How the Right To Education Act (RTE) is destroying the school system and hurting aspirational Indians 

Anusuya is from the relatively impoverished central Indian state of Chhatisgarh. The 32 year old, mother of three works as domestic help in the posh neighbourhood of South Delhi.

She’s never heard of the Right to Education (RTE) Act passed by the previous Congress led government in 2009. Widely hailed by social activists and those who supported the government’s entitlement based approach, as we shall see the RTE has had many perverse effects on actually worsening access to and quality of education.

Anusuya’s three children attend a local municipal primary school located in the fancy neighbourhood of Hauz Khas, Delhi, not far from the the Village, of the same name, an area popular with artists, well to do locals and expats.

None of Anusuya’s Memsaabs (the well to do women who employ her as domestic help) send their children to the local school where Anusuya’s children study—or try to.

“Children don’t learn anything in the school,” worries Anusuya.

Her daughter Jayanti (name changed), 8 years old, is in the third grade but can barely read or write.

As she tells her mother, “Madam” (i.e., the teacher) abandons the children in the class and sits in the staff room gossiping with other “madams’”.

Now consider someone higher up in the social hierarchy.

Nidhi Sharma (name changed), 33, is a housewife who lives in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi in the neighbouring state of Haryana. Before that, she lived in South Delhi. Her two sons, Kanay and Aayan, are both in good private schools in Gurgaon as they were before that in Delhi. The older son, Kanay is presently at Shriram School where he will get an International Baccalaureate certification (IB).

Nidhi was insistent that her children not attend a conventional Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) school. Other options were a school such as Mirambika (run by the Shri Aurobindo Ashram) which is an “alternative” or “free progress” school, with fewer children per class and a diverse, non-traditional curriculum and pedagogy. At one point she even considered homeschooling her children.

“I don’t want my kids to suffer from exam fever, feel stressed due to homework or be burdened with school books. I just don’t believe in the same old uniform syllabus and pedagogy,” Nidhi explains.

But it turns out that if Nidhi had decided to homeschool her kids, she would have run afoul of the RTE, which mandates that every child be registered in either a public school or a recognised private school but which bars homeschooling.

Fortunately, she is well to do and the private schools her kids are actually attending would not draw the ire of the RTE and those trying to enforce it. As we shall see, the real victims of this misguided piece of legislation are those who suffer poor quality education in government schools and the many “budget” private schools (BPSs) geared towards lower income kids which don’t meet the RTE’s excessively stringent requirements.

To quote the RTE: It shall be the duty of every parent or guardian to admit or cause to be admitted his or her child or ward, as the case may be, to an elementary education in the neighbourhood school.”  (Section 10, RTE 2009)

RTE and Homeschooling

The policy makers who framed this law clearly weren’t thinking about Shreya Sahai, a 12 year old girl from Delhi.

A budding painter and photographer, Shreya wished to devote more time to music and the arts. She’s one of the small number of children whose parents prefer to homeschool rather than sending them to a regular school.

She wished to attend the National Institute for Open Schooling (NIOS), which fosters open schooling and would, prior to RTE, have allowed someone who had been homeschooled to sit for exams.

But when Shreya approached NIOS in April 2010, the school denied her request for taking the eighth grade examination, thanks to the RTE Act having come in force on April 01, 2010.

Shreya and her parents filed a case in Delhi High Court and the government, in its initial response, supported the right to home school.

Around the same time, a well-known leftist journal, Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), published an article by Jandhyala Tilak, a professor at the National University of Education Planning and Administration, opposing homeschooling. Tilak argued that “the principle of individual choice is not valid in the case of compulsory education and that children have to go only to recognised, not alternative schools”.

Ashok Agrawal, a lawyer and activist, perhaps inspired by this line of reasoning, intervened in Shreya’s case, objecting to the government’s stand as well as the petitioner’s pro-homeschooling stand. He argued that the parental right over a child is subordinate to that of the state and an interpretation of the RTE Act in favour of homeschooling would result in a proliferation of sub-standard schools run by non-government organisations (NGOs).

Subsequently, the government reversed its stand through another affidavit. Eventually, the case was withdrawn as the Court refused to pass a direction to the Government to amend the Act.

To quote the High Court judgement: it would not be justified for the Court to issue directions to the Government to make any amendment to Section 2(p) of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 as it is the right of the Government and legislature to amend any Act or any provision of the Act.

At the time of writing the NIOS has not shut down the Open Basic Education Programme for children under 15 years of age. So theoretically Shreya could have completed her certification. The problem is that there’s no clarity or certainty whether the program will continue into the future and more generally, no clarity on whether homeschooling in general will remain legal in India.

