Anagha P, a high school student of a famed government girls' only school, was all excited to hear that boys are likely to be admitted to her school from the next academic year as she thought she would get boys as friends in the classroom.
However, the news did not go down well with her parents, both government employees, who deliberately chose an all-girls' school for their daughter considering various factors ranging from "discipline issues" to "safety concerns".
Like this 13-year-old girl and her parents, mixed reactions and responses from various strata of society are pouring in Kerala over a recent order issued by the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights directing authorities to convert all educational institutions in the state into mixed schools by the next academic year.
Though there are hundreds of mixed schools in the southern state, as many as 280 girls-only schools and 164 boys-only schools are there in the government and aided sectors in Kerala, according to figures of the Directorate of Public Instructions (DPI).
While many hailed the order as a historic move to ensure gender neutrality in the society and inevitable to teach the younger generation the first lessons of gender equality, several others strongly objected to it saying there was nothing wrong to maintain single-sex institutions.
However, government sources said the panel's directive was not of judicial nature but advisory only.
General Education Minister V Sivankutty made it clear that this directive could not be implemented suddenly as several mandatory procedures have to be completed before declaring an educational institution as a mixed school.
"To implement the child rights panel's directive, several procedures have to be completed before that. Neither the concerned minister or the government but the school management and the parent teachers' association are the ones to take such a decision first," Sivankutty told PTI.
But, he asserted that gender neutrality is the proclaimed policy of the LDF government in the state and it has already made several steps to fulfill the objective.
When some schools had requested for unisex uniforms, the government gave its nod for that, he said adding that as many as 18 schools have been made co-education institutions in the recent past by them.
The consent of the respective local bodies and a clearance from a higher official of the department after inspecting the school are also mandatory, he said.
"The panel, in its order, directed to submit an action plan within 90 days. It is because of their lack of knowledge about the mandatory procedures. This cannot be implemented mechanically over night," the minister explained.
However, he vouched that the government would continue its gender neutral policies in the education sector.
Meanwhile, Reni Antony, member, child rights panel, said it is high-time to ensure a gender-neutral atmosphere in the state schools. "It is not at all enough to say that boys and girls are equal but an atmosphere which help them experience the gender neutrality should prevail in schools. Uniforms have been made gender neutral... I do not understand why the schools are not changed on that pattern," he said.
Welcoming the panel's directive on mixed schools, Manju M M, an upper primary teacher of a rural school in nearby Vithura, said co-education would help children to evolve as more confident citizens and make them capable of interacting in the outer world without much hesitation.
The co-education system would help to achieve gender equality and gender justice envisaged in our Constitution, the teacher added.
However, Ambikakumari Amma, a retired principal of one of the largest girls' schools in the state, strongly objected to the idea of turning all educational institutions into mixed schools saying there won't be any special benefit due to the change.
"Changes are good but its final outcome should also be good. No student is going to gain any special knowledge by studying in a mixed school and no one lacks anything if they study in a single-sex school," she told PTI. The award-winning teacher also expressed concern about the in-house discipline of educational institutions if they adopt the co-education system all of a sudden.
Based on a plea filed by an individual, the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights recently ordered the Principal Secretary (General Education) and Directors of the Public Education and the State Council for Education, Research and Training (SCERT) to come up with an action plan to implement co-education in all government schools in the state.
A detailed report on the implementation of the co-education system should be submitted to the Commission within 90 days, as per the order.
Besides implementing the co-education system, physical circumstances and basic amenities including toilets should be improved in such schools and parents should be given awareness on the need for co-education, the order further said.
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