The law provides a five-year window to its implementation but the dream it legislated looks as elusive now as it did when the countdown started.
Like the majority of India's children, the Right to Education (RTE) Act has completed its first year facing malnourishment, neglect and routine criticism. A year after it was notified as law, the right to elementary education remains a dream. The law provides a 5-year window to its implementation but the dream it legislates looks as elusive now as it did when this countdown started. While one important clause is facing a writ in the highest court, other provisions are struggling to receive official attention in State capitals. Any assessment of the progress of RTE in its first year must begin by underlining the federal nature of governance which assigns school education squarely to the State. Few people recognise that India's federal character offers to the Ministry of HRD at the Centre the role of little more than a moral authority. No wonder the main news on RTE at the end of its first year is that the Ministry is trying hard to persuade State governments to own the new law and accept the responsibility of implementing it. The attempt has met with rather limited success. Let us examine why.
A key feature of RTE is that it emphasises quality as an integral aspect of the child's right to be educated. Part V of the RTE Act lays down fairly specific terms under which the quality of elementary education is to be ensured. These include a comfortable teacher-student ratio, curriculum reform and improvement in evaluation methods. The success of these measures depends on teachers, and that is where the system is facing its worst obstacle. The current policy discourse prefers to use the word ‘challenge' in place of ‘obstacle.' This sweet advice of management gurus is not quite relevant to the problem at hand because it has been created as a matter of policy in many States. At the top is Madhya Pradesh which has radically lowered the status of teachers with the help of a two-decade long policy delusion. Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh present similar, though less intractable, cases. The States in the north-east come next where a vast number of teachers have been appointed over the years without any attention to basic qualifications or training. West Bengal constitutes a case of its own kind, symbolising isolation from national trends and norms. If we leave aside these dire instances, many among the remaining States also present a grim picture. Instead of improving teachers' working conditions and training, many States have opted for cosmetic solutions. Orissa has taken the lead in this respect by imposing a dress code requiring teachers to wear a pink sari and a black blouse. Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh may not face an acute shortage of teachers but the issues pertaining to the quality of training are just as relevant for them as they are to the northern States.
Teacher training comprises what one might call the single biggest mess the system of education has to sort out. When the National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE) was given statutory status as a licensing authority, it was seen as a powerful mechanism to bring order into a chaotic sector. Over the years, the NCTE has, by itself, become a part of the problem. Thousands of private outfits of dubious institutional integrity and quality have come up. The RTE requires each State to name an academic authority which will determine and improve curriculum, evaluation and training. Most States have notified their State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) as the mandated academic authority. Some, like Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and West Bengal have named their Boards of Secondary Education. Apparently, these States have no institutional resources to look after the implementation of RTE. But even the ones which have assigned this task to the SCERT need to assess the academic capacity of this institution. Barring Kerala, no State has treated its SCERT with respect; one only hopes that the political change in Kerala will not hurt the remarkable status its SCERT has achieved. All others will need both guidance and money to nurture their SCERTs.
The climate of governance, which set in during the 1990s, makes outsourcing preferable to institution-building. State officials, who have the responsibility to implement the RTE do not know where to look for the knowledge and creative energy required to address the pedagogic concerns articulated in it. Terms such as child-centred teaching and continuous evaluation are alien to a system accustomed to eliminating a majority of children by declaring them ‘fail' sooner or later. A ban on corporal punishment is similarly baffling to both officials and teachers who are used to inducing fear as a way to get children to work hard.
A peculiar development of the last two decades has further compounded the situation. This factor has to do with the culture of trivia that has become the norm of schooling of the poor. Superficial training has led many teachers to perceive their job as that of baby-sitters. A pattern of poorly conceived, shallow activities, aimed at keeping children occupied without learning anything substantial, has evolved into a full-fledged routine. Children come to school, get a free meal, and it matters to no one that they make tangible progress from day to day. The cult of ‘joyful learning' has driven many among the poor to look for whatever private provision exists in their habitation. These private outfits impose a harsh regime of home work and physical punishment to show good examination results. The paucity of good teachers is just as acute in the low-fee private sector as it is in schools run by the government and local bodies. According to current estimates, the country will need well over a million teachers over the next four years in order to meet the RTE norms. Who will train that many teachers? And who will orient the existing cadre of teachers towards the child-centric vision of RTE? One might have imagined that universities will play a major role in this national enterprise, but there is no sign of such an initiative being taken. Even the newly set up central universities have ignored teacher education. Distance education is perceived as the only viable solution to this conundrum. But even for this option, there seems to be little realistic assessment of the costs involved in creating the kind of infrastructure the SCERTs will require in order to liaison with providers of distance education. The situation is apparently so desperate that even the National Open School is likely to join the list of providers of distance training. There is a great risk that a vast number of nominally trained teachers will be allowed to enter schools. The only barrier they might face is the newly introduced eligibility test which will qualify a person to seek appointment as a teacher. How that barrier works as a mechanism for ensuring quality is yet to be seen.
RTE is also facing a major court case, filed by a group of top-end public schools. They are upset with the clause which makes it mandatory for every fee-charging school to allot one-fourth of its seats to children of the poor. Our metropolitan public schools cannot bear the idea of mixing children of the poor with rich kids. Many have started an afternoon shift for the poor; others want to test the poor kids before enrolling them. RTE's radical vision prohibits such screening procedures. The cutting edge of the legal case RTE is facing arises out of the rule that the government will subsidise the reserved seats for the poor only to the extent of the per capita amount it spends in its own schools. If RTE survives this court case, it will have the potential to alter the exclusive and moribund character of the elite public schools. However, a lot of creative energy will need to go into equipping teachers serving in these schools to deal with a mixed population of children. The Loreto School of Kolkata provides a model in this respect, and one hopes that elite schools throughout the country will want to learn from it. They also need to overcome their conceptual blinkers in order to recognise that mixed classrooms provide a pedagogically superior opportunity to bring the best out of all children.
(The author is Professor of Education at Delhi University.)