Ironically, Kapil Sibal, the then-Minister of Human Resource Development (HRD), responsible for the school system, had declared in 2010 that RTE posed no issue to home schooling as the government had no interest in micromanaging the education system.

Homeschooling, after all, does not mean no exam and no certification. Most Western countries which allow homeschooling have regulatory systems in place. In India as well, children take exams through the NIOS for academic certification.

But the government’s reversal on Shreya’s case and the Court’s refusal to intervene confuses further an already confused situation. After all, why would parents take the risk that if they homeschool their children they might not be able to get them certified? It would be a huge risk to take for the future of one’s children given the prevailing uncertainty. So definitely this will have a dampening effect on parents who’re considering homeschooling in the future.

It would appear that the “right” to education carries a very illiberal implication in India.

What do parents want for their children?

Rich or poor, parents want the best education for their children, and they’ve shown by their choices that government-run schools are not providing it.  Parents are “voting with their feet”, and their rupees. Between 2008-09 and 2009-10, enrolment in private schools went up by 32 lakhs, while government schools saw an almost identical drop in enrolment over the same period.

This might be expected among the middle class and wealthy but it is striking behaviour coming from those parents who are poor.

On the face of it, government schools are a bargain hard to refuse if you are poor. They charge virtually no fee, provide free books, uniforms, shoes and meals. Yet, poor parents, often themselves illiterate, prefer to seek admission for their children to budget private schools and are willing to spend a great deal of their monthly income on their children’s education.

The growing revealed preference for private schools reflects the fact that even poor parents who themselves might lack much formal education are able to tell the difference between good and bad schooling and that they are prepared to invest substantial resources in their children’s education.

According to a study  by Geeta Kingdon, who holds the Chair  in Education Economics at the University of London, in 2007-08 for rural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the absence rate of regular teachers in government schools was 23-25 per cent, while private school teachers’ absence rate was much lower at 13-17 per cent. Government school teachers spent on average 74 per cent of their typical school hours in teaching children, while private school teachers spent 90 per cent.

It might be true that some private schools are only marginally better than local government schools on the above metrics. But they make this up by offering extra subjects as well as having extra hours or days of teaching.

As a study by Karthik Murlidharan of the University of California, San Diego and Venkatesh Sundararaman of the World Bank shows, private schools in Andhra Pradesh are three times more efficient than government schools (in the sense that their cost per student is one-third). The study also suggests that, in addition to a cost advantage, the typical private school delivers slightly better results on average across a range of subjects compared to a typical government school.

Further, private schools generally spend significantly less instructional time on mathematics and Telugu, and use the extra time to teach more English, science, social studies, and Hindi. In general, private schools have longer school days, fewer holidays, lower teacher absence and lower pupil to teacher ratios. What’s more, extra language subjects such as Hindi and English expand the scope of job opportunities in the future compared to students who study only in Telegu.

Private school teachers are paid less but work harder and achieve better educational outcomes for students than their counterparts in government schools. The reasons are obvious if one thinks like an economist. Government school teachers are, essentially, civil servants, and cannot be fired if they do not teach well or even if they do not show up at all — hence the high absentee rates. By contrast, teachers in private schools have an incentive to do their job because they will be fired if they do not.

The real clincher is that most teachers in government schools themselves don’t seem to believe in the system they work for. In Tamil Nadu, only 27% of primary and middle primary government school teachers sent their children to government schools while a whopping 73% sent their children to private schools.

Where do government servants, more generally, send their children? And how socially inclusive are the schools preferred by such parents? There is no data on this, but my conjecture is that it would match what we see with government school teachers.

Increasing the burden on affordable private schools

The fact is that the RTE Act limits options for poor parents by increasing the burden on affordable private schools. As it is, these schools struggle to survive, and the RTE just makes this situation worse.

For example, government regulations typically mandate that schools have to have a weatherproof building, which increases construction and maintenance cost. State rules even stipulate the minimum size of the plot of land on which a school is built, the number and size of class rooms, the numbers of toilets, and minimum number of books in a library. In the arcane world of government regulations, the rules sometimes even stipulate the size of doors, stairs and windows!

The rules are so onerous that many NGO-run schools — such as Deepalaya in Delhi, that operates in a slum — will have to be shut down if the rules are strictly enforced. The rules say that a school cannot have classrooms located across from a slum, nor can it have mobile buildings. The school must be a fixed structure — a weatherproof one at that! — sitting on a plot at least 200 square yards in Delhi specifically, and it must have separate toilets for boys and girls.

