The road to hell, it is rightly said, is often paved with good intentions. This observation is true of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (aka RTE) Act, 2009 which stipulates that all children between the ages of six-14 be given free and compulsory education in their neighbourhood schools.
Nobody can seriously argue against the laudable goal of this legislation. Primary education for all — rich and poor — is a fundamental right, essential for national development and progress. It should have been a top priority of Central and state governments from the very first Independence Day when free India’s literate population was a little over 20 percent. China, and even Muslim-majority Indonesia, had lower literacy then. Today, they are both almost fully literate, whereas our literate population is a mere 65 percent. These other nations got their priorities right, as did many other developing Asian countries like South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Sri Lanka. We didn’t, and today we have the dubious distinction of having the largest number of illiterate persons — almost 400 million — worldwide. We prioritised the promotion of universities, and the showpiece Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Techn-ology. Nothing wrong with that, since they have served us well. But we badly neglected primary education.
Union human resources development minister Kapil Sibal believes the RTE Act is the solution, even going to the extent of saying that “it could well become a model for the world to emulate”. Unfor-tunately he is completely wrong and the Supreme Court’s recent majority judgement (there was a dissenting opinion) upholding the legality of the RTE Act is misconceived.
Now following the apex court’s judgement in Society for Unaided Schools in Rajasthan, all private schools, including unaided institutions, who have neither received subsidised land nor government assistance, are obliged to admit at least 25 percent of children in primary (classes I-VIII) school free of charge. However schools promoted by religious and linguistic minority trusts and societies are exempted. But the constitutional validity of imposing reservation quotas on non-minority institutions which don’t receive any funding, not even subsidised land, is highly questionable (and was the basis of the dissenting judgement in Society for Unaided Schools of Rajasthan).
Legalities apart, what are the implications of the judgement on ground zero, within private unaided schools?
Considering that 85-90 percent of Indian children attend government or government-aided schools, the benefit conferred on poor children by way of access to high-quality private schools will be marginal, since highly fancied unaided missionary and convent schools are exempted. Millions of them will continue going to miserably-taught and poorly-maintained government schools. Only a few thousand will gain access to elite non-minority private schools. The desira-ble integration of rich and poor, higher and lower caste students, will be minuscule.
But that’s the least of it. The RTE Act, if fully implemented, will sound the death knell of all private, ‘unrecognised’ or budget schools which are currently filling a vital gap in schooling, particularly in urban slums. A study conducted by the education think tank, India Institute and UK’s Newcastle University is instructive and telling.
The study tallied 1,574 schools in Bihar’s capital city, Patna, and investigated them. Of them 21 percent were government-run and the rest private, of whom three-quarters provided low-cost, affordable education. This last category of schools, the study discovered, had a far better record than government schools, of teaching and attendance, and other parameters laid down by Pratham, a highly respected education NGO, in its Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). However, many of these private schools are not recognised by any official body, which could mean that they face closure under the RTE Act. Their students will face problems when trying to get into mainstream education since they studied in ‘unrecognised’ schools.
Moreover almost 70 percent of the parents surveyed preferred to send their children to private unaided schools, as the fees in most of them are affordable, and learning outcomes better, says the India Institute study. The same study also found that low-cost budget schools pay unqualified teachers an average salary of just Rs.1,447 a month, whereas government school teachers in most states get ten to fifteen times as much. Yet, the poorly paid and under-qualified teachers in private budget schools produce better results than government schools. Isn’t there a lesson to be learned from this?
HRD minister Kapil Sibal says the RTE Act should be implemented “in the right spirit”. What he really needs to do is to improve the working of government schools “in the right spirit”. It is not good enough to pass the buck and say that education is a state subject. The Centre has sufficient powers to point states in the right direction. What the country needs are government schools with proper buildings, toilets and drinking water, with teachers who actually teach, where the funds for mid-day meals are not gobbled up by corrupt officials. That’s where the real challenge of primary education lies, not in the misconceived and unimplementable RTE Act.
(Rahul Singh is former editor of Reader’s Digest, Sunday Express and Indian Express)