Is education equity a pipe dream?


India’s Right to Education Act and the National Curriculum Framework are absolutely praiseworthy initiatives, says Suman Barua. But the challenges lie in the implementation. He discusses these challenges, and the way forward.

As students of International Education Policy last year, we learnt an important skill that one must develop to succeed in the development field – and that is being able to identify a champion in the sector you are working. My passion lies in striving to achieve education equity in India – which essentially means that everyone has access to excellent educational opportunities, no matter what financial and other resources they have access to. This article explores the most powerful stakeholders or champions that are trying to achieve education equity, in India.

Education is a subject of the concurrent list in India, which means that both the states and the federal governments have to work to ensure everyone has access to education. However, in reality, the ownership pretty much lies somewhere away from both of them.

The RTE and the NCF….and the challenges
The Central government launched two monumental policies that were intended to serve the quantity and quality aspects of education, namely, the Right to Education (RTE) and the National Curriculum Framework (NCF). While the former aims to ensure each child of age 6-14 has access to free education, the latter is a set beautiful document that defines very intricately what good quality education looks like.

To realise the Right to Education, government launched the Compulsory Education Act in 2009, which has to a large extent gotten kids into school. According to the Act’s directives – government schools have to provide free education to all admitted students, and private schools have to reserve at least 25% seats for economically disadvantaged sections of the society. There are enough proponents and skeptics of this, but one thing that is for sure is – the RTE fails to account for challenges faced by the families to keep the students in schools which have forcibly become inclusive. Imagine a student who has never stepped outside a slum, going to school with kids who have travelled the world, it opens up a box of challenges that both the parties will face in the same classroom.

Is it possible to deal with these problems, and make use of the economic disparity in the class? Yes, it is possible. A carefully set culture of collaboration and support in the classroom can definitely achieve great learning outcomes in such a context, however, it is very dependent on the skills of the teachers. How much resources and skills the school imparts into its system has multiple variables, which the RTE or the Act does not in any way address. As a result, schools where there is a deliberate attention to inclusivity, are the only places where the Act will achieve its intended purpose.

The NCF is usually loved by many educators, and it was created to be a guiding light for all curricula, both at state and national levels. The framework is so thought out that it explicitly allows teachers to have different tests for different students based on ability or special needs, if the teacher deems necessary. However, any student currently sitting for the benchmark exams in the Indian system like the 10th and 12th will tell you that everybody receives the same yard stick to measure their academic prowess. Which brings us to the conclusion that the framework’s non-mandatory nature has allowed it to be diluted down to a level which is not a real representation of the ideology behind the NCF in the first place. Well, then should it be made mandatory so that all the syllabi designed by different bodies are excellent? That is hardly a possibility, because similar to the RTE, this framework does not account for skill levels and resources that different government agencies, education boards, and schools have access to.

Imagine it to be like someone serves a group of diverse guests, the best biriyani they have ever tasted in their lives, and asks them to go home and make it; with no recipe or explicit steps. The guests remember the features of the dish in terms of textures, smell and appeal, but are supposed to figure out how to get the end product!

The role of the NGOs
Looking at another group of contenders in the fight for education equity; non-governmental organisations(NGOs). The development sector in recent times has been flooded with non-profits that run education (or related) programmes by collecting corporate money, and often achieve great results.
Though these organisations have very different stories, inevitably they are filling a gap left by the government policies, institutions, or resources. Let’s look at this from the perspective of urban and rural areas.

Imagine it to be like someone serves a group of diverse guests, the best biriyani they have ever tasted in their lives, and asks them to go home and make it; with no recipe or explicit steps. The guests remember the features of the dish in terms of textures, smell and appeal, but are supposed to figure out how to get the end product!

Rural India deals with issues of access to education, wherein students in many parts of India like the Northeast still have to walk hours to find a school they can attend. The government resources are stuck somewhere between the political system and the ground realities; and neither of them have access to it. What NGOs are able to do in these contexts are directly bring highly skilled people or resources from well-resourced communities into the villages, and look for sustainable solutions. Some NGOs bring promising youth from diverse sectors to work with the local school leaders and work on capacity development. And others create occupational opportunities in the rural areas in a bid to develop the local economy and in turn create the demand for better schools. Quality of education in rural schools is still plagued by casteism, gender norms and other archaic approaches like rote-learning, and we need more NGOs to work on changing mindsets locally.

On the other side, urban India sees a lot more action from the non-profits because of proximity to disparity and visibility that can be leveraged by CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) teams. A lot of organisations have created mini-career-capsules as “fellowships” for the urban youth to explore and give a few years of their life to create impact, or create a movement of leaders who fight for education equity throughout their lives. Another set of NGOs run a plethora of skill development classes in the slum regions for adults, which are supplementary to formal education, but intended to provide necessary tools to the youth that they will need to get to succeed in jobs. The advantage that these organisations have is quick-access to the global pool of resources in terms of people, funds and knowledge – which the government lacks because of layers of bureaucracy.

It is safe to say that we need both the government and the NGO sectors to fight for education equity, and to a large extent, they are doing so. However, the lack of synchrony between the two major groups causes an even more increasing gap of education inequity. The whole reason we were taught to find a champion in the field is so that either we align ourselves to the goals set by the champion, or directly try to influence what they do to create maximum impact. But the established differences between the two champions in India, i.e., the government and NGOs – compel educators who want to join the movement for equity to make a hard choice between the two, where it actually should be joining the collaborative team with the single purpose of making excellent education a reality for all.


Suman Barua

Suman has a Master of Education degree from Harvard University(U.S.)and currently works as the Director of Education for Reality Gives, a non-profit that runs programs for children and youth in the slums of Mumbai and Delhi. He received his engineering degree from University of Mumbai and worked as a Software Engineer, before realizing his calling to be in Education. As a Teach for India fellow, Suman taught for 2 years in a low-income school in Mumbai. He has worked as a teacher-trainer, done projects with UNICEF India and the Swedish government. He hopes to do everything in his power to achieve education equity for all children.