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Thirteen Years of the Right to Education Act: A Stocktaking Brief

By Sudarshan RSA

This year marks 13 years since the institution of the Right to Education Act, 2009. So far, on the frontier of educational progress, its achievements have been impressive: a near 100% enrollment rate, marked aggregate infrastructure improvements such as increases in the number of schools with toilets (doubled for girl children), playgrounds and the like, increases in enrollments of underprivileged children (socially and economically) and many other essential compliance measures on the part of schools being instituted to ensure better accessibility to education. However voluminous these achievements may be in absolute terms, they’re fraught with associated discrepancies that suggest that they constitute slower progress than desirable over such a long time-span. In light of the same, this article aims to serve as a stock-taking brief: first, it will introduce readers to a few fundamentals of the Right to Education Act and subsequently provide a short commentary, while also aggregating expert opinions on the effective implementation status of the Act.

The Right to Education Act: A Brief

The Right to Education (RTE) Act, enacted in 2009, establishes education as a fundamental right for the Indian populus and prescribes free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of 6 to 14. In addition to the same, it also provides functional and strict guidelines for the operation of schools and governments toward achieving this objective by clearly prescribing duties and responsibilities for both agents. A few binding provisions imposed on state and central governments to take note of are: 

  1. To ensure a 25% reservation in private unaided schools accorded to children belonging to economically weaker sections and socially disadvantaged communities and compensate them to a specified extent for the same
  2. To ensure a complete prohibition of imposition of capitation fees, screening procedures for and any type of discrimination against children (especially those belonging to weaker sections) prior to admission
  3. To ensure good quality elementary education as per norms and standards specified
  4. To develop and enforce standards for training and quality of teachers along with adequate provisions and establishments of teacher training facilities.

With that in mind, we move to the section of stocktaking. Many previous reports in concurrent literature have addressed the matter of adequacy of schools and the nature of enforcement of the compulsoriness mandated by the RTE Act. Thus, we focus on the four listed above. We engage by asking 2 simple questions: these were the promises that were made, but to what extent were they held up? And if not, what factors allowed for such underperformance?

Thirteen Years of the Right to Education Act: Unfulfilled Promises

Factors prohibiting ensuring of full admissions

Despite the prohibition of capitation fees and screening procedures, reports of children being denied admission on account of their backgrounds and lack of willingness to pay quantities of donations have never ceased in the last 13 years. Many reports  have chronicled equivalents of capitation fees being charged under deceptive heads apart from ‘tuition’. Denial of admission on account of caste and other related factors of identity has also been a rampant issue. To curb the same and charge schools for such actions, multiple government reviews and orders have been passed in the last few years—yet progress has been stunted. 

However, the crux of the matter is more nuanced: schools are not the only agents to be blamed in this regard. Government reimbursements to private schools place themselves on the effective lower bound of per-child costs—based on how much governments spend per child in public schools. Naturally, given the status of an average public school such reimbursements by themselves are grossly insufficient. Moreover, defaults and delays in reimbursement obligations toward schools have been one of the primary reasons for children being denied admission. Consequently, a vicious cycle of schools being unable to admit students due to financial constraints and governments inadequately reimbursing them further propelling the same is set in motion. 

Finally, government compliance mechanisms for schools, usually maintained through inspections have also been long argued to be inadequately enforced. Many populous districts in the country (with a proportional amount of schools) are inspected by the relevant government authority much less relative to others. As a result, discriminative behavior like this and structural factors that allow for them within schools end up going unchecked. 

As much as one may appreciate the compliances imposed and the rules set by the government, without adequate enforcement and elimination of structural factors that prevent their objectives from actualizing, progress will necessarily continue to be stunted. The next section on how quality of the education in the country has fared provides yet another account of this.

Quality of Education and Teaching

The quality of the education system in a country is necessarily dependent on the quality of teachers that it produces. This, in turn, implies that the quality of teacher training is integral to ensure that these teachers go on to deliver high quality education in the schools of the country. Taking this into consideration, the RTE includes a clause for prescription and strict enforcement of certain standards for training of teachers. In reality, however, faulty cogs feature in every instance of the process of teacher training—and unfortunately, the institution of the RTE, has been vastly unsuccessful in oiling them. 

In the first place, while there are enough Teacher Education Institutes (TEIs) to produce the number of teachers the country needs every year on paper, barely 20% of their total capacities are utilized. A vast majority of them are inadequately endowed in terms of resources, are privately owned and operated dubiously. Consequently, with barely any compliance measures to act as quality checks, there is a great quality deficit that is created in the profession of school-teaching. And unsurprisingly, this is reflected in the pass percentage of the central eligibility test for being appointed as a teacher—standing at just 25%. Moreover, even in well functioning institutes, the curriculum currently prescribed for teacher education degrees is well past the point of outdation. As a result, not only are less teachers trained than we need, a fair share of those who are trained, because of such unfortunate circumstances, end up being inadequately trained as well. In this way, schools—and especially government schools—end up both short staffed and improperly staffed, markedly affecting the quality of education delivered to the children of our country. 

Furthermore, and as always, the structure of operations in state-operated schools also engenders poor incentive structures for teachers to truly focus on delivering the quality of education they were hired for. Complete security in employment, infrequent inspections in schools (as mentioned before) and inadequate penalizations on shirking of responsibilities has led to large amounts of absenteeism in such schools and thus, poor learning outcomes for students. In this way, the provisions of the RTE in terms of ensuring a good quality education for students and training for teachers have in many ways failed to be held up against the test of reality—of course, progress is discernible, but certainly not to the extent desirable.

Conclusion

Much of the commentary above, while greatly critical of the level of progress made after the institution of the Act, certainly does not imply that there has been none. There is no mistake to be made here: with regards to almost every clause addressed by the RTE Act, there has been considerable progress vis-a-vis the first decade of this century—as mentioned even at the very beginning of this brief. The question of greater importance, however, is: is this quantum of development adequate after 13 years of implementation? Considering at least the key factors discussed above, one is compelled to argue otherwise. With discrimination against students prior to enrollments and the issue of poor quality of student and teacher education still rampant, one thing can be said for sure—its success cannot be proclaimed, just yet. A structural change in the approach taken by the government towards the Act’s implementation is imperative to achieve the pace of progress that is desirable to cater to the country’s people and particularly, children. As inadequate enforcements, monitoring or incentivization toward achieving the prescriptions of the act continue to alter the incentive structures faced by agents such as schools, a full implementation of the right still seems to rest in a distant future.

Sudarshan RSA studies Economics at Ashoka University, Sonipat.

Image – Daily Pioneer

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