In recent years, education has become a key issue in India. It is not something that we could say because we read it in newspapers, or because of the latest governmental acts, but it is evident even in the streets of Bhubaneswar, where you can see schools’ advertisements everywhere around.
The most significant change in the latest years was the Indian Government’s Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act from 2009, which provides free education, uniform, lunch and books for all children aged between 6 and 14. Before that, 50 percent of Indian children didn’t go to school, and the drop-out rate was more than 50 percent.
This law, which came into force in 2010, lays down the norms and conditions that every school must comply, such as buildings and infrastructure criteria, school-working days or teacher-working hours. To meet the RTE’s requirements, it demands major efforts also from the Government and the States. For example, nearly 50,000 teacher posts are vacant in elementary schools just in the state of Odisha. In the last few years, the quality of education has decreased in public schools (the learning outcome scores of Class V decreased by 5.4% in Odisha between 2012 and 2015), therefore many parents decided to send their kids to a private school. So, while the number of Government schools increased by 1.4%, the total enrolment fell by 6.7 million students and while the number of the private schools rose by 1.7%, their total enrolment rose by 35.5 million (Value for Money from Public Education Expenditure on Elementary Education in India, World Bank Report, 2016).
Despite all the critics the law received, we saw in the tribal village of Ambapadia, how the provisions of RTE works – or could work – in practice and what it means for the community of a small village. The school was built five years ago (there was no school here before that), where about 50 pupils study every day, everybody has her/his own books, uniform, and school bag, and each day they get a lunch cooked in the school’s kitchen.
There is another aspect we should keep in mind. For many poor families, it is a real challenge to send their kids to school, not only because of the costs of schooling, but because they count on their children to contribute to the family income, or just to look after their younger brothers and sisters while the parents are at work. As the teacher of Ambapadia’s school said, he had the duty to go for some of the kids every morning and accompany them to school. But it seems to work, children come even from the most distant parts of the village, wearing their uniforms, carrying their school bags, ready to learn.