"No failure till Class 8", as enshrined in the Education Bill introduced last week in parliament, brings to the fore the huge level of responsibility that schools across the nation face in educating children - all the way till Class 8. This proposal protects the right of a child to education and also categorically states the importance of school contribution to writing, reading and speaking in the medium of instruction desired.
This runs along parallel to America's `No Child Left Behind' programme, but that's where the similarity stops. Because American schools have as little as 20-odd kids in a classroom and India has 50-kids to a classroom.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2008, introduced in the Rajya Sabha, proposes that both government and private schools across the country not fail students for poor performance until they complete elementary education (Class 8), nor throw anyone out of school.
Teaching children anywhere requires not just passion for making sure that every child gets educated, but a certain level of acceptance in terms of equipping a student to read, write and speak with proficiency. And we cannot have a system that simply shuffles children through the schools, we need a system that is graded in terms of teaching techniques and goals set.
Teachers across the board must know that their first principle is accountability. Accountability not to the good students, but to the weakest of the class.
Every teacher has a job to do. And that's to teach the basics to the shirkers and teach them well. If we want to make sure no child is left behind, every child must learn to read. And every child must learn to add and subtract. Maths and language skills become critical and crucial tools in learning. Teachers then should also be graded according to how they equip the weak students through the year.
The fundamental principle of this act is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and schools must show us whether or not every child is learning. The story of children being just shuffled through the system is just to move them through. That must not happen.
The first step to making sure that a child is not shuffled through is to test that child as to whether or not he or she can read and write, or add and subtract. All weaknesses must be dealt with and worked upon. This requires everyday labour and constant monitoring. Parents too must cooperate and organize their time with kids at home.
One of the interesting things about this bill is that you wonder how it affects a school that's performing poorly. Will schools be given time and incentives and resources to correct their problems? If, however, schools don't perform, there must be real consequences. Parents must be given real options in the face of failure in order to make sure reform is meaningful.
And so the new role of the schools is to set high standards for all students - weak, average and good - provide resources, hold teachers accountable, and liberate school curriculum so as to meet the standards. But teachers also need to be paid better. They need to be taken care of. A teacher who doesn't worry about little bills will be a happier person.
Then the government needs to spend more money, more resources, on education and on schools, but they must be directed at methods that work. They should not be superficial feel-good methods, not sound-good methods, but methods that actually work; and that means writing, reading and speaking every day. Particularly when it comes to reading. Schools must spend more on books and expanding libraries, and spend money more wisely. Teachers must be trained in modern-day methods that bring results.
Those of us who studied in the last generations know that money alone did'nt make a good school. It was teachers, and we need good committed hard working teachers. Teachers who will have practical methods to enhance reading, writing and maths skills with proven methods of instruction.
Schools need to reorganize their time tables so as to include small interesting tidbits of oral, writing and reading skills into the single period. The challenge is to push in and integrate all three into every period. No child can write unless he knows how to read - primary sections must have reading and speaking as dominant skills in testing, and teachers teaching maths must look at an average level of addition and subtraction modules that everyone can do.
Weak students must be part of a remedial syllabus that gets incorporated into the daily routine, without missing out on regular routine. Schools must have reviews with parents that are planned on Saturdays so that child progress is monitored and worked upon. Parents must know that getting a child to read and write is an equal responsibility of parent and school. Confidence building in a non-performer takes time, and there must be a joint effort. Students who are good at maths and English have always been better performers, parents must be made aware of this characteristic.
The goals of taking children all the way to Class 8 are tough, and schools need to come together and share strategies so that the nation gains. Education is no longer an association of the elite, it is the right of every child, and schools must join hands in fighting the challenges that lie ahead.
(26.12.2008-Uma Nair is an English teacher and senior school English Coordinator at Don Bosco School, New Delhi. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)