RTE: A Right to Write-off?
“You shall not pass” was the single greatest weapon teachers and schools could unleash on students. The last benches of classrooms had reeked of failure and fear of detention for many years until 2009. Underlining the constitutional provision of education being a fundamental right, the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, or the RTE Act was passed to make education free and compulsory for all children aged six to fourteen.
For the uninitiated, The RTE Act makes education ‘compulsory’ for all, reinforcing that the onus of educating children is on parents and the State. It requires all private schools to reserve 25% of the seats for socially and economically backward children. RTE prohibits all unrecognised schools from practice and strictly rules out donation, capitation fees and any kind of screening test of the child or parent for admission. Besides ensuring infrastructure with all the above regulations, RTE has another ripple-creating measure in store — the No Detention Policy or the NDP. NDP means that no child shall be held back, expelled or required to pass a board examination until the completion of elementary education.
All said and done, there were two triggers that led us back to the tainted brown papers of 2009 and 2017, one being the recent recommendations of the government’s think tank, NITI Aayog, and the other being the amendment to the RTE Act by the government. In its Action Plan for Education, NITI Aayog suggests that RTE is more of ‘Right to School’ than ‘Right to Learning’ and that NDP is hampering educational outcomes by killing competition. A discussion on these two strong attacks on RTE is long due.
THE FIRST ATTACK: TREATING THE SYMPTOM
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is guaranteed to concern anybody who takes a look. The inability of a large number of Class 5 students to read a Class 2 level text is a clear indication of poor quality of education in the country. This condition, however, has now brought about a blame game where all stakeholders are trying to peg the blame on different educational policies. When it was the Central Advisory Board of Education’s turn, its sub-committee hung the albatross around the neck of the much debated ‘No Detention Policy’.
The Committee put forth recommendations from 28 states out of which 23 were against the No Detention Policy. The reason for rejection was grounded upon a belief that lack of examinations killed competition and that promoting students without a check has impaired the quality of education. The burden of proof is unusually upon those who reject this claim, for they are a minority in this case. Several studies have concluded that it is not just the lack of examinations, but also the poor quality of education, lack of infrastructure, teacher vacancies and adhoc teachers that have had an effect on learning outcomes. ASER Trends Over Time Report is a clear proof that educational outcomes have been on a downward slope since 2006. This destroys the argument that NDP, which is in effect since 2009, is the chief reason for fall in the quality of education.
Some of the states that have testified against NDP state an increase in dropout rates in higher grades as the reason, while the others in favour comment that NDP, has brought down dropout rates. In fact, the rationale behind NDP was to keep up the morale of students by not detaining them upon failing highstake exams. According to the National Family Health Survey 4 (2015–2016), one of the top six reasons for school dropouts was ‘repeated failure’ in the final examinations. Educationists have time and again proven that the year-end examinations, at the local or national levels, are not good indicators of students’ learning levels, which resulted in introducing Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) coupled with No Detention Policy. At this juncture, to roll back NDP, while the root cause of low learning levels is elsewhere, is akin to treating the symptom rather than the disease.
THE SECOND ATTACK: RIGHT TO SCHOOL OR RIGHT TO LEARNING?
Under Section 20.9, NITI Aayog’s Action Plan says,
“The Right To Education (RTE) Act stresses on inputs, causing resources to be focused on things like building schools, hiring teachers, having playgrounds and libraries while learning outcomes have steadily dropped since the introduction of the Act. The RTE needs to be modified to actually become a Right to Learning, instead of being, as it currently is, a Right to go to School.”
First of all, let us consider the prerequisites for learning in a school. The list would include students, schools, teachers and a good curriculum.
The think tank states appropriately that enrollment has been close to 100% in primary education in the recent years. However, enrollment cannot be an indicator of students being in school every day, learning. Schools situated in difficult terrains often have no teachers at all, or function with a single teacher who juggles cooking mid-day meals, maintaining records and managing to teach a handful of students in the time he or she has to spare.
What is the reason for such high rates of teacher absenteeism or shortage? Studies conducted by UNESCO in developing countries including India, Bangladesh and Peru in 2002, suggest that teachers in schools with good infrastructure have 10% less absenteeism than teachers in schools with deficient infrastructure. Like in any other profession, teachers have the right to a safe and clean workplace and a school with good sanitation facilities; offices for teachers are definite brownie points for teachers to be at work every day.
Therefore, we need to view Right to School as the stepping stone for learning and not place schooling and learning in juxtaposition.
With centuries of colonial weight on its back, India’s tryst with education has finally sprouted its own wings with RTE and its progressive ideas about education. One does not abandon a building in construction because the dirt and dust paint an ugly picture. It is important to stand by it. There sure is a need for periodic status surveys to monitor which way education is headed. But to arrive at a conclusion based on these status checks, that RTE is a failure to be written off, is not the right way to proceed. All our school system needs right now is to give RTE some time and resources, to watch it unfurl and bear fruits of collective thought, efforts and patience.