It was Saturday afternoon; the world seemed to be on vacation but me, as I was busy serving guests at a lunch party at my masters’ residence. Chatting and laughing was loud enough to be heard in every nook and corner of the house. But those were of least concern to me because I had to respond to every single call for any requirement at the very word of the guests or the master in particular. It was 2009, and I was just seven, wearing a sweater and a half pant, watching a bunch of people boasting about the achievements of their wards and trying to prove one child better than the other. Suddenly, an older man read from a magazine that the government was to pass a new act, namely, the Right to Education Act. But to me, those routine talks about the household work made more sense than this new coming up topic because neither I could read nor understand their high-level conversation, which had diverted their talks from their children, on top of that I didn’t even understand, what the word ‘right’ meant. That elderly fellow said something like…
History of the Act:
The Free and Compulsory Education Bill 2003 was the first attempt of the Central government to draft comprehensive legislation on education after the 86th Constitutional Amendment that made education a fundamental right. The Bill was an excellent example of bureaucratic empowerment, creating up to 6 levels of various authorities to ensure free and compulsory education. Furthermore, the reservation of up to 25% of the private school seats for the economically backward students to be selected by these authorities ensured that the Bill was a throwback to the old license-permit-raj regime. However, following widespread criticism, the Bill was discarded.
The Right to Education Bill 2005 is the second attempt by the Central government to set the education system right. Some of the important provisions of the Bill:
• Promises free and compulsory education of equitable quality up to the elementary level to all children aged 6 to 14.
• Mandates unaided private schools to reserve up to 25 percent of the seats for students from weaker sections. The schools will be reimbursed by the lower actual school fee or per-student expenditure in the government school. In addition, the aided schools will reserve “at least such proportion of their admitted children as its annual recurring aid bears to its annual recurring expenses subject to a minimum of 25 percent.”
• Requires all remaining students to be accommodated by opening new government schools, and within three years of the passage, all students to have a school to go to within their own neighborhood.
• Forms School Management Committees (SMCs) comprising parents and teachers for state schools and aided schools. The SMCs will own the assets of the school, manage the accounts, and pay salaries.
• Establishes a National Commission for Elementary Education to monitor the implementation of the Bill, State Regulatory Authorities to address grievances under the Bill, and several ‘competent authorities,’ ‘local authorities,’ and ’empowered authorities’ to perform a vast number of regulatory functions and meet out punishment to defaulters.
• Assigns all state school teachers to particular schools from which they will never be transferred-creates a school-based teacher cadre.
The finance committee and planning commission rejected the Bill citing the lack of funds, and a Model bill was sent to states to make necessary arrangements.
As is evident, even after 60 years, universal elementary education remains a distant dream. Despite high enrolment rates of approximately 95% as per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2009), 52.8% of children studying in 5th grade lack the reading skills expected at 2nd grade. Free and compulsory elementary education was made a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution in December 2002 by the 86th Amendment. In translating this into action, the ‘Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill’ was drafted in 2005. This was revised and became an Act in August 2009 but was not notified for roughly 7 months.
The delay in the notification can be mostly attributed to unresolved financial negotiations between the National University of Education Planning and Administration, NUEPA, which has been responsible for estimating RTE funds, and the Planning Commission and Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD). As a result, from an estimate of an additional Rs.3.2 trillion to Rs.4.4 trillion for the implementation of RTE Draft Bill 2005 over 6 years (Central Advisory Board of Education, CABE), the figure finally set by NUEPA now stands at a much reduced Rs.1.7 trillion over the coming 5 years. For a frame of reference, Rs.1 trillion is 1.8% of one year’s GDP.
Most education experts agree that this amount will be insufficient. Since education falls under the concurrent list of the Constitution, financial negotiations were also undertaken between Central and State authorities to agree on sharing of expenses. This has been agreed at 35:65 between States and centers, though state governments continue to argue that their share should be lower.
KEY FEATURES OF THE ACT INCLUDE:
1. Every child from 6 to 14 years of age has a right to free and compulsory education in a neighborhood school until elementary education.
2. Private schools must take in a quarter of their class strength from ‘weaker sections and disadvantaged groups, sponsored by the government.
3. All schools except private unaided schools must be managed by School Management Committees with 75 percent parents and guardians as members.
4. All schools except government schools must be recognized by meeting specified norms and standards within 3 years to avoid closure.
Based on this Act, the government has framed subordinate legislation called model rules as guidelines to states for implementing the Act.
The family I had been working for (Walia family) had always been caring for me, with occasional slaps and abuses, to which I had become accustomed to and accepted them as part and parcel of my monthly income of 700 Rs along with square meals and the discarded clothes of the children to the master. But then that was my life……bhaiya and didi (son and daughter to the master) were both elder to me by 4 or 5 years respectively and during my free time often played along with me. Still, again I was reminded of my being a servant whenever I forgot that…they had taught me to read and write my name in Hindi, which I always kept scribbling at the corners of the walls which resulted in a color change of my cheeks to red from white, whenever caught. That Act being the burning topic of those days, always managed to occupy some space at the front page of every newspaper, which further became a topic of early morning drawing-room discussion for the family as it was that day and just like every normal citizen, he also started which his speech, with the critique of right to education act and its loopholes…
LOOPHOLES IN THE ACT
The Act is excessively input-focused rather than outcomes-oriented. Even though better school facilities, books, uniforms, and better-qualified teachers are important, their significance in the Act has been overestimated in the light of inefficient, corrupt, and unaccountable institutions of education provision. Then the Act unfairly penalizes private unrecognised schools for their payment of market wages for teachers rather than elevated civil service wages. It also penalizes private schools for lacking the infrastructural facilities defined under a Schedule under the Act. These extremely cost-efficient schools operate mostly in rural areas or urban slums and provide essential educational services to the poor. Independent studies by Geeta Kingdon, James Tooley, and ASER 2009 suggest that these schools provide similar if not better teaching services when compared to government schools while spending a much smaller amount. However, the Act requires government action to shut down these schools over the coming three years. A better alternative would have been to find mechanisms through which public resources could have been infused into these schools. The exemption from these same recognition requirements for government schools in the case of double standards — with the public sector being exempted from the same ‘requirements’.
By the Act, SMCs (school management committees) are comprised mostly of parents and are responsible for planning and managing the operations of government and aided schools. SMCs will help increase the accountability of government schools, but SMCs for government schools need to be given greater powers over the evaluation of teacher competencies and students’ learning assessment. In addition, members of SMCs are required to volunteer their time and effort. This is an onerous burden for the poor. Payment of some compensation to members of SMCs could help increase the time and focus upon these. Turning to private but ‘aided’ schools, the new role of SMCs for private ‘aided’ schools will lead to a breakdown of the existing management structures. Teachers are the cornerstone of good quality education and need to be paid market-driven compensation. But the government has gone too far by requiring high teacher salaries averaging close to Rs.20,000 per month.
These wages are clearly out of line compared with the market wage of a teacher for most schools in most locations in the country. A better mechanism would have involved schools being allowed to design their own teacher salary packages and having the autonomy to manage teachers. A major problem in India is the lack of incentive faced by teachers either in terms of carrot or stick. In the RTE Act, proper disciplinary channels for teachers have not been defined. Such disciplinary action is a must. An average of 25 percent of teachers are absent from schools at any given point, and almost half of those present are not engaged in teaching activity. School Management Committees need to be given this power to allow speedy disciplinary action at the local level. -In addition, performancebased pay scales need to be considered as a way to improve teaching.