysitter when she wore shorts - "Aaj tum bahut sexy dikh rahi ho" ("You are looking very sexy today"). She was so shocked she never wore shorts in the playground again.

The thing was - she never told me this at the time it happened. I learned about this a few months later when I mentioned that I had taken a picture of a cute boy who was being carried around by his grandfather with my camera. Her immediate reaction was - "Bhaiyya woh achha admi nahin hai. Ajeeb hai" ("He is not a nice man. He is weird."). Upon my asking why she recounted the incidents to me. My immediate concern was my daughter, of course and I asked he if he had ever tried to get close to Tee (our nickname for her). He had not, to our relief, either because she was too young, or or because Tee was too indifferent to an old man sitting in a chair to walk up and talk to him. Plus the babysitter had ensured that she never let Tee get close to that man.

My mind was in a whirl. There were other children to consider, not just mine. On the other hand, there was no reason for taking any direct action because he had not done anything illegal. There had been no molestation as such - just an unnamed feeling of discomfort. I reiterated to the babysitter that while the man had not done anything bad yet, it made perfect sense for her to not just keep Tee away from him under ALL circumstances, but ensure all girls in the complex - maids, kids, babysitters, everyone - be careful around him. I was also curious if it was just her overactive imagination that had made her feel that way. However, that she said, Interestingly, that other girls who she played with, had also experienced the same sense of ickiness when near this man. And best and most gratifyingly, they had actually discussed it among themselves and decided to collectively, to politely boycott the man! Either education and knowledge of good and bad touch, or an innate sense of self preservation had made these kids take preventive action on their own!   

That's exactly what happened, and old man soon realized that not a single kid seemed to be interested in talking to him any more. In fact many would just move away from the immediate area when he arrived. Nowadays he stays within himself, still walks his toddler grandson around and does not seem to be trying to befriend other children.

Sometimes I wonder - was I overreacting? Was the babysitter lying or overreacting? Were the kids overly imaginative? The answer to all these questions is - Yes, maybe. But how does one know? And how can one take the chance? In the absence of any obvious illegal act, there was nothing official we could do. But it would be equally irresponsible and stupid to ignore or brush aside the feeling that teenage girls get when they are "creeped out". All in all, I thought we reached a satisfactory solution. But still when I see him in the complex now, I shudder involuntarily. Every time.

Only one thought bothers me. All indications were that the old man seemingly wanted to be close to girls. But what would I have done if it were boys instead, given he had a grandson he was with all the time? And what if his next grandchild is a girl?

Note: This post is in support of the Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month - April (CSAAM), and is cross posted on the CSAAM blog here.