The Right to Education Act is a piece of visionary legislation. But certain critical issues need to be addressed for its proper implementation.

In the days preceding the tabling of the Right to Education Act in the Parliament, many of us were vocal that critical amendments to the draft Bill were essential before it was tabled and passed. On the other hand, the ministry was equally convinced that most of the amendments being sought could be adequately addressed through properly drafted rules that would accompany the Bill. Now that the Bill has received Presidential Assent, we should ensure that the rules are indeed framed in a manner that addresses these critical issues. It is an opportunity for the government to bring to the drafting group recommendations from a wide cross section of organisations and educationists. There are numerous clauses in the Act where such recommendations will be critical. I'll only mention a few but the intent is to bring into focus the need for rules that will strengthen the implementation.

Real task

To understand the complexity, let's take enrolment. There are government primary schools in over 95 per cent of India's habitations. Government statistics and other studies show that over 92 per cent of our children in the age group are enrolled in school. These two facts give the impression that on the aspect of universal enrolment India has arrived. However the truth is that on an average day, attendance is not more than 70 per cent. If one looks closer, one would discover that nearly 25 per cent of the enrolled children hardly ever attend school. This bitter fact surfaces only when we are forced to report drop-out at Class V (40 per cent) and Class VIII (50 per cent). Will the rules address this by a directive that “children who do not attend school for more than 90 days at a stretch must be shown as out of school children” so that there is focus on holding the school responsible to reflect true enrolment?

Guaranteeing education

The stark fact is that very few government schools can show that their children's learning is commensurate with their age or grade. If the rules are not explicit about learning outcomes, the Bill will merely guarantee schooling and not education. Therefore, the rules must give clear guidelines about learning standards and measuring and reporting of learning outcomes of children.

India urgently needs consensus on the best ways to measure learning outcomes as a means of assessing whether schools are delivering on their commitment.

The problems of implementing “accountability” are more complex. If a school does not measure up to the learning outcomes criteria, whom do we hold accountable? The head teacher? The teachers? The academic support functionaries? Or the administrative functionaries? Assuming that the school is provided enabling conditions such as the 30:1 pupil teacher ratio as stipulated in the Bill; assuming that the school has the essential infrastructure such as adequate class rooms, functional toilets for girls and boys, drinking water facility, shall we hold the head teacher and teacher accountable? Before one says yes, one would also consider other conditions: What was the quality of training provided to the teachers in the school? Did the text books and other material reach school before the start of the academic year? How often was on site academic support provided? What are the socio-economic conditions in that village? What percentage of parents is illiterate in that village? At the same time, it would be effete to let go saying this is too complex or contentious an issue. Perhaps the way forward is to develop fair, context and region specific criteria so that the relevant authorities can be held accountable for the specified outcome. The point is that articulating these in the rules is a good way to begin.

Professional training

The government spends over Rs. 700 crore every year on training teachers. Anyone who has witnessed the depressing spectacle of this annual teachers training knows what a waste this exercise is. Teachers have repeatedly expressed their exasperation over the poor quality and irrelevance of such training. How can the rules of the RTE Act be framed to ensure that there is a separate academic cadre of trainers, of a certain quality and competence, who regularly professionally update themselves, are periodically certified and most importantly are recognised and compensated suitably for this kind of specialized service?

Community participation

The role of the community will become even more important in the post-RTE Act scenario. There is enough research to show the primacy of community in contributing to an effective school. However, the recent PROBE report brought out the fact that though 98 per cent of the rural government schools they studied had school monitoring committee, the members of the committee (largely parents) were unaware of their roles and responsibilities. Therefore, these school monitoring committees exist only on paper. The experience of Azim Premji Foundation through the programme “Namma Shaale” in Karnataka shows that sustained capacity building efforts are required for effective participation of the community in the functioning of their school.

The PROBE Study, like the 2004 Harvard study, showed that teacher absence is around 25 per cent. The study also found that in 48 per cent of government schools no teaching activity was taking place even when the teachers were present. The rules under the RTE Act can ensure a mechanism for effective monitoring of such parameters by the school monitoring committee.

Lack of governance, pulls and pressures, rent seeking practices are some of the huge impediments and grim realities. Well-drafted rules will at least help promote better transparency and governance.

There are glorious examples of excellent schools, dedicated teachers and excited education functionaries but they are few and far between. The RTE Act is not required for these unsung heroes. The Act with enabling, clearly-articulated rules is required to galvanise the rest of the education system. A majority of them would be willing to change if there is a clear path and clear vision.

(The author is Head, Programs and Advocacy at Azim Premji Foundation)