Inequality persists in access to great equalizer, education

Even though education is seen as the single most important factor in overcoming social stratification based on caste, class, gender and religion; the reality is far from normal.

Even though education is seen as the single most important factor in overcoming social stratification based on caste, class, gender and religion; the reality is far from normal.

Education is the building block for the makeover of any society. Independent India, from the very beginning, laid impetus on education as a transformative tool. Right in the First Five Year plan, it dedicated 7.9 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product to education. However, this percentage has significantly dropped year after year and has been hovering around three per cent of the GDP over the last five years. In comparison, countries like Zimbabwe, Bhutan spend 7.5 per cent, and Costa Rica spends seven per cent.

The Right to Education Act came into being in 2009 and was implemented in 2010 in a bid to make education a uniting factor. It promised to provide free and compulsory education to all children aged between 6 and 14 years. However, the statistics suggest otherwise. A few of the many causes for the underperformance of RTE can be attributed to the lack of availability of monetary funding, infrastructural barriers, traditional evaluation methods and teacher absenteeism.

Even though education is seen as the single most important factor in overcoming social stratification based on caste, class, gender and religion; the reality is far from normal. There is high variance between education imparted in public and private schools, to different genders, and to different castes and classes, thereby preventing it from being an equalizer.

Govt vs private schools
While the Gross Enrolment Rate for girls is higher than that of boys in government schools, the pattern is reversed when it comes to private schools. This raises the fundamental question of the lack of faith in government schools, apart from gender bias. The shift from public to private schools is alarming, especially when the poorest and most vulnerable children are migrating to fee charging private schools, for whom the RTE Act was specially implemented. The underlying cause for this migration has been the belief that private schools offer better value for money as well as better teaching than public schools. Between 2010-11 and 2015-16, the number of private schools has grown by 35 per cent while the number of government schools has grown by only one per cent. This is despite the Section 6 of the RTE Act legally obligating states to start more government schools. In fact, tiny (with less than 20 students) and small (with less than 50 students) government schools are being abandoned by the government.

Lack of both; availability of teachers (sometimes as low as one teacher for all students from class one to five) and proper infrastructure in comparison to private school standards has led to the migration of children from government private schools in hopes of a better future.

Girls versus Boys
The trends from the last few years have shown an increment in the enrolment rate of girls in schools. However, it is yet to catch up with the enrolment rates of boys. As per the U-DISE data, there are currently 13.04 crore boys and 12.06 crore girls enrolled in schools. If bifurcated further, the gender disparity continues to be quite prevalent, especially among the reserved categories. The gender gap in education is as wide as 30per cent at primary level for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe girls and goes up to 42per cent in the more depressed regions of the country.

Although the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan lays special emphasis on female education and has led to an increase in enrolment rates; attendance and retention rate continues to be low. Despite ambitious plans like Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas and the National Programme of Education for Girls at Elementary Level (NPEGEL), absence of facilities for girls like functional toilets, sometimes allotting them gendered roles like sweeping, preparing mid-day meals takes away the incentive to study.

Non-reserved versus Reserved category
Getting education to permeate through the caste system which still remains deeply entrenched in our country has been one of the biggest challenges. Education in India is of an inequalitarian nature. Regular news of caste based discrimination in schools is not unknown to us and the gap in educational inequality still remains wide. The discontinuation rates among adivasis between class V and X have been as high as 68 per cent, 65  per cent among muslims and dalits and about 60  per cent among OBCs.

Implementation of reservation has only addressed one half of the problem. Low density of schools in adivasi areas and backward areas, absence of differentiated programmes, lack of trained teachers has contributed to the reinforcement of caste distinction. These educational inequalities of today lead to economic disparities in the future.

Way Forward
Quality education has revolutionised the growth trajectory of many countries and if properly provided, education can help to overcome the long existent problem of social stratification that has plagued our society. While the government has given education its due importance by making education a fundamental right, there is a long road ahead. One of the important aims of the government should be to increase the share of GDP on education to at least six per cent, which can contribute to infrastructural development of government schools, improved teacher training and increased accountability of the teaching staff. There should also be sufficient impetus given to making education interesting by introducing technology as a tool and ensuring the use of Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation as a method of assessment more competently. This, in turn, can lead to an improvement in retention rates.