Image Credits: Deccan Chronicle

The 86th Constitutional Amendment Act, 2002 introduced Article 21A, which provides ‘free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine’. Thereafter, the Parliament enacted the Right to Education (RTE) Act in 2009 to implement this fundamental right. However, the mere existence of a law does not guarantee its effective implementation. The RTE Act continues to face many challenges, and this article discusses some of them.

First, the RTE Act enforces certain standards and norms for schools, including basic physical infrastructure like separate toilets for boys and girls, safe and adequate drinking water availability, and pupil-teacher ratio. Hence, a private school failing to fulfil these standards within the specified period will be derecognised and shut down (Section 18, 19). However, there is a lack of clarity in the Act about whether such a sanction would apply to government schools as well. If there is indeed a differentiation in the treatment of private and government schools upon non-performance, then such an approach goes against the principles of a sound public policy and educational equality. It also disincentivises private education sector, and compromises the quality of public education. A uniform and fair approach can be adopted by holding both institutions categorically accountable to these norms and standards.

A school is not merely responsible for providing adequate resources to students but also for channeling resources towards improving their learning and education levels. For instance, ensuring a minimum pupil-teacher ratio and adequate teaching equipment need not necessarily improve student performance unless utilised effectively. However, the norms and standards under the Act focus excessively on inputs such as physical infrastructure provisions without mentioning learning outcomes or teaching quality standards. Only through the RTE (Amendment) Rules, 2017, was mapping of learning outcomes and preparation of corresponding guidelines made compulsory for all elementary classes. The Act’s lack of emphasis on learning outcomes may be one reason behind the substandard foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) skills of many children. As per the Draft National Education Policy 2019, over five crore elementary school students in India have not attained FLN. The primary causes highlighted in the draft include a lack of early childhood care and learning, reduced curricular focus on FLN, inadequate teacher capacity, insufficient teacher deployment, and poor health and nutrition of children. 

Many low-budget private schools providing effective and good quality education have closed down owing to the Act’s high compliance costs (in the form of standards and norms which these schools cannot afford to implement due to their low fees). This may limit affordable quality education options for children from underprivileged backgrounds, compelling them to choose government schools or drop out altogether. Hence, the Act lacks foresight and consideration towards the varying financial capacities of schools. It penalises them for not meeting input norms while ignoring their contributions to students’ learning outcomes. The Gujarat RTE Rules, 2012 provided a practical solution to this issue and can be used as a reference. It recognises schools by their input facilities (giving it a weightage of 15%), absolute student learning outcomes (30%), improvements in the outcomes from schools’ past performances (40%), and students’ non-academic outcomes (like co-curricular activities) and parent feedback (15%). 

The mandate in private unaided schools to reserve a minimum of twenty-five per cent of seats for children from disadvantaged groups is another issue in the Act (Section 12). Though a well-intentioned step towards inclusive classrooms and equitable education, the potential psychological impact on children from poor socio-economic backgrounds sitting in elite private schools was unanticipated. Furthermore, although the Act mandates the government and local authority to prevent discrimination against these children (Sections 8 and 9), many reports indicate otherwise. Creating platforms for dialogue and interaction between parents and students from different backgrounds, cultivating empathy, enhancing teachers’ and school administrators’ capacities to support diversity, and community engagement to change mindsets are ways to make this provision effective.

Another concern associated with Section 12 is that sometimes parents of RTE students are pressured to pay tuition fees, and buy books, stationery, and uniforms from their own pockets. Cases of private schools denying RTE admissions altogether have also surfaced. Private schools argue that the government has failed to reimburse the costs incurred by them in educating poor disadvantaged children (as mandated in the Act). There appears to be a discrepancy in the timely and adequate flow of reimbursements from states to schools and centre to states. A report by Indus Action recommends integration of the RTE reimbursement process with the Public Finance Management System for real-time tracking of fund flow and fund utilization to address this issue.

Lack of accountability of teachers and school administrators is another unaddressed issue of the Act. Currently, no regulatory body penalises teachers or school administrators for the non-performance of their duties, adversely impacting the learning outcomes and hindering quality universal elementary education. Perhaps, mandatorily registering school teachers and administrators with professional regulatory bodies, similar to lawyers with bar councils, can ensure professional conduct and allow for punitive action against them at an individual level. Alternatively, perhaps the National Council for Teacher Education can be entrusted with this function of ensuring accountability of teachers.

The last issue concerns School Management Committees (SMC), which have elected representatives of the local authority, parents, and teachers to monitor the school’s working, utilisation of grants, and prepare the School Development Plan (Section 21). While this decentralised model of governance is appreciable, the flow of funds to the SMC largely follows a top-down approach. For instance, teacher recruitment and salary remuneration decisions lie with state administration. Contrastingly, key infrastructure development implementation decisions are taken by district administration based on the state government’s priorities. In 2012-13, schools and SMCs controlled a mere two per cent of the total Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan budget leading to a mismatch between schools’ needs and actual expenditures. The Delhi government took a positive step by creating an SMC Fund under which SMCs would receive at least five lakh per annum per shift, greatly empowering SMCs by providing them financial autonomy.

The RTE Act was a watershed moment for the Indian education system. Over the thirteen years of its existence, efforts have been made to improve its implementation through government guidelines and notifications, reports by various organisations, amendments of Rules, and states adopting innovative approaches. However, scope remains for improving the following within the law and its implementation process: (i) accountability (of schools, teachers, school administrators, and education department staff), (ii) decentralisation (of finances and academic and administrative decision-making), (iii) outcome orientation, and (iv) stakeholder and community engagement. These steps and better centre-state coordination and cooperation can strengthen this legislation and meet its intended objectives.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.