The children the PM couldn’t speak tohttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-children-the-pm-couldnt-speak-to/

The children the PM couldn’t speak to

More than four years after the RTE was passed, the state has no handle on the numbers of out-of-school children.

While there is no ambiguity about a child being ‘never enrolled’, several categories of never-enrolled children are left out. Source: CR Sasikumar
While there is no ambiguity about a child being ‘never enrolled’, several categories of never-enrolled children are left out. (Source: CR Sasikumar)

More than four years after the RTE was passed, the state has no handle on the numbers of out-of-school children.

The recently released report of the Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children, based on a situational analysis of India, opens a Pandora’s box on data and methodological issues that plague the estimation of out-of-school children in India. As the report reveals, there is a multiplicity of definitions, sources of data and methods of estimation in use, but none that can be relied on to capture the full extent of the problem. As a result, it is not clear how many children are actually out of school, who they are, where they reside and why they are not in school. Unfortunately, no worthwhile effort is being made to move towards achieving that clarity or finding a solution for the millions who continue to remain beyond the pale of formal schooling.

Since the passage of the Right to Education Act, which mandates that every child in the age group of 6-14 years must be in school as a matter of her fundamental right, the estimation of out-of-school children has assumed greater significance. But, despite the legal ramifications, there is still no appropriate definition of an out-of school child or a standardised method of estimating the number.

Information on out-of-school children is collected either from schools or through household surveys. The first set relies entirely on data from school registers or information supplied by teachers. The margins of error in this method are self-evident. But the larger problem lies in the method of estimation, or the lack thereof. For instance, the DISE (district information system for education — now the official data collector on education) provides a net enrolment ratio by collecting data on the number of students enrolled in different age groups. The difference between this and the number estimated to be in the relevant age group can then “be considered” as not enrolled. The number of dropped-out children is calculated separately from the difference in enrolment of a cohort over two consecutive years. Besides the inaccuracies involved, there is in effect no actual estimate of out-of-school children.

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Household surveys, on the other hand, rely on different definitions of dropout. While the National Family Health Survey uses figures for the officially dropped out, others account for those who have not attended school on “any day in the past two months”, and states across the country vary in their interpretations, ranging from seven days of continuous absence (Karnataka) to three months of continuous absence (Gujarat). The Child Tracking Surveys (CTS) — the latest in the list — employ teachers to collect this information using an undefined methodology. In the final analysis, therefore, it is anybody’s guess how many children are in fact “out-of-school”.

In addition to the lack of clarity or accuracy of data, the problem is made worse by the fact that all this information (barring the CTS) is available only at aggregate levels. At the village, panchayat or block level, these records are neither maintained nor systematically tracked.

How, then, can the government, which is under legal obligation to ensure that every child is “in school”, do so, when it does not even know the scale or scope of the problem?

In order to address the problem of out-of-school children with any seriousness, there are some basic issues that need to be addressed. The first deals with the coverage of out-of-school children. While there is no ambiguity about a child being “never enrolled”, there are several categories of never-enrolled children that are systematically left out. For instance, children of migrant and nomadic families; street and homeless children; children engaged in labour; children in conflict with the law or in need of care and protection; and increasingly, children living in conflict zones. These “invisibilised” children may never get to school unless focused efforts are made to recognise them and count them in.

The second issue relates to the understanding of who a dropped-out child is. Recently, the government of India declared that a dropped-out child is one who is absent for 45 days, but without clarifying whether it covers continuous absence or not. However, the question is, does this measure really capture the scope of the problem? The reality is that many children are “regularly irregular”, attending school for a few days at a time and then remaining absent the next few.

Scores of other children attend for only some part of the school day, leaving after the midday meal is served. But none of the current measures captures these facts. Can these children be considered as being “in school”? Further, the DISE does not capture attendance data, basing its estimates on enrolments alone. And the states that are collecting data on dropouts based on attendance do not use them to update their enrolment records — only for organising “special training” — circumventing the issue of estimating the out-of-school yet again. Under the RTE Act, the state’s obligation is clear: regular attendance and retention, not just enrolment. How can the government continue to hide behind inappropriate definitions and shy away from accurate estimations?

The third issue is the absence of a reliable database at the local level. Under the RTE, the responsibility of tracking children has been given to the panchayats, but with no resources or corresponding capacities created to do so. Instead, it is the teachers who have been asked to conduct the CTS. The fact that they might have an incentive to under-report or that this task adds to their burden of non-teaching duties and might not lead to accurate estimates has been completely ignored. Besides, this information is not in the public domain, so no one knows which children have been included and which have not. In order to track children, the community must be involved in the creation and use of information. At present, the data regime is too remote to be able to initiate change on the ground.

More than four years after the RTE was passed, the state has no handle on the numbers of children who are being denied their fundamental right to education, let alone strategies on how to get them into school and keep them there. In light of the publicity given to the prime minister’s address to children in school, can we spare a thought for those who did not get to hear the PM on Teachers’ Day? Can one hope that the PM will acknowledge those less fortunate and initiate appropriate steps towards recognising the problem in its entirety and making a commitment towards overcoming it?

The writer is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi