Can I go to school with you?

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With the Right to Education now reality, child rights activists Sumita Mehta and Bidisha Fouzdar take a fresh look at the Common School System

Right lesson A salt worker’s daughter outside her school in a remote Gujarat village
Right lesson A salt worker’s daughter outside her school in a remote Gujarat village
Photo: AP

BY THE GOVERNMENT’S own count, 70 million children don’t go to school in India. In any other context, this would be a national emergency, not just another faceless ‘issue’. On August 4, 2009, Parliament passed the Right to Education bill that makes education a fundamental right for all citizens. The HRD Ministry has now proposed to increase private investment in education – as the ‘solution’ to India’s ‘quality education’ problem. Educationists fear that this will only perpetuate our stratified society.

In 1964, the Kothari commission first recommended the Common School System (CSS) – a system of equitable, State-controlled schooling with a specified standard of facilities and education imparted to students across economic backgrounds. Our new right to education can’t be fully inclusive without accomodating the principles of the CSS, and we need to deconstruct some of the relatedmyths that have taken hold in the public imagination.

FIVE COMMON MYTHS ABOUT THE COMMON SCHOOL SYSTEM

1 The school board results clearly show that private schools perform better than government schools
The board results are better because private schools are highly selective in admission procedures and encourage private tutoring. If they took in everyone without rigorous admission tests, their results would be similar to any other public school. So more than their own quality, the quality of students they admit determines their performance. If ‘poor quality’ means lack of buildings, facilities and extra-curricular activities, there are quite a few government schools that offer all these. If they do not, it is on account of improper fund use which needs monitoring.

2 Teachers in government schools are often absent
Stricter monitoring of quality by local communities has shown that such issues can be resolved. Government schoolteachers take on responsibilities that are beyond their teaching duties. If private schoolteachers were also engaged in ‘national duties’ such as working for the elections and the census, including the livestock census, their availability would be equally compromised.

3 Poor children are not hygienic and their presence in schools would culturally affect children from ‘good backgrounds’
This argument is anti-democratic and feudalistic. A plethora of literature is emerging all over the world calling for accepting and respecting socio-economic diversity in society and in schools. Mixed-ability groupings and heterogeneous student populations give far more opportunity to schools to practice cooperative and collaborative pedagogy.

Saying that poor kids culturally affect peers from ‘good’ families is anti-democratic

4 Such a system is not practiced anywhere in the developed world
The US has a neighbourhood school system. The UK has had similar hierarchies of school systems. A movement to eliminate selective grammar schools was launched and the CSS ideals have been put in place.

5 The CSS will mean a compromise for the rich, who can afford private and expensive schools
An equitable schooling with specific standards of facilities for students across economic backgrounds cannot be considered a compromise for anyone. The poor have as much of a right to choose as the rich.

Mehta and Fouzdar are activists with Child Rights and You (CRY)

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