Guest Post by NOYONIKA BOSE
In the winter of 2013 I had carried out a survey as part of an NGO CRY, Child Rights and You in 10 schools in the heavily populated slums of Rajabazar, an area in north Kolkata. The objective of the survey was to see whether the Right To Education (RTE) Act was being properly implemented in these schools. The findings of the survey though not absolutely abysmal, were not positive either. However what I learnt is that it is not entirely the fault of these government and government aided schools that they were unable to provide their students with quality education. It has also to do with the basic structure of the RTE act which is peppered with several flaws. This article is a critique of the RTE and some possible solutions.
The history of the initiative of free and compulsory primary education in India goes back a long way. As early as 1882, Indian leaders had demanded provision for mass education and compulsory education legislation. In 1906, Gopal Krishna Gokhale made a plea to the Imperial Legislative Council for introduction of Free and Compulsory Education. In 1917, Vithalbhai Patel (Vallabhai Patel’s lesser known brother) was successful in getting the Bill passed. By 1918, every province in British India had Compulsory Education Act.
Post-independence, under Nehruvian regime the allocation of resources for primary education gave the impression that it was not considered high on the priority list for spending. Prof. Amartya Sen has said that though Nehru’s vision for technical education resulted in a boom that has ensured institutes of excellence like the IITs, his attitude towards primary education is “lamentable”. Finally, in 1993 the Supreme Court held free education until a child completes the age of 14 to be a right by stating that: “The citizens of this country have a fundamental right to education”. By 2008/9 The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. The Act stated that implementation would begin from April 1, 2010, eight months after the Presidential assent.
The RTE is a comprehensive document that has made education a fundamental right by Amendment 21A in the Constitution stating that:-
“The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such a manner as the State may, by law, determine.”
There are several guidelines of the RTE. It provides for free, compulsory and ‘decent’ education for all children from 6-14 years of age by all state schools and fully aided schools. Unaided schools should provide free education to atleast 25% students. Books and uniforms will be provided by the state government and the child cannot be expelled till class 8. Mid Day Meals (MDM) will be provided by all schools which can be cooked or outsourced. There should also be a clean continuous supply of drinking water. The schools should have certain basic infrastructure such as a playground, one classroom per teacher and separate toilets for boys and girls. Children with severe or profound disabilities who are unable to attend neighbourhood schools will have the right to be educated in appropriate environment. All State and aided schools are required to form School Management Committees (SMCs). The SMCs should have both teachers as well as parents as members. Meetings are to be conducted regularly to discuss development plans of the school. Lastly, the schools will not carry out any kind of screening or admission test and all forms of corporal punishment are strictly prohibited.
Right from the time when it was formulated, the Act has come under criticism for being good in intention but arbitrary and difficult in execution. The loopholes in the Act are evident.
- The Act states that all private schools will have to keep a minimum of 25% seats reserved for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, it does not lay down any specifications on how the schools should be selecting this 25%.
- By focussing only on the age group 6-14, it misses out on the four very important years of a child’s education that is the secondary and higher secondary years. It also does not take into consideration the pre elementary stage of education.
- While private schools are to enrol 25% students from disadvantaged background, this is only till the elementary level. After that since the parents of under privileged children are likely to not be able to meet the expenses the students may have to exit or join schools of questionable standards.
- The Act prescribes that the basic infrastructural requirement of a government or government aided school is that of a playground, a minimum of one classroom per teacher and separate toilets for boys and girls. While the last requirement is a basic necessity, the first two are not valid. Today, when land prices are shooting up every day, for every school to conjure up a playground is like seeing the pink elephant. Space is a major constraint in urban schools and often there are several classes held together in one room.
- It does not lay down any specifications for the qualifications of the teachers. A large number of teachers teaching in these schools are contract teachers. Not only are their tenures uncertain but many of them may also not be qualified enough. (in Rajasthan, for example the minimum requirement for a male para teacher is 8th pass and female is 5th pass).
- By stating that no student can be failed till class 8, the Act is compromising with the quality of learning. The teachers themselves complain that the students are often lazy and hardly write anything in the examination because they are assured of passing.
Apart from these basic loopholes in the Act there are also several lacunae in implementation. Firstly, ensuring that the teacher student ratio is 1:30 is a huge task, considering the inadequate number of teacher training institutions, Secondly, the MDM is not functioning properly across all the states. A study conducted in Bihar for example showed that most schools served food in unhygienic conditions; it was cooked and kept in the open, on dirty ground. Change in Bihar is elephantine and policy reform is rather slow. Also buffer stock was not being maintained in a large number of schools. In parts of Orissa and Maharashtra also, there is partial implementation of MDM.
In schools, the infrastructure has to improve but unless the schools receive timely funds from the government they are quite helpless. One of the major reasons for girls dropping out of schools is said to be a lack of separate toilets. There is also the case of disguised attendance where the students have their names on the attendance register but come only for the MDM or the first few classes.
We see that the quality of education in India has a long way to go. While we may claim some progress quantitatively (enrolment, turnout, literacy) we have very little to say about the qualitative aspects. A study by Pratham, an NGO, shows that out of 700,000 school going children only 35% can read a simple paragraph and only 30% can do a 2nd class mathematical problem.
There are some ways in which we can drastically improve the quality of education. An experiment by Action Poverty Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has shown that remedial classes and computer assisted programs can enable students who lag behind to catch up. Similar experiments in Kenya show that tracking children’s educational achievements over many years can also help. Provisions for bridge schooling may be required to close the gap for students who have missed previous years of schooling or dropped out earlier. Most importantly, the parents need to be educated on the importance of their children’s education. People’s movements in Rajasthan have confirmed that transparency and routine information exchange between teachers and students also have a positive impact on test grades.
Summing up, the RTE Act, in its present form has more wrongs than rights. If implemented in its current shape, it will neither achieve its prime objective of ensuring completion of elementary education of every child from age six to fourteen nor meet the commitment of ensuring quality primary education. At best, RTE is a statement of good intent.
Noyonika Bose is an undergraduate student of Economics at Presidency University, Kolkata, and part of CRY-Child Rights and You.