Right to Education: A Programme Of Pilferage

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The report card for the seven-year-old Right to Education is dismal. But there is still time to retool our schools.

In 2009, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government announced its flagship program – a fundamental right to education for India’s 159 million children (below the age of six, as per the 2011 Census). The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act guaranteed every child from the age of six to fourteen the right to free and compulsory education.

The act read as an indictment of existing (failed) efforts to include India’s poor in the education system. Children who had already missed out on early schooling were to be admitted as per their age. Those who needed a transfer certificate were not to be denied admission on the basis of delay. Where there were no schools, the government was to build them within three years.

Perhaps, most importantly, it mandated that private schools reserve a minimum of 25 percent of seats for children from poor backgrounds. It was clear that the act was positioned against a system that had dragged its feet at letting poor children study for free.

What began as a programme of promise has been revealed to be one of pilferage. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India have released its survey of the implementation of the Right to Education Act.

The results show that even when it comes to building the future generations of school-children, both state and central governments have fallen short. More than 85,000 crore rupees ($13.2 billion) went unspent in the six years since the RTE Act’s implementation.

Worse, the report found a dangerous discrepancy in funds allocated, spent, and re-spent. “The unspent balances at the end of the year did not match with the opening balance of the succeeding years during 2010-16.”

Also concerning is the low retention rate within government-managed schools – only half of all students in lower primary schools stayed on to pursue higher primary studies. The RTE has no separate budget, instead, included as a part of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA).

It’s a timely wake-up call for policymakers. And the CAG report adds to a list of important studies worth heeding if the state wants to ensure a generation is not left by the wayside.

Existing studies

Earlier, the Annual Status of Education (ASER) report of 2016 found that while schooling had undergone improvements since 2010 (more toilets, slightly better arithmetic skills), the rate of private school enrollment had remained virtually unchanged. The survey covered more than half a million children in over 350,000 households.

A 2007 study of slums in Hyderabad found that private unaided schools were vastly preferred by the poor to public government schools. The former had far lower rates of teacher absenteeism, besides teaching more to the students than the government-run schools. It noted that while the schools charged fees, they would sometimes waive them or offer scholarships to the poorest children. The takeaway was that the government could offer disadvantaged families vouchers for private education – a policy that has met with success in Nepal and Pakistan.

However, what happened instead was the RTE act, which came into force in 2010. Under this, private schools had to reserve 25 percent of their seats for free. This move, controversial to many in private education, has been met with institutions either bypassing the rules or ignoring them altogether. A 2016 study of slums in Delhi showed that few children gained access to private schools on ‘freeships’. Those that did often had high out-of-pocket expenses.

Social barriers to accessing education, such as coming from a tribal background, continue to affect a student’s shot at learning. Notably, minority institutions are exempt from the purview of the act. 

The Subramanian Committee

In May 2016, the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee presented its report on a new education policy for India. Its recommendations are poignant and need to be heeded if gears are to shift on the country’s education front.

Among them include the setting up of an Indian Educational Service, including education within the steel frame of India’s executive branch of government. The report also highlighted the country’s poor spending on education as a portion of GDP, and suggested raising the figure to six percent from the current figure of around 0.4 percent (four percent of government expenditure is allocated for education, however).

More spending may not be the panacea the education system needs, however, if the recent CAG report is to be taken seriously. The discrepancy between the state of schools on the ground and on paper persists irrespective of funding. Take, for example, this school in Madhya Pradesh, where students are made to take their classes in a toilet. The local MLA denies any knowledge of the practice, despite the school being in his constituency.

Strangely, around the same time, another newspaper reported of another school in Madhya Pradesh – where the boy’s toilet served as the principal’s office.

The RTE continues to have its share of problems in execution. Systemic discrimination against underprivileged students persists, and the quality of education on offer is bad enough that many forsake public schooling for unaffordable private education.

The checks and balances of India’s institutions have finally come into play. First, by the CAG report, and then by the Supreme Court observation that the Right to Education needs to be a Right to Quality Education.

With a demographic dividend fast turning into a demographic time bomb, India can no longer afford to let down its students.

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