Education offers the simple ability to read, write, count and calculate which plays a vital role in the process of social progress and development. Access to education has the power to improve the quality of life of an individual by providing economic opportunities; changing public perceptions towards human rights; giving a political voice and understanding legal rights- rights, which an individual might already possess but is not able to utilize because of a lack of knowledge and awareness about what it entails. While access to education is essential, the primary aim of schooling is to transfer knowledge and teach skills to students. In other words, it is important to balance an increase in ‘quantity’ of education with a simultaneous increase in the ‘quality’ of education which is accessible and affordable for each and every individual.
With the vision of “Leaving no one behind”, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) 2030 Agenda by the United Nations has played a pivotal role in drawing attention to the inequalities which restrict access to quality education across the globe. While SDG 4 and SDG 10 specifically talk about ’Quality Education’ and ‘Reduced Inequalities’ respectively, the remaining 15 SDG’s directly or indirectly highlight the emergent need to build an inclusive environment which provides equitable access to quality education for all.
Inequalities do not just exist in societies exclusively but in most cases, different forms of inequality intersect with each other and exacerbate the situation for some individuals. For instance, due to prevailing prejudices, a poor woman from an indigenous community living in a rural area is likely to be more disadvantaged than any other individual in the same locality. This highlights social injustice towards individuals within a community based on their gender, caste, location and cultural habitats. It is extremely important to realise that inclusivity is not restricted to providing access to schools by building infrastructure, ensuring school facilities and increasing enrolment. Geographical location; nutrition; mental health; disabilities are some of the many factors which need to be addressed whilst advocating for inclusivity in education.
Bihar’s case highlighting the importance of inclusivity in education:
Source: World Bank Data, 2016
Figure 1. The graph depicts the disparities in educational attainment (%) among different social groups of Bihar
While there are policy frameworks laid down by the Government of India to reduce and challenge inequalities, they are either not applied correctly or there are multiple forms of inequalities which make these policies redundant. In the education sector, The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 was passed in an attempt to boost primary level education enrolment rates for children aged between 6 and 14 (Government of India 2009). While this has had a positive impact on the enrolment rates in Bihar with student enrolment rates going above 90% for primary level education (Mukul 2015), figure 1 highlights the large number of disparities among different social groups. Nearly 60% of the Scheduled Caste (historically termed as ‘socially backward communities’ in India) remain to be illiterate while the ‘general’ category seems to have better access to quality education with a 20% figure. Consequently, these differences tend to restrict access to other social protection systems in the long run. This implies the need to amend policies in a way which creates equal opportunities for every individual in the country, regardless of her/his economic status or social identity.
Making foundational learning part of ‘Inclusive Education’
Inclusivity is also to be met with quality learning outcomes. The World Development Report 2018 entirely focused on the urgent need to promote learning to fully utilize the potential of education (World Bank 2018). The report shares a decline in the learning abilities of students mainly from developing countries and has emphasised on the need to prioritize learning and not just schooling. Amongst the developing countries, with a population of over 1.3 billion people spread across the 28 states and 8 union territories, the challenge of providing equal access to quality education is a tremendous one for India. In fact, as per the latest census data, India has a high child population (0-18 years) percentage (39%) highlighting the increased responsibility on the state for providing equitable access to quality education to all age groups (Government of India 2018). While this shows that India has a huge challenge to overcome right now, an optimistic way to look at it is that if an ‘efficient’ education system is put in place at the earliest, the country can reap benefits of its high demographic dividend in the long run.
There are multiple pathways to building an ‘efficient’ education system in India. There is substantial evidence at both, international and national level to prove that one of the most effective ways to attain quality education for all is an investment in Early Childhood Education (ECE) (OECD 2019). The India Early Childhood Education Impact (IECEI) study, conducted by the ASER Centre and the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development (CECED), shows that children who have access to high-quality ECE are more ‘school ready’ than those who do not (Kaul et al. 2017). Over and above ECE’s potential to improve linguistic, cognitive and socio-emotional skills of the child, ECE is also extremely beneficial for the mother, the family and the national economy in the long run (OECD 2017).
Despite increasing evidence that ECE contributes towards better education, social, health and economic indicators; universalization of pre-primary education was not given the priority it requires in India until recently. The draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 has stated that the learning gaps start even before children attend school. It has identified foundational learning as the root cause of the learning crisis in the country and it is now upon state governments to anticipate and simultaneously react to the challenges ahead in providing foundational literacy and numeracy skills to make all young children ‘school ready’.
In order to make sure a holistic approach towards inclusivity in education, UNESCO defines inclusive education as- “Inclusion is seen as a process of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all learners through increasing participation in learning, cultures and communities, and reducing exclusion within and from education. It involves changes and modifications in content, approaches, structures and strategies, with a common vision which covers all children of the appropriate age range and a conviction that it is the responsibility of the regular system to educate all children” (UNESCO 2005).
In its efforts to address inclusivity, the Government of India passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016 which identified the types of disabilities have been increased from 7 to 21 and that the Central Government will have the power to add more types of disabilities. This was a great step taken in addressing inclusive education as it went beyond the physical aspects of disability and included mental aspects. Inclusive Education had to be rethought and implications of disabilities on learning had to be considered and addressed.
UNESCO New Delhi is committed in promoting and ensuring the need to provide equitable access to quality education for all. Inclusive education comes out of a vision of the world based on equity, justice and fairness. In this regard, UNESCO New Delhi office launched, ‘N FOR NOSE - State of the Education Report for India 2019: Children with Disabilities’, in July 2019. It aims to articulate a vision of education for children with disabilities for 2030 as set out in national and international policy documents and legislative frameworks. Similarly, an annual report on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) will be released in 2020. As we step up our efforts in the countdown towards achieving the 2030 agenda, we reaffirm the need to form an education system which is inclusive by tackling social, cultural, economic and spatial inequalities within countries. Concerted and multi-sectoral efforts are the need of the hour to ensure the fulfilment of the SDGs’ pledge of ‘leaving no one behind’.
In 2020 and during a period where almost all countries are going through a crisis situation due to Covid19, it is our duty to reflect on the difficulties of those people who cannot switch to e-learning methods due to their inability to access the internet, computers and laptops or even lack of knowledge about online learning courses. As we advocate for education for all in such testing times, we need to ensure that individual from all backgrounds is made part of the education ecosystem which can further empower them to fight situations like these in the future.
To face the COVID-19 crisis, UNESCO has provided immediate support to countries by updating the distance learning guides for more than 1.47 billion children who are out of school because of school closures across the globe (UNESCO 2020).
As a right, learning must continue and the efforts should go more to those who are the most disadvantaged. There is an urgent need to emphasize the role of education in responding to such crises. UNESCO New Delhi Education team will continue to think and reflect on:
Authors: Mame Omar Diop and Abhinav Kumar
Mr. Mame Omar Diop is Programme Specialist and Chief of Education at UNESCO New Delhi Cluster Office for India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives, and Mr. Abhinav Kumar works in the education sector at UNESCO New Delhi.
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