In 2009 India enacted a landmark legislation promising universal inclusion in primary education, paving the way for more learning opportunities at secondary and higher levels. This legislation, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, effectively made education a fundamental right of every child in the age group of 6 to 14.
Yet six years on from its entry into force, there is still significant debate about the parameters through which that promise is supposed to be realised.
A massive investment push into education infrastructure has seen about 3.5 lakh new schools opened in the past decade under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan so that 99 per cent of India’s rural population has a primary school within a one kilometre radius.
An already high enrolment level, about 95 per cent since 2009, has been supplemented by a 55 per cent decline in dropout rate reported between 2005 and 2014 in the age group 6-14.
Despite significant gains in increasing access to schooling, there are still major glitches in the implementation of the Act.
Earlier this year, Vice-President Hamid Ansari noted that even with the increasing enrolment numbers, India has the largest number of out-of-school children in the world, which is a staggering 6.064 million according to an answer given in the Rajya Sabha by the Union HRD Minister.
While enrolment has been a success, school completion rates remain abysmal.
According to a 2015 Brookings Institute report on primary education in India, 29 per cent of children drop out before completing five years of primary school, and 43 per cent before finishing upper primary school. High school completion, according to the report, is only 42 per cent. India’s dropout trends also raise troubling questions about equity: there is a huge difference between urban and rural education, and the education received by the rich and the poor.
Of the 6.064 million out of school children, an incredible 4.6 million, or 76 per cent, belonged to the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the religious minorities. The RTE promises education of equitable quality in schools meeting certain essential standards but in that crucial parameter of inclusion lies its biggest failing.
Much of the narrative around the RTE and its implementation tended to focus on the 25 per cent reservation of seats for children from disadvantaged backgrounds in private schools.
Latterly, it has also focused on the large number of low cost or budget schools that have faced closure for failing to meet infrastructure norms envisioned under the Act. It is important to recognise however, that about 70 per cent of India’s students study in government school and fixing this system - in term of improving infrastructure, teacher quality and targeted learning for children from disadvantaged groups - should be the first step in building a more equitable system.