The limitations of the Right to Education

Live Mint, 16 Feb 2012


Not all government schools are bad. Similarly, not all private schools are good. But low-cost private schools are the ones that can help reduce the education gap in India. The RTE Act could effectively shut down these schools.

The recent press reports on the state of Indian education have been depressing. The government responds to these in the same, standard way-it picks holes in the analysis, deflects accountability, says that the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act will solve all these problems, etc. The intention of the RTE Act is good-every child in India aged 6-14 has the fundamental right to education. But the RTE Act continues to lay emphasis on what inputs the bureaucrats and political forces believe are necessary to have better education in India.

Some key clauses of the RTE Act say that no child can be held back until the completion of elementary education, unrecognized schools are banned, donations and capitation fees are banned, interviews are banned, 25% of seats in private schools are to be reserved for the poor (to be reimbursed, based on a formula, by the state), the responsibility to get kids into schools is with the government and all schools have to adhere to the prescribed norms and standards within three years. Some of these clauses are very noble, but the devil lies in the details and in the delivery. I will look at one of these issues-the norms set for schools.

he human resource development minister had said that (a) the education system is not delivering, (b) India has a shortfall of 1.2 million teachers and (c) we need to invest more in education. The gap in education needs and supply is huge and the investment required is way beyond what the government can invest. So, the rational strategy would be to allow schools to proliferate. Yes, there will be more bad schools (we anyway already have a proliferation of them today), but people will have choice and schools will have to compete to fill up their classrooms. C. Rangarajan, chairman of the Prime Minister's economic advisory council, has said that "competition is the best safeguard to protect consumers". As capacity ramps up fast, the poorly run schools will be forced to improve or close down-they will be forced to focus on outputs.

But instead of allowing schools to proliferate, the RTE Act focuses on inputs-infrastructure, teacher qualification and compensation, standardized textbooks and curriculum, etc. Many schools will not be able to meet these criteria by the end of three years. The impact will be felt the most by the private, unaided budget schools, where enrolment numbers are growing fast and which many parents prefer over government schools. These budget schools do not have the financial means to meet the criteria set. They invest in basic infrastructure, their teachers are not necessarily qualified and are paid low salaries (Rs3,500 per month against Rs15,000+ at a municipal schools)-all because these schools charge a low fee of around Rs200-500 per month, which poorer parents can afford. Many parents prefer to pay a fee and send their kids to a private school because they have lost faith in government schools and, in many cases, the teachers in private schools are more passionate and dedicated.

Not all government schools are bad. Similarly, not all private schools are good. But low-cost private schools are the ones that can help reduce the education gap in India. The RTE Act could effectively shut down these schools.

Recently, the Centre for Civil Society helped play a role in helping these schools get together to form an association-National Independent Schools Alliance-to articulate their concerns about the RTE Act and to work on improving standards and governance in their schools. The RTE Act will deter fresh investment in the K-12 (kindergarten to class XII) segment, according to a December 2011 report, Indian Education, by Anand Rathi Research.

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, in their book Poor Economics, say, "Somewhat bizarrely, the issue of learning is not very prominently positioned in international declarations...the implicit assumption, presumably, was that learning would follow from enrolment. But, unfortunately, things aren't that simple."

In conclusion, the RTE Act will neither help get significantly more number of kids into schools nor will improve the learning quality of kids drastically. It is time the government started focusing on output (i.e. the quality of learning) instead of inputs in education. And only then will India perform better in education surveys and, more importantly, reap the benefits of its demographic dividend.

Luis Miranda is chairman of the board of advisers at the Centre for Civil Society.

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