Untested propositions have been enacted to the detriment of the quality of education imparted to the country’s children
Dr Geeta Kingdon is currently the president of the City Montessori School in Lucknow. Kingdon, who holds a doctorate from Oxford, has done substantive research on the political economy of school education in India.
Recently, Dr Kingdon took out time to speak with Swarajya regarding what ails the Indian education sector. Amongst the issues she focussed on, was the Right to Education (RTE). Given below are her views on why exactly the RTE is a problem.
The problem with the RTE Act is that it bears a traditional concept of what constitutes quality of education, focusing on the provision of inputs. It is not evidence based, and scarce resources are being diverted to initiatives that are not likely to raise the standards of learning.
Research internationally show no consistent relationship between inputs and learning outcomes. The world has moved to judging the quality of schools on the basis of outputs produced, in terms of learning levels of children. The RTE Act’s prescription of a maximum pupil-teacher ratio of 30:1 in particular, is an extremely expensive indulgence without evidence, and leads to a distorted allocation of funds.
My research, earlier this year, revealed that the average government school size in a state like Uttar Pradesh was 179 students per school in 2005-2006. By 2010-2011 it had fallen to a mere 129 students per school, and by 2014-2015 it had dropped further to 106 students per elementary school.
Section 6 of the RTE Act obliges state governments to create a school in every locality, and huge amounts of money are being earmarked to meet the expenses. But setting up more of such schools that parents are abandoning is counterproductive. In India as a whole, as per District Information System for Education (DISE) data, 13 million children have abandoned government schools between 2010 and 2011 and 2015 and 2016, and migrated to private schools, where enrolment has risen by 17.5 million, with the difference being driven by the increase in the child population. In 2015-2016, the Rajasthan government shut down about 18,000 government schools, which had a total enrolment of less than 20 students as a whole, while Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh closed down about 4,000 and 3,000 government schools respectively, which had fewer than 10 students as a whole.
Section 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act focuses on reservations of at least 25 per cent seats in Class I for children from economically-weaker and disadvantaged communities, but the authorities do not appear to have the manpower to implement it properly, especially in terms of keeping a record of all students, especially the disadvantaged, from the time of their birth to the completion of their elementary education. There are also several instances of corruption where children not in real need are being given these coveted free seats in expensive private schools.
There are several ambiguities in the Act. According to section 2(c), a child is defined as a person of age 6-14 years according to the amended article 21-A of the Constitution, yet parents of children below the age of six are seeking admission under the RTE Act. This forces one to ask if ‘compulsory’ education also applies to children aged between zero and six. The central government is not providing funds to state governments for the reimbursement of student fees and admission expenses to children below Class I.
Section 15 of the Act says that the school has to admit children in the extended period, which in most states is a period of three months from the start of the school year, often from 1 April to 30 June. Even after the three-month period, if a child approaches the school, he or she has to be admitted and given additional coaching to make up for the lost classes and to bring him/her on par with the rest. The intent is good, but the schools are not reimbursed for keeping seats vacant and reserved for the whole year in case the authorities send some children for admission. About 25 per cent of the total capacity of private schools keeping seats vacant would be a preposterous wastage of scarce government resources. Private schools would have to raise the fees of 75 per cent of the rest of the children, to find funds for keeping 25 per cent seats vacant.
The reimbursement rates are also a problem. The lowest reimbursement rate is in Uttar Pradesh – Rs 450 per month per child. As per Section 12(2) of the RTE Act, the private schools are to be reimbursed an amount equal to either the actual fee they charge or the expenditure per child in government schools in the state, whichever is the lower. In UP the government schools’ per pupil expenditure, according to an estimate by me (based on the UP budget and the DISE enrollment data) came to Rs 2,340 per month, yet all schools are reimbursed on the basis of this blanket figure of Rs 450 per month per child, even in schools whose fee level is above Rs 2,340 per month. Thus, while on the one hand the state governments are compelling private schools to comply with section 12(1)(c) and admit children from the weaker sections, on the other hand they are not fulfilling their own obligation under the Act to reimburse schools properly. This seems unfair and asymmetrical, and it is likely to increase the burden of fee on the remaining 75 per cent of the fee-paying children.
Section 5(1) of the Act says that the child shall have the right of transfer to any other school, excluding private unaided and central government schools. Yet a lot of children are sent for admission to the bigger private schools who are already studying in the low-fee private schools, sometimes by paying bribes to those who are helping parents to apply, e.g. NGO workers, leading to corruption in implementation.
Under Section 18 of the RTE Act, government schools are not obliged to obtain a certificate of recognition, yet under Section 8 of the Act, they are meant to comply with the norms in the Schedule of the RTE Act. In an answer to a parliamentary question in August 2016, the government admitted that only 6.4 per cent of government schools comply with the norms of recognition specified in the Schedule of the RTE Act. This asymmetry – that private schools are closed down for not complying with the RTE norms of recognition, but government schools can continue running, is an absurdity that needs immediate reform.
The RTE Act is well intentioned but its formulation was ill informed. Its provisions were not first pilot tested, and untested propositions have been enacted to the detriment of the quality of education imparted to the country’s children. The path forward lies in a careful scrutiny of the provisions of the Act, to make them as evidence-informed as possible.
There have been positive moves to amend the Act by Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar through, such as inclusion of learning outcomes as criterion for school recognition and removal of the no detention clause.