With Central Government’s announcement on April 1 to implement Right to Education (RTE) 2009 — the Act that had remained in suspended animation for over six months now, has finally come into effect. This paves the way for providing free and compulsory education to all children in the age between 6 to 14. Ever since the Government made its intent clear in this direction, way back in 2002 with the 86th Amendment of the Constitution, it has taken inordinately long to pull its act together in addressing the problem of widespread out-of-school children, high dropout rates and ever-declining quality of education. We as a nation must welcome this development and help achieve the objectives of compulsory elementary education, though the Act may, in its current form prove inadequate. It is time that educationists, NGOs and other constituents of the civil society became vigilant, to keep the governments awake so that objectives of the Act are addressed in their right earnest. I will however, take this opportunity to address a few issues emerging from the Act as well as those that have been conveniently ignored.
Let me begin with two major issues that have been completely ignored by the Government. Firstly, the Act carries nothing that could be even distantly construed as a step in the direction of developing Common School System that could provide for compulsory and uniform quality education to all. As we all know, one of the causes of poor educational access and quality is historically located in the development of multilayered and hierarchical education system in India. This has suited the interests of the affluent propertied classes and the high castes both in rural and urban areas as the schooling system, ostensibly conformed to the hierarchical social structure. The RTE, 2009 is thus a missed opportunity from this perspective as the glaring disparities between rural and urban areas, between the poor and rich, social and religious groups are likely to remain unaffected if not get further accentuated in the years to come.
Secondly, the Act makes it very clear that it is committed to providing free and compulsory education to children in the age between 6 and 14. This is in contradiction to Government’s policy of promoting early childhood education, which begins at the age of 4 to 5. If the Act could have lowered the age limit it would have helped setting up of pre-school classes in the existing primary schools, especially those located in the rural areas. It needs no emphasis that early childhood education through pre-schools has proved beneficial in ensuring continuity and completion of education.
The age limits as prescribed in the Act also makes a mockery of yet another stated educational objective i.e. universal elementary education. As a matter of fact, we have gone beyond and begun discussing the way forward — towards universal higher-secondary education. It is well documented that due to commencement of formal education later than the stipulated age in rural areas a large number of children enter upper primary classes when they are 12 and above. Among them girls form a substantial majority. As per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2008 over 44 per cent children who entered class 5 were found to be in the 12 to 16 age group. Once the Government has put the ceiling at age 14, it is under no constitutional obligation to ensure completion of upper primary education. The bulk of those who drop out during or after the primary classes belong to economically and socially deprived groups that need support to continue education.
Among the several causes associated with low enrolment and poor continuation of children in schools; physical and academic infrastructure such as availability of class rooms; seating facility; toilet for girls; and, availability of trained and motivated teachers have appeared prominently in policy documents of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). The initiatives under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the flagship project of the ministry, are geared towards improving the physical infrastructure both in rural and urban areas. Few aspects of improving quality of teaching/learning have also been put in place — some in fact have been found to be successful in several states. However, the norms and standards for schools contained in the section 19 and 25 as well as the appended schedule of the Act fail to address the most basic issues confronting school education for long. Studies have found that one reason for poor enrolment and early drop out in primary classes is associated, other things remaining the same, with unavailability of adequate teachers in primary schools. Primary education comprise of five classes. And irrespective of the number of enrolled children the most basic requirement is that each class has a teacher. Once this criteria is fulfilled then additional number of teachers should be deployed so as to meet the norm of 40 children per teacher (pupil/teacher ratio-PTR). District Information System for Education (DISE) data for rural areas suggests that over 73 per cent of primary schools in India have less than three teachers; 41 per cent with just 2 and another 14 per cent with 1 teacher only. This not only hampers the quality of teaching but negatively affects the growth of children in their formative stage itself. This situation also translates into what Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze call the ‘discouragement effect’. Deployment of teachers on the PTR or number of admitted children in schools is a bad norm which needs to be corrected and made simple. As a matter of fact, once we have already graduated from the ‘universal primary’ to ‘universal elementary’ mode there is an urgent need to integrate primary and upper primary schools into one, by upgrading primary schools into elementary and adding primary classes to the existing upper primary schools. Studies have shown that integrated elementary schools tend to have better educational outcomes in a variety of ways. Administrators may argue that such an initiative may be costlier for the Government is not a sufficient reason in favour of continuing with primary and upper primary as two independent and disjointed sets — both operationally and administratively.
Lastly, our expanding school infrastructure need qualified trained teachers. Teachers affect the quality outcomes most significantly than other factors. The Act dwells upon this issue but does not address the causes of poor quality of teachers within our school system. One may find it hard to count half-a-dozen reasonably good teachers training colleges/institutions in the country. State Council Educational Research and Training (SCERT) centres and District Institute of Educational Training (DIET) centres as well as universities have failed to produce motivated and qualified teachers due to absence of state-of-the-art curriculum and associated rigour. Investment in setting up national level teachers training colleges is one of the main tasks that the Union and state governments must urgently take up, before it is too late.