Why the Right to Education law hasn't worked wonders

The output of the intervention hasn’t quite been as desired
Last Updated : 17 June 2021, 23:08 IST

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The Right To Education Act (RTE) brought new dawn upon the human capital of a rapidly developing country like India. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 states that substantial improvements are visible, over the 8 years since the Act came into being, in the availability of many school facilities as mandated by RTE. Over 40 lakh children have been said to benefit from the RTE Act which came into effect to ensure the government has a responsibility towards ensuring the fundamental Right to Education is not curtailed for any child.

One of the fundamental and characteristic provisions of the RTE Act has been the reservation of 25 per cent seats for underprivileged children across all schools, i.e government-aided and private schools. It has been deemed to be an excellent intervention that uses existing resources to get optimum results to close the gap between education and children. One of the primary reasons why children dropped out of school was the lack of access to affordable schools within a plausible radius from their residence. While the government could have built more schools to meet that demand, it wouldn’t have been feasible for quality control and hiring of resources (teachers, staff etc) that are already short in number. Therefore, the government intervened to ensure that the existing schools that are already functional cater to all children irrespective of their social-economic background.

Unfortunately, the output of the intervention hasn’t quite been as desired. Only about 1/3rd of the seats available via RTE are filled each year, which indicates that 2/3rd of the seats go empty. This is also the time that saw low-income private schools mushrooming around underprivileged communities, providing a lucrative opportunity to parents for their children’s education. The problem with these schools was the same because of which the government didn’t build schools of its own all over. There were too many schools in an area, the fees was between Rs 2,000-4,000 per month and the schools had underqualified teachers who were also severely underpaid, thereby starting a chain of workforce exploitation.

That brings us to the question, what didn’t work?

The government had a plan of deriving maximum utility with minimum investment and that made a lot of sense to the nation. However, the one thing that went unnoticed was the absence of a feedback mechanism. As with almost all welfare policies in India, feedback mechanism has often been ignored which led to several policies turning into implementational failures. The haphazard implementation has diluted the impact of a well-thought-out intervention. Here are the loopholes that have weakened the estimated impact of RTE Act:

Lack of participation by states

While the intent of the RTE Act has been commendable, there are many states where schools haven’t introduced the Act in its spirit and made seats accessible to children. The lack of a standard implementation process under the state’s leadership was an excellent loophole for exploitation. This is largely due to the centralised nature of the Act which doesn’t see the state government playing an active role. Much as it may be argued that centralised processes are good for quick service delivery, from an implementational point of view, without support from the state government, it is an incredible challenge to successfully invest all stakeholders on the ground.

No provision of a cluster-wise list of potential schools for beneficiaries

The Act assumes that beneficiaries would understand its fine print and get their children admitted to schools on their own. An unacknowledged fact to remember here is the awareness around any Act in India, specifically, if it’s a welfare Act for disadvantaged people is abysmal. It may not only be the fact that the government doesn’t promote it via news/letters etc but that literacy or access to television is a novelty for many. Therefore many beneficiaries have no idea about the existence of the Act, even though it has been 11 years now that it has come into play. In such circumstances, even though there is both demand and supply, there is no awareness of the supply.

Non-standard quality of admission tests for students across the grade level

The schools have been given instructions on admitting students under the RTE quota through their regular process of admission tests to evaluate if the child fits. While it was thought to bring uniformity in the classroom and help the teachers gauge the student’s readiness when they joined the school, it became another tool for systemic exclusion. In many schools, admission tests are designed separately for children who wish to avail admission via the Act. The rigour of the admissions tests would at least be two grades higher to reject a student based on poor performance. This has worked in two ways: A) Beneficiaries haven’t been able to avail the benefit of the Act at a school where the child could have studied and made a future and B) Indicated to underprivileged students that they may in fact not be at par with the other students in the school and therefore should not attempt to seek equity in education. Therefore, defying the purpose of the Act entirely.

Lack of a mechanism to measure the learning outcomes of children who have availed RTE

Some schools accept students under the Act and make a separate section entirely for them. While the rationale behind doing it is often that these children aren’t at the same academic level as the other children in their class and therefore would need extra attention, it is often seen that the students are largely ignored or given up on under the pretext of being difficult kids. In direct conflict with the idea of inclusivity that the Act stands upon, the arrangement reduces it to a mere exercise for show and utterly disregards the learning outcomes of the children who avail admissions through RTE. The focus has been so intent on enrolment that there was no observation of the quality of learning that happened for these children until ASER stepped in.

Lack of a dynamic dashboard that updates the status of reserved seats in each school

The primary driver for accountability is transparency. In the absence of a dynamic dashboard, monitoring is delayed and inefficient. The beneficiaries have no idea about the extent of the impact made by RTE so far. Everything about the output of the policy remains ambiguous and therefore checks and measures are ineffective when no dynamic data shows regular updates.

(The writer is a career consultant at the Indian School of Public Policy)

Published 17 June 2021, 17:56 IST

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