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‘RTE extended reach of primary education; absenteeism still high’

Sushma Berlia,President of the Apeejay Education Society,talks about how from just a single school in Jalandhar,Apeejay group went on to build a number of schools and a university across North India,spearheading the challenge of making quality education,steeped in culture and values,available to all

Written by Express News Service |
April 30, 2012 2:07:16 am

Post- independence the need for quality education in the country struck my father. Education,which was global in its dimension,inculcated scientific temper and,yet,was founded on Indian culture and human values. This is what we sought to create. Wherein,there opportunities for every child’s personality to be actualised. In those days,particularly in northern India,there was a lack of schools. That is how the first Apeejay School came up in Jalandhar and we then took it forward with like-minded people. The idea was to keep preserving and cementing the Indian culture and the finer arts like design,painting,dance,etc.,and at the same time give an opportunity to children to pursue these avenues as a profession.

How was the Apeejay University set up?

Our idea was to set up India’s first liberal arts university,in terms of teaching and learning. We wanted to adopt a holistic approach. We allow students to change their stream if after some time of starting a course they realise that their interests were somewhere else. As each degree has its own requirement,it may mean that the student needs to take some additional courses,in some cases. We have an international semester and grade system. The degree may take longer but we allow students to take a decision about their career whenever they want. This is important because knowledge is seamless. We want to make our students industry-ready.

Over the last one year— especially in Delhi— a huge debate has started with regard to the autonomy of schools and the external or governmental controls pertaining to major policy decisions of schools. What’s your take on that?

First of all,we have our own quality control systems in place. As far as Apeejay is concerned,we do not need an external control agency to do a quality control exercise. We are in the education sector not as a business model but as a way of giving back to society. We have certain processes that we have put into place — both in writing and otherwise — which are more or less common to all schools and they are not at variants with what any educational directorate or anybody else would have done. The only unfortunate part is that the government has a lot of work left to do. If you look at the aspirations of the RTE,some of which are,if I may use the word,outsourced to the private sector. This is a testimony to the fact that the government puts trust in private institutions. Figures of school dropouts are alarming even though there’s good enrolment at the entry level. It’s a great aspiration but it needs to be properly executed,and at the current rate,it may take the government many years to implement it.

Would you agree with other private educational institutions that the onus of implementing the RTE should be with the government?

The problem is don’t club people who have altruistic goals with everyone in the field with these policies by which you try to control education. We try to have a diverse classroom and we try to accommodate children from all backgrounds on our own. Things need not be imposed by force in a place where you are self- supported. There are plenty of people who can afford to pay. Fine,let’s fund the education of the economically weaker sections but we should be able to charge for it from those who are willing to pay a little more.

What sort of government support have you seen since the RTE was implemented?

A sum of Rs 544 was received for books and other stationary for every child. Recently,a letter was sent asking schools to specify their per-child expenditure. There are many questions. How are you going to meet these expenditures? By cutting teacher’s salaries? Or by lowering standards or compromising with the learning environment?

Do you think it’s fair to compare government-school expenditure to private-school expenditure per child?

It’s a strange way of doing things. The government is saying that they are including operational expense per student,but land,building and renewal costs are not included in this. Secondly,what are you basing your per-child expenditure on? They should be calculating real per-student expenditure. The issue is not the students. There will be some students who may not be able to cope with the curriculum,irrespective of the social strata. The issue is processes being forced upon us and our autonomy.

How would you assess the performance of Right to Education Act in the last two years?

Since the implementation of Right to Education Act,2009,on the one hand,there has been improvement in the extension of primary education,both in regard to enrolment and in reduction of dropout rates,but on the other hand,there is a significant gap between the Gross Enrolment Ratio and actual attendance of children in schools.

The absolute numbers of children who are out of school remains large. Union human resource development (HRD) minister,admits that still 8.1 million children in the age group 6 to 14 are out of school.

Despite some improvements in access and retention,there is a greater challenge of improving the quality of school education. The learning outcome for a majority of children continues to be an area of serious concern. Several studies suggest that nearly half the children in Grade 5 are unable to read a Grade 2 text and 64 per cent of them can’t manage simple division sums.

There’s a shortage of 508,000 teachers country-wide,other figure say it is 1.4 million.

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