A closer look at the fine print of the Right to Education Act reveals major weaknesses in the landmark law
It is unfortunate that public debate on the Right to Education Act has been limited almost exclusively to the clause which requires every recognised school to admit in Class-I and “pre-school education” — to the extent of at least 25 per cent of the strength of the class — children belonging to weaker sections and disadvantaged groups and provide them free and compulsory elementary education.
This proviso, which has captured the collective imagination of educators, politicians and social activists, is perceived to be an important step towards breaking one of the many citadels of privilege in the country. For too long has good education been a service that only the well-to-do can buy. With quality education available only in select schools, it is appropriate that children from less privileged backgrounds are given exposure to such an education. One cannot accept the absurd elitist argument that children from the weaker sections would be misfits or that they would pull down overall standards.
After elementary stage
However, while there is no denying the self-evident truth that a poor child is entitled to the same opportunities as a rich one, it is worrying that the authors of the Act have not visualised or catered for the long-term consequences of this revolutionary diktat. The first big unanswered question relates to the fate of children from the weaker sections after they complete their free elementary education in the elite schools, where the tuition fee would be more than the annual income of their parents. Predictably, these children will have to leave these schools and slip back to schools of questionable standards, which is bound to be psychologically traumatic.
Second, the Act has enunciated a grand scheme whereby within three years, only recognised institutions with certain minimum infrastructure will impart school education in the country. Only schools that have the minimum teaching personnel, at least one classroom per teacher and a playground will henceforth be allowed to function (sections 18 and 19). At the present time, when land prices have shot through the roof in the cities, to conjure up a playground where there is none today is asking for the moon. The stringent stipulations will result in a large number of unrecognised schools as also aided schools being closed down.
Third, it is apparent that in the HRD Ministry’s view, unrecognised schools are an unmitigated evil. It is estimated that out of 12 lakh schools in the country today, almost a fifth are unrecognised. What the government seems to have forgotten is that these schools have been filling in for the non-existent government schools. The rush for admission to unrecognised schools is due to the fact that standards in government schools are dismal. The reality is that we have good and bad unrecognised schools. A comprehensive study of unrecognised schools in Kerala some years ago concluded that, in general, children received a good education from well-qualified teachers, the only criticism being that the teachers were not adequately paid. What the RTE Act has done is to put all unrecognised institutions, the good and the bad, under threat of closure.
Today, between 35 million to 60 million children are not in schools. If the number of schools comes down, as it certainly will, due to closure of schools that do not comply with the stringent infrastructure standards, the nation’s goal of ensuring universal literacy would suffer a massive setback. The RTE Act formulations are based on the unrealistic and absurd premise that recognised schools would not only be able to accommodate the students from schools that close down but also have room for new entrants.
Fourth, the government seems sanguine about the standards of education and infrastructure in government schools. However, the consensus among experts is that government schools are not only overcrowded but impart a very poor standard of education. A recent study of 188 government non-primary schools revealed that 59 per cent of schools had no drinking water facility and 89 per cent no toilets. And yet ironically, the government schools will be the most secure under the new dispensation envisaged in the RTE Act.
On better government schools
Fifth, an outrageous aspect of the RTE Act is that it treats the better government schools as more equal than the others and seeks to insulate them from the upheavals triggered by the Act. By all accounts, the only government schools of a reasonable standard are the Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas which the Act has brought under the “specified category.” Significantly, these schools are exempt from accommodating children who seek transfer from schools which have no provision for completion of elementary education. An Act that claims to strike a blow for equal educational opportunities for all children has no business to accord preferential treatment to these schools.
Sixth, the most ambiguous aspect of the RTE Act relates to teaching quality which, in fact, is the prime adverse factor affecting the spread of literacy in India. The emphasis on physical infrastructure in schools but not on teaching standards is reminiscent of the man who assiduously painted, waxed and polished the body of his car in the expectation that it would run more efficiently. A shocking aspect of our vital, life-moulding primary education is that in most of our six lakh villages, the teaching of children is in the hands of barely educated “para teachers.”
The qualification for becoming a “para teacher” or contract teacher in most States is higher secondary or even secondary pass, but in Rajasthan the qualification for the para teacher is standard eight for men and standard five for women. Significantly, the RTE Act is vague regarding this most vital aspect of education. There are general statements to the effect that the Central government “shall develop and enforce standards for training a teacher.” It has also ratified “relaxation in the minimum qualification required for appointment as a teacher” for up to five years. Clearly, the RTE Act accords little importance to teaching standards, which is the major shortcoming in our educational system.
Beyond these, the RTE Act is garnished with farcical, unworkable statements of good intent. For instance, Section 4 directs that where a child is admitted to a class appropriate to his age, he shall, in order to be on a par with others, have a right to receive special training. Section 11, which takes the cake for sheer impracticability, directs that “with a view to prepare children above the age of three years for elementary education and to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years, the appropriate government may make necessary arrangement for providing free pre-school education for such children.” This country does not have the wherewithal to provide primary education to all and yet the Act envisages universal pre-school training facilities also being set up.
Finally, a deeply disturbing aspect highlighted by many school managements is that the RTE Act, by giving absolute power to the Education Department and local bodies to make or mar schools, will become the ideal tool for large-scale, systemic corruption. Even when there was no specific law against unrecognised institutions, the ubiquitous school inspectors had to be “appeased” despite the school doing nothing illegal. Now with the RTE Act in force, the inspectors will have a free rein to force school authorities to do their bidding — a grim portent for the future. It is not difficult to foresee a large number of undeserving schools getting recognition and a good number of meritorious schools shutting down.
Summing up, the RTE Act in its present form will neither promote its prime objective of ensuring completion of elementary education of every child of the age six to 14 years nor meet the commitment of ensuring quality primary education. At best, it is a statement of good intent.
(The author is Secretary General of the Lok Janshakti Party. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)