The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 is a landmark legislation in the history of the Nation that makes elementary education a fundamental right for children between the ages of 6-14. But millions of children with disabilities got left out in the Act. Amendments to this law are due to be presented to the Parliament in a supposed attempt to correct this huge oversight. But rather than taking a progressive step towards inclusion, the proposed Amendments seem to be itching towards legalising exclusion of children with severe and profound disabilities. Aarth-Astha, an organisation working on the issue, writes as to why we are on the verge of making another Himalayan blunder.
In 2002, elementary education was made a fundamental right in our country. The right to free and compulsory education for children between the ages of 6 to 14 is a fundamental right inscribed under Article 21 (A) of the Constitution of India which says, “The States shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen (6-14) years in the manner as the State may by Law, determine.”
There are three main features of the Fundamental Right to Education in India.
Children with disabilities, including children with very high support needs, are equal holders of this fundamental right. Yet today, through the proposed Amendments to the Right to Education (R.T.E.) Act, 2009, this fundamental right of the child is being watered down and instead of a school, home is being offered as a legitimate, alternative option for the education of a child with high support needs.
On the basis of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee and views of the Department of School Education and Literacy, the following Amendment is proposed as provision to Sub-section 3 of Section 3 of the R.T.E. Act, to enhance the coverage of children with disabilities under the Act:
“Provided that a child with multiple disabilities referred to in Clause (h) of Section 2 of the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999 and a child with severe disability referred to in Clause (o) of Section 2 of the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999 may also have the right to opt for home-based education”. (Ref: Brief background note on Inclusive Education under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (S.S.A.), a paper presented by Ministry of Human Resource Development in the 2nd Meeting of the Working group on Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities for the 12th Plan, May 19, 2011).
We believe that this would be a violation of the right of the child to legitimate quality education. We urge the Government of India, the Ministry of Human Resource Development and members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development to re- assess the proposed Amendment in the light of the human rights of the child rather than the requirements of an educational system that is unable to make legitimate space for the child.
In 2009, the Government of India passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 or the R.T.E. Act. This is the Act that translates the vision of the fundamental right to education into reality. The R.T.E. Act did not include children with disabilities specifically in the disadvantaged groups, even though national studies show that children with disabilities are the largest group of out of school children. It is also well known that children with disabilities are over represented amongst the poorest of the poor in any country.
After protests from the disability sector, the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh gave an assurance that the Act will be amended to include children with disabilities in the disadvantaged groups.
The 2010 R.T.E. Amendment Bill:
More recently we have heard that there is another Amendment to the R.T.E. Act. We believe this comes as a result of a recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development which considered the Amendments to the R.T.E. Act and have presented a report on June 2010.
This report gives some very important and forward looking recommendations to the R.T.E. Act in relation to children with disabilities. However, it also unfortunately takes a stand on the issue of compulsory education for children with severe and multiple disabilities.
It says, “Another issue before the Committee was the aspect of compulsory education for children with severe or multiple disabilities who may not be in a position to attend school. The Committee understands that children with multiple disabilities need to be part of the compulsory education process. However, there may be cases where a view needs to be taken about the viability of invoking the component of compulsory education in schools. In this connection, the Committee would like to point out that under S.S.A., 75,099 children with multiple disabilities are being provided education in regular schools. This has been made possible by these children being first provided some school preparation programmes before being mainstreamed in regular schools. The Committee understands that the strategy of home-based education under S.S.A. is at present being evaluated. The Committee is of the view that this strategy needs to be vigorously pursued for children in the 0-6 years age group for Early Intervention and School Readiness followed by their induction in the mainstream schools. The Committee, therefore, believes that elementary education should not be made compulsory for children with severe or multiple disabilities and the relevant provision in the Act may accordingly be modified.” (Para 4.12)
As a result of this recommendation we believe a new Amendment has now been added to the Act. This amendment gives children with severe and multiple disabilities the choice of school or home-based education.
What is home-based education?
The practice of home-based education was initiated by the S.S.A. as a ‘pathway to inclusion’. S.S.A. adopted a ‘zero rejection policy for all children’. In order to fulfil this zero rejection policy it follows a ‘multi- option model’ for children with disabilities.
As per a July 2006 report called ‘Discovering New Paths to Inclusion – A Documentation of Home-based Practices for C.W.S.N’, this means that “no child having special needs should be deprived of the right to education and taught in an environment, which is best, suited to her/his learning needs. These include special schools, E.G.S., A.I.E. or even home-based education.”
“Generally home-based education is defined as the education of children with severe intellectual/physical disabilities, who can be educated in the combination of home-based and alternate educational settings to enable them to achieve independent living skills. Home-based education aims at school preparedness and preparation for life. Alternate educational settings provide opportunities for learning of social skills, vocational skills and implementation of life skills.”
It felt that “experiences of programmes like D.P.E.P. and various research findings have shown that inclusion is best determined by the individual needs of the child. Most children with special needs can be enrolled and retained in regular schools if adequate resource support is provided to them, whereas there are others who might have to be provided some kind of pre-integration programmes, before they can be mainstreamed in a classroom. There might also be still some C.W.S.N. with severe profound disabilities, who would require an educational programme and intensive specialised support completely beyond the purview and scope of a formal school in the current situation.”
It is these children who have been the recipients of home-based education under the S.S.A. since the early 20th century in our country.
The S.S.A. document ‘Discovering New Paths to Inclusion – A Documentation of Home-based Practices for C.W.S.N’ says: Recent surveys and studies have also shown that a large proportion of C.W.S.N. are out-of-school, owing to the severe nature of their disabilities, which at this point in time might not be accommodated in a regular classroom setting. There are children who, at some point in their lives, may need a special education programme that is completely outside the purview of the regular classroom. Here are the reasons:
While it has meant many things, home-based education as it has been practised in India, has never meant a child getting educational inputs five days a week along with all the other entitlements that children in schools have. For example, in most instances the child in home-based education has not had the privilege of the legal entitlement of the midday meal.
This programme, just as the S.S.A., has never kept any record of children with disabilities dropping out and it has never reported on the number of children with severe and profound disabilities who have been mainstreamed after being in home-based education.
Is Home-based education in the best interest of the Child?
While the Government of India seems to feel that home-based education is a legal option for elementary education and is in the best interest of the child, there are some of us who feel it is not. Our reasons are as follows:
For these and many other reasons we urge the decision makers to re-evaluate the legal option of home-based education for children with severe and multiple disabilities in our country. We request that the fundamental right to education should not be watered down for one set of children just because they have high support needs.