I imagine that in India at present there must be many people wondering what the new Indian government under the leadership of Mr Narendra Modi may bring to the country. Whilst observing the Indian media I have detected extremes of elation and apprehension at the appointment of the new Prime Minister, and I have no doubt that his every move will be scrutinised over the coming years of his period of office. No matter what political affinities individuals may hold, one can only wonder at the monolithic task of conducting elections in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy. I am today struck by the contrast between the democratic processes that are one of India’s great successes and the sham which purports to be an electoral system in Syria.
As an interested bystander who observes India for the most part from a distance, and relies for news on a not always impartial press and media service, but more so on the discussions I have with friends and colleagues from within the country, I will be particularly curious to see how developments in respect of children and education are advanced under this new administration. The UNESCO Institute of Statistics reported in 2013 that the number of children out of school and therefore not having access to formal education in India is 37.7 million. That equates to approximately fifty percent of the world’s number of out of school children. The National Council for Education in India have been campaigning hard to address this issue, including taking action to the Supreme Court. The monitoring of this figure must surely be a priority for the incoming government.
The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) (2009) has been a focus of attention for most individuals and groups who are concerned for the education and rights of children from marginalised populations. During his election campaign, Mr Modi, along with other members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised to “revitalise and reorganise” education in the country and specifically referred to improving schooling for those with disabilities and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Since its implementation the RTE has been a source of dispute, anger and disappointment. It is often seen as well-intentioned but cumbersome, with many schools and education administrators finding ways to avoid its implementation.
For those watching developments on this front, the issue of schools seeking minority status from their State Governments, thus allowing them to avoid the retention of 25 percent of their seats for children from socially and economically disadvantaged students, will undoubtedly provide a critical focus. The legislation as it stands lacks clarity and many schools are identifying ways to circumvent the spirit of the Act. In some states, such as Tamil Nadu the target figures for admission of students previously denied education has fallen well below 50 percent of those anticipated. In many instances school principals have claimed that they had no applications from families who fall within the criteria. Critics say that they have adopted a stance aimed at repelling potential applicants and have made clear that such children will not receive a warm welcome.
It is, of course, easy to be critical of these schools and indeed the blatant obstacles that many have put in place are inexcusable. However, if the new government is sincere in addressing the challenge of children denied their educational rights, a first priority must be the preparation of teachers to address a more diverse school population. In my many meetings with teachers in India I have found that whilst some are adamant in their belief that a policy of inclusion should not be adopted, I meet many more who are concerned that they wish to see a more equitable system created. For many, their greatest apprehensions are centred upon their lack of experience of working with children from marginalised groups and their belief that they lack the skills to teach them. Even the most committed teachers who I meet during their attendance on courses, such as the MA programme we run in Bangalore, express some anxieties. If these dedicated professionals have concerns, how much greater must these be amongst those who have not as yet made the commitment to working for the development of inclusive schools?
The next few years are likely to be critical in the development of education in India and the full implementation of the RTE will be an important factor in the success or failure of the school system. I do hope that Mr Modi and his ministers have the courage to push forward the important initiatives that have the intention of improving the lives of millions of children and their families who have lived in poverty and exclusion for too long. Hopefully he will recognise that those who can deliver on these policies for him, the teachers in schools, need professional development and support if they are to succeed. I have the good fortune to work with teachers in India who are keen to deliver for pupils who have previously been denied their right to education, and undoubtedly will deliver given the right support.