Media lessons on Right to Education Bill 2008

An earlier post (read here) took a critical look at a report on primary education by Hindustan Times, especially when the subject of the report is a private education provider (KidZee) who has recently announced plans to invest Rs 350 cr (Rs 3.5 bn or $74.3 mn) to set up 300 schools across India. It is also pertinent to note that as print advertising has declined over the last two months, education is the only category that has held steady. With the proposed Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2008 tabled in parliament 15 Dec 2008, it would be useful to examine how the news media informs us by framing the bill in different ways. News framing is the enclosing of world out there (like a photo frame) in an organised and selective way to tell us what is at issue, and it plays a role in influencing how we think about things. For example the events at Nandigram have been framed as anti-development by those believing in free market driven industrialisation and development; human rights advocates have framed it as an issue of violence by the state against its own citizens in support of capitalist interests; others have framed it as a rural uprising against an elite conception of development.

As much as journalists like to claim so, they are not objective purveyors of the world. They are informed (most of the time without their knowledge) by a variety of factors such as deadlines (which can cut things short, or drop things out); influence and esteem of sources; pack mentality; dominant newsroom culture; skills and knowledge of journalists etc. These is merely starting points in a large list of factors. Thus, it is argued that reporting of news is not an objective act of relaying “facts” and “information” and we need to be active and critical readers of news. Using these ideas as a starting point, we can help understand how the news is being presented to us. Here I examine the media coverage of a very important legislation, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2008, something we should all be aware of as informed citizens. In particular we should be interested in how the issue is framed for us. As is demonstrated below, the media was largely supportive of the bill and presented it to us using the following frames of a) Positive Educational Reform, Social justice, Development; b) Poorly thought out legislation; c) Political Opportunism. These three frames can be fit into three dominant social views — idealism, pragmatism, and cynicism. Incidentally, the first two frames are both modernist in nature and seek the same ends, though their means are different. But it is in the means that we can perhaps notice an ideological divide. One side sees a need for social commitment to ideas such as education, healthcare while the other sees the market as the ultimate arbiter of all social relations.  Thus, their approach to dealing with educational stratification is very different.

The Social Justice and Development frame views education as a human entitlement, thus a social responsibility, while the other view education as the private matter of an individual. Thus the proponents of the market treat it on par with any other commodity. Some amongst the market proponents accommodate ideas of social justice by proposing education vouchers that can be redeemed in any private school. In this context, we can notice here that the Indian media has framed it as an issue of Social Justice. This demonstrates a media consensus on the objectives and contents of the Bill.  A few critical voices have been given space leading to the introduction of the frames that are critical of of the Bill. It is interesting to note that a business newspaper such as Economic Times has come out in support of the bill and even warned readers of the threat to the bill from the education business lobby. The Times of India too came out in support of the bill. Interestingly, it is The Indian Express that has criticised the Bill:

Positive educational reform, social justice, development

Children from even the poorest families can hope to study in good schools with the government on Monday introducing a bill in Rajya Sabha for free and compulsory elementary education with a provision that schools will have to keep aside 25% seats in class 1 for such students. (“Bill on free and compulsory education introduced in RS”, Times of India, 15 Dec, 2008, Link)

There’s some good news for children, especially those belonging to the weaker sections. They can now hope to realise their education dreams, courtesy a Bill, which promises radical changes in the primary education system of the country and seeks to make free and compulsory elementary education right of every child. (Sharma, Vibha, “Now, free education right of every child” The Tribune, 16 Dec 2008, Link)

If the recently introduced Right to Education Bill becomes law, schools will not be allowed to force a child to repeat a year or expel students until class VIII for any reason… “People normally think kids won’t take studies seriously if there is no failure and no exams. We’re saying that kids don’t necessarily have to learn out of fear. Instead, they’ll learn if you provide them with a learning environment. The examination system has been in place for over 60 years. Yet, more than 50% students drop out of school while 40% of those in school do not have the minimum competency for their standard,” added Raina. (Chhapia, Hemali & Mukherji, Anahita “No child should be failed until Class 8, says Bill”, Times of India, 19 Dec 2008, Link)

The proposed legislation provides a blueprint for systemic reforms in the elementary education. It is aimed to provide quality education. It promises to counter the growing lobby for the privatisation of school education. The legislation is a step towards the common school system, first proposed by the Kothari Commission… The biggest hurdle will come from the growing and influential private players in education sector and their votaries among the country’s political leadership. (Anon, Right to Education Bill introduced in RS, Economic Times, 16 Dec 2008, Link)

The committee that has drafted this Bill says the onus of students’ learning and performance is on the school. We welcome the proposal. Our current model makes little allowances for such differences. If we intend to make our education system truly world-class, and help our millions access the benefits of higher education, we would do well to reform our schooling system without any more delay (Anon, “It’s a progressive view” Times of India, 20 Dec 2008, Link)

Schools will be banned from holding admission tests or seeking “donations” from guardians if a bill to be tabled this week is passed without change. (Kasturi, Charu Sudan, “Bill plans to ban school entry test” The Telegraph, 14 Dec 2008, Link)

Poorly thought out legislation

First, there appears to be lack of clarity on the delivery mechanism to provide elementary education for all children…  Second, the focus appears to be on infrastructure and enrolment and not to see that the children who go to school actually learnThird, the Bill provides for a uniform curriculum and evaluation procedure for elementary education within each state. This would limit the freedom of schools to determining the pedagogical content and methodology... While the Bill attempts to lay down some guideposts, it remains an open question whether its provisions are sufficient to achieve this goal. (Madhavan, M.R, “When in doubt legislate”, The Indian Express, 18 Dec 2008, Link)

Those who have hammered out its terms have misread the situation; they are trying to implement measures that cannot be sustained by the current infrastructure. If the move to do away with examinations and switch to a system of continuous, comprehensive evaluation does go through, it is more likely to do harm than good. (Thakkar, Anil, “Create infrastructure first” Times of India, 20 Dec 2008, Link)

Political Opportunism

But sources close to education minister Arjun Singh have said that the government was considering pushing the bill through the Rajya Sabha without referring it to the standing committee… The UPA had promised, in its common minimum programme, to legislate on the right to education. The government can claim it has fulfilled its promise of introducing the bill in Parliament… But sections in the government are keen to try and get the bill cleared in the Rajya Sabha, as it would add to the UPA’s political gains for the 2009 elections, sources said. (Kasturi, Charu Sudan, “Eye on polls, bid to speed up study bill” The Telegraph, 16 Dec 2008, Link)

Central questions in educational choice

Those in support of the market as the arbiter of education argue that it is not the government’s job to deliver education. For them the market is is a better instrument because competition brings in quality and parents have a choice of learning systems. Those opposing market forces argue for education as a right, an egalitarian society, and a shared public sphere. For them, schools play an important role in ensuring the same. Empirical evidence about privatisation of education in Countries such as Chile, South Africa do not paint a good picture.

As argued by Peter Dolton, the central questions in the school choice debate remain: what exactly is meant by school choice; who chooses to select private schools and how do they choose; what do families really know about schools; what are the reasons and rationale for choices; in reality how much choice is there for most families; what happens to the children left behind in the public schools in districts which introduce voucher schemes; how much diversity is there after a voucher scheme is introduced; are parents more satisfied by the market alternative; are parents making rational choices and are market forces leading to improvements in standards?

Empirical evidence demonstrates that contrary to the arguments about choice, parents consider very few schools in reality.

References

Dolton, Peter (2003) “A Review of ‘The Economics of School Choice”, The Economic Journal, Volume 113, Issue 485, Pages F167-F179

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