In 2003, Sam Hoakip, originally from Manipur, started Ebyon, a budget private school in Khajuri Khas, north east Delhi. Despite having just five rooms, a large unplastered hall and plagued by frequent power cuts with the odd patch of sunlight seeping through the cracks, Ebyon has attracted more than 100 students annually.

 (Ebyon School in Khajuri Khas)

Almost 80% of the parents who send their children to Ebyon are daily wage earners who pay a monthly fee of Rs. 200. Shaziya Parveen, a teacher at the school, has only completed grade 12 but she has seven years of teaching experience. While she’s providing a valuable educational service under less than ideal circumstances, technically this is against the rules, as according to the letter of the law, she would have to have a formal educational degree or diploma in order to teach.

Farman, 12 years old, is the son of an unskilled labourer who works as a painter. He goes to a neighbourhood government school in the mornings and attends Ebyon after lunch.

Why does he do this?

Even though Farman enjoys attending Ebyon, it’s not a recognised school and not likely to be anytime soon. So by attending the government school in the morning, he will ensure that he gets a valid graduation certificate, even though his actual learning takes place at unrecognised Ebyon. These are the perversities of the system.

This is hardly a unique example of an affordable private school providing valuable educational services running afoul of excessively stringent government regulations.

Pratham,is one of India’s largest NGOs providing quality, affordable education to underprivileged children in India. In their 2011-12 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), many schools were surveyed, of which 24 schools—15 government and 9 private schools— were in Seelampur, in north east Delhi, the area where Ebyon operates.

The survey showed that government schools are by and large RTE compliant while most private schools are not. That is because they operate  in residential buildings since real estate prices are high and they cannot afford RTE compliant commercial space. What’s more they’re unlikely to become RTE compliant anytime soon as these constraints aren’t likely to change.

However, being RTE-compliant doesn’t mean that these government schools are delivering on their mission to provide education.

The ASER survey showed that half the children who were in grade five in Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) schools and Delhi government schools, at the time of the survey, had not yet reached the level of educational attainment expected in grade two.

Even in grade three, about half the children in MCD schools and a third in government schools struggled with basic number recognition.

The report concluded despite their RTE compliance —which includes having trained and qualified teachers and adequate infrastructure— government schools had lower learning outcomes. On the other hand, learning outcomes of children in private schools were substantially higher.

It’s evident that despite formally meeting RTE requirements, government schools don’t create a good learning environment partly for a reason we’ve seen before in the case of Anusuya’s daughter Jayanti and in the academic study from Andhra Pradesh: teachers in government schools who have job security and are well paid compared to those in many private schools have no incentive to do their job well as there’s no penalty if they don’t.

By comparison, affordable private schools, which theoretically are on the wrong side of the RTE have by and large better motivated teachers and students who actually want to be there, leading to overall better educational outcomes, despite the poor infrastructure and lack of formal training of many of the teachers.

But in the black and white world envisaged by the RTE Act, there’s no room for such nuances.

Sam Hoakip’s school, Ebyon, is not RTE compliant. Apart from the substandard physical infrastructure, he would need to pay his teachers six times their current salary. And while he’s at it, he would have to fire teachers like Shaziya Parveen and hire new teachers who have the “right” credentials.

(Classroom in Ebyon)

This would substantially increase his costs and Sam would have to increase the fees he charges the students by many fold. Not only would Shaziya be out of a job, but Farman would have to stop going to school. His father, who is the only earner in a family of five, would not be able to afford the substantially higher fee that Sam would have to charge if he were to try to make Ebyon RTE compliant and receive a certificate of recognition, without which he would have to shut down. And then, given how arbitrarily the rules are enforced, there’s no guarantee he’d get recognition even if he managed to jump through all the hoops.

The saving grace is that excessively stringent rules within the RTE Act are sometimes redeemed by not actually being enforced. Ebyon continues to operate to this day as the Delhi government has not in fact shut down a single school as it would be required to do under the RTE.

The same good sense — or good politics — in the face of a bad law is not unfortunately universal. For example, the Punjab Government has shut down more than 1100 private schools and the government in Haryana ordered the closure of more than 1300 schools.

School owners in Haryana were fortunate to get a stay order from the High Court of Punjab and Haryana at Chandigarh. It’s ironic that the same High Court ordered the closure of schools in Punjab.

Balraj Singh from Gurdaspur district had filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in 2010 in the High Court asking for an independent primary education regulator to be constituted. In the three years that followed, thanks to the PIL, the Court made itself an ad-hoc self appointed regulatory agency, closing down private schools having inadequate infrastructure. Government officials acted on the High Court orders and submitted a compliance report confirming closure of 1170 schools.

