After a good 30 years, India’s education policy is yet again up for revision. Given that India is home to more than 400 million children, the New Education Policy (NEP) has tremendous potential to affect directly a large percentage of India’s population.
Hence, it is extremely important that decision makers across all levels work together to ensure that a robust structure and mechanism is created for our children to learn, develop and flourish.
A well-crafted policy, which addresses various existing challenges, will be a positive step in ensuring that all children enjoy their right to education.
Duty bearers for children should make a promise that the childhood of our country’s children shouldn’t be spent begging on streets or working in agricultural fields or construction sites, but in well-equipped classrooms.
Interestingly, the Right to Education (RTE) Act introduced in 2009 made it mandatory for children between the ages of 6 and 14 years to attend school, which has led to enhancing improvements in school infrastructure and spiking the rate of enrolments.
At the same time, without constitutional provisions, a significant drop is seen in school-going children beyond Class 8, making them more vulnerable to labour and exploitation.
The data here (chart 1) shows that almost 15% of the children drop out in secondary level of schooling and the percentage is higher when it comes to children from marginalised communities.
With over 90% of secondary schools in Maharashtra under private ownership, it becomes difficult for children from marginalised backgrounds to avail of secondary education at affordable prices. It is, therefore, important to relook at the state ownership of schools in order to move towards universalisation of secondary education.
The government needs to increase its share of government-owned secondary schools to improve the rates of enrolment and retention of children in secondary schools putting secondary education too on their priority list.
CHILD LABOUR AND EDUCATION
The Census 2011 data states that there are 17.64 lakh children working between the ages of 15 and 18 years in India. More than 1/5th of the children in this age-group are working and 71.3% of the working children are in rural areas.
Maharashtra is one of the top five states, with a modest reduction of 4.7% in child labour in the entire decade.
All indicators of education show that children from disadvantaged groups, girls, and children with special needs (CWSN) have higher dropout numbers as classes’ progress make them more vulnerable to child labour, trafficking, and child marriage.
The country today has nearly 10.2 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 years, who are child labour. There should be convergence between labour and education both in policy and implementation since children often tend to combine work and education, leading to lower attendance and eventually dropping out of schools.
CHILD MARRIAGES AND EDUCATION
India also has the highest rate of child marriages and globally the highest number of child brides. According to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-III) 2005-06, 46% of the women in the age group of 18-29 years were married before reaching the legal age of 18 years. India has the highest rate of child marriage, with globally the highest number of child brides.
In states like Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, the growth rate in child marriage is more than 50%.
According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development (2013): National Strategy Document on Prevention of Child Marriage, over the last 15 years, the incidence of child marriage in India has declined by only 11%, which means it is slower than 1% every year.
Maharashtra too has a considerable number of child marriages which often go unreported—about 4.48 lakh children between the ages of 15 and 17 years are married, 70 % of these children being girls.
The top three hubs for under-aged married girls are Thane, Pune and the suburban regions of Mumbai, together accounting for 25% of the married girls.
Another issue to be addressed immediately is that of closure and merger of schools since this impacts mainly the marginalised. The state government, hence, should not only make secondary education accessible to them but they should also design a thorough support system to protect both the child and his/her health.
The NEP should specifically vision for strategies of strengthening secondary and higher secondary education for girls and also health and protection framework in such schools (both in those run by the HRD as well as other ministries).
Construction of residential schools for girls should be prioritised, as, thus, the girls’ access to education will be easier and safer. Other areas of improvement could be in financial allocations of school facilities, distance of schools from their areas of habitat, devising a concise curriculum beyond elementary levels, training of teachers and addressing their ongoing vacancies, to name a few.
The policy surely stands to play a significant role in not only shaping the future of our children but along with it the social and political economy of our country.
Kreeanne Rabadi is Director, Western Region, Child Rights and You (CRY)