The Hollow Right

By GovernanceToday
In Cover Story
May 7, 2015

The Right to Education was enacted with the best of intentions but schools are not yet prepared for such a move. Merely making of a bill and passing it does not solve every problem. Its implementation and recognition by those for whom it has been passed plays a crucial role in deciding whether the Act is acting. Even the basic infrastructure for implementing the program is missing.

RTEIndia is a country which has the best and the worst of education. On the one hand, you have scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, philosophers, social activists and the crème de la crème of the society, and on the other, you find rag pickers, beggars, child labourers, children doing everything they are not supposed to do. This is the side of India that no one wants to see or talk about. And what is the cause behind this side of India? It is literacy and meaningful relevant education.

To be fair, the government has taken many initiatives to counter the problem of illiteracy, and there have been improvements, bit somehow they have failed to make a transformative change.

The government’s primary weapon to deal with this situation was the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which was enacted on 4th of August 2009 and came in force on 1st of April 2010, over six decades after independence. The Right to Education (RTE) Act, under the Article 21A of the Indian Constitution has made education a fundamental right, and under it the state governments compulsorily has to provide free education to children between six to 14 years of age or up to standard VIII. All states, except Jammu and Kashmir, are covered by the RTE Act.

The Vision

The RTE Act has a long story; it would be surprising to know that it was drafted at the time of Independence. Article 45 which was drafted in the year 1949 stated: “Provision for free and compulsory education for children. The State shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.”

The intentions were good and education along with life became a fundamental right. But unfortunately it took more than 10 years for the Constitution to draft an Act which would fundamentally provide education to children. There were many amendments and after the final amendment, the Article 21A came to pass, and alongside, the RTE act also started taking shape.

Even after it took over 50 years for the RTE act to be implemented, it was not welcomed warmly. In 2005 a rough draft of the RTE was met with much criticism due to a provision which made it mandatory for private schools to provide 25 percent reservation for disadvantaged children.

The ‘disadvantaged’ children belong to the schedule caste/ tribe, the economically weaker section or the physically handicapped category. The reserved seats in turn will be reimbursed by the government, based on a formula.

The topic of reservation became a subject of a huge discussion in the political and educational arena. As a result of which, the Supreme Court ruled that minority institutions would be removed from its ambit.

Although the purpose of the RTE is commendable but it still falls short heavily on a majority of things. The first chink being the age limit, RTE fails to seek education for children below six years and over fourteen years of age.

During the 1950s law makers considered education until 14 years enough, whereas such is not the case as of today. And the same goes for pre-school education, as there was no concept of early childhood education in those times.

The current Act will ignore these age groups unless individual states want to make separate laws extending the limits. It might be possible that the government might look towards extending the age limit from 3 to 16 years by 2015.

The armour of RTE further disintegrates by the second blow of reservation. The provision of 25 percent of reservation for disadvantaged children in schools will severely complicate the already complicated issue of education in the country.

The provision to force private schools to provide reservation highlights the inability of the government to provide elementary education despite having a huge network of schools backed by state resources at their hands. According to the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) conducted by the University of Maryland, out of the 1.2 million schools in India, 80 percent are government run, 5 percent are private aided and 13 percent private unaided schools, which include minority institutions which have been exempted reservation by the Supreme Court.

child-workerSo, it is now clear that the benefit of 25 percent reservation will only reach a few children, but then there is another catch and it is the word ‘disadvantaged’ used in the Act. As mentioned earlier, it comprises of two sections: the economically backward section and the socially backward section. The government will have to decide which of the two get the benefit. The idea of reservation also fails the Act for providing education to all children.

The third fault with the Act lies in the norms which have been stipulated in it for infrastructure, pupil-teacher ratio, salaries on the basis of which the schools will get recognition in a period of three years.

It is fully known about the type of education being provided to school students in government run schools. There is no denying that government also runs some top notch schools whose academic quality matches best in private sector, the vast majority are in an indescribable condition. On the other hand, private unaided budget schools provide better education than government schools for a small fee.

The above factor is one of the major reasons why poor parents prefer sending their wards to private schools, also the teachers at such institutions are more passionate and dedicated, compared to many government teachers who at most of the times are either absent or even if present, are not involved in teaching activities.

A number of these low budget private schools operate in rural and urban slums and give decent education. But, sadly when these will be evaluated on the basis of the norms stipulated, they will be de-recognised and shut down.

The RTE Act emphasises greatly on the quality of education being provided to students. And one cannot provide good education unless we have suitable teachers for the task. Our schools lack the number of trained, qualified and committed teachers required to provide quality education to children.

Tragically, a majority of teachers present in government schools don’t take their job seriously and those in private are not paid seriously. A teacher of private unaided school earns Rs 3,500 a month while a municipal school teacher earns around Rs 15,000 per month; that is almost five times the salary of a private school teacher, but then the difference can be seen in the quality of education provided by a private unaided school and by a government school. The private school teachers, often less qualified, and always less paid than their government counterparts, manage to provide decent enough education with lesser resources at times. This is a discouraging situation and need to be corrected; teachers should be remunerated accordingly and they should be qualified accordingly as well.

In spite of the RTE being enacted in 2010, it is still not too late to make possible amendments in the education system to suit the Act. It is not that every government school does not pay heed and every private school gives good education. The Act has been the forerunner in planning major changes in the field of education. It might take time before all the points mentioned in the Act be fulfilled and that is because of the variety and diversity of India.

Big changes start small and for the RTE to benefit children, the emphasis on preparing teachers should start outright. As soon as the teachers start meeting the students’ requirements, the learning phase will automatically start running in the cycle it was intended to. It is also necessary to keep a regular check of the working of the education system, so that it does not fall into the net of corrupt practices. Finally, what needs to be realized that without decent physical infrastructure, all the above would remain a pipedream. What has happened till now in government education system is mostly what must not happen in future. A humane, relevant and introspective education for all should be the focus of RTE in order to make a positive and lasting impact.

The Basic Provisions of the RTE

  • Every child from 6 to 14 years of age has a right to free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school till completion of elementary education.
  • 25 percent reservation in private schools
  • Trained and qualified teachers
  • Prohibition of physical and mental harassment of the child
  • Schools should meet specific norms in order to prevent closure