This zeal in enforcing a law that doesn’t make sense is not just of academic interest. The lives of real people have been deleteriously affected.

Simran (name changed), 7 and Rani (name changed), 9 – two students in Mansa district, Punjab earlier would walk barely 50 steps to reach their school. Now, they have to walk almost 4 km everyday to attend their new school. Their old school, which charged  approximately Rs 160-200 as fees was attended by almost 300 children and staffed by 12 female teachers, but had to close down for alleged non-compliance with RTE.

After the school was inspected, I received a phone call by the Block Education Officer [the official responsible for enforcing RTE] to close down the school in the middle of the academic year without giving me any formal written notice. When I declined to close down the school, police officials visited my school and tried to force me to write a self-declaration that I am closing down the school on my own.

This is how Ashwini Pal (name changed) angrily explained how she was forced to shut down her school, leaving students like Simran and Rani no choice but to travel further and pay higher fees.

Why don’t the owners of affordable private schools like Ashwini complain more vociferously when proper procedure isn’t followed by government officials and they’re all but bullied into shutting down?

The difficulty is that these schools are already operating in a grey area and very likely are technically on the wrong side of the law, such as operating in residential buildings.  But their frustration is obvious and visible.

“We grow a plant, give water, nourish it and then the government comes and takes away the root”, says Tejinder Singh Brar (name changed),  owner of an affordable private school in Barnala, Punjab.

According to information from the Punjab government’s education department available on its website, in 2013-14, 1,170 private schools in Punjab were shut down, affecting more than 40,000 students. A recent field study conducted in Punjab by the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) found that many of the schools mentioned in the list had already closed down with the past three years. Some closed for their own reasons while others were closed by government officials without any written notice.

Of those that were notified in writing, some were told that it was due to non-compliance with Section 12, a section of the RTE which stipulates a 25% reservation for children from low income and disadvantaged groups.

School owners say that most parents didn’t know about this 25% reservation and therefore they didn’t receive applications within this reserved category. Moreover, the RTE makes no provision for school closure as a penalty for not complying with the 25% clause.Yet another equally dubious reason for forcing some schools to close was that in some cases, the government officials insisted on a 30 year lease for the school building. This also makes no sense, since the norm in the market place is a lease for no more than five years. In other cases, they insisted on ownership of the plot of land as a way to close the schools.

One has to ask why such dubious methods were used to close down private schools in Punjab.

One thing is for sure: government officials didn’t bother to check what should be the most important aspect of their survey, which is to look at the learning outcomes.

Unlike Delhi, not all government schools in Punjab are fully compliant with RTE. In fact, 6000 government schools would have been forced to close if the same rules were applied to them as were being used to close private schools. That would be a basic test of fairness in applying the rules, no matter how bizarre they are. But the High Court refused to entertain a PIL challenging discriminatory treatment of private schools, thus adding insult to injury.

By contrast, Gujarat is not shutting down any private schools. The state government appoints independent third parties to assess government and private schools alike. They give a weight of 15% to infrastructure and 85% to learning outcomes and extra curricular achievements. Thus, all schools, government or private, have a strong incentive to ensure good learning outcomes, and there’s no discrimination between government and private schools.

This common sense approach matches what research studies tell us.

Physical infrastructure such as the quality of building material, toilets, and playground and human capital such as qualified teachers are helpful but not essential for learning outcomes. Having well motivated teachers and students is essential.  However, government and bureaucrats seem to think otherwise, at least in the rest of India.

( A kid in Ebyon)

Anusuya’s daughter Jayanti will be promoted to grade four next year. Her ‘Madam’ does not teach, but that doesn’t matter. If Jayanti does not learn in the classroom, that’s also not an issue. That’s because, even if Jayanti does not attend school, she will still get passing grades, at least up to eighth grade. Passing is a “right” even if many parents feel it is not right. Is it surprising that more than half the children in grade nine in Delhi government schools fail when they are no longer being automatically graduated to the next grade?

As Abhishek Gupta, who challenged the “no holding back” clause of the RTE in the Supreme Court, said, “passing is compulsory and education is optional in the Right to Education scheme“.

(Thanks to Meril Antony and Nilanjan Chaudhuri for inputs on Punjab school closure. Some names have been changed to maintain anonymity.)

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.
Comments
30 Done, 20 To Go...
We need your help to produce 50 high-quality ground reports this election season.
Will you support us?

Sponsor Now