India’s journey with education has been long and arduous – its most recent escapade being the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. Being a country with such a vast population of children, the need to impart fundamental education during the early years is ever-increasing. The government has formulated policies to address this responsibility in the past few decades. Article 21-A of the Constitution and the Right to Education Act (RTE) 2009 came into effect on April 1st, 2010. They aimed to ensure that all children aged six to fourteen (proposed to increase to ages three to eighteen by NEP) have access to free education throughout the country. According to the RTE Act, every child has a right to full-time elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality in a formal school that satisfies certain essential norms and standards.
The RTE is well-intentioned and noble in its idea of ensuring that no child in India goes without an education. The title of the RTE Act incorporates the words ‘free and compulsory’. It aims to ensure that every child attends school and that financial constraints do not impede one from having access to a decent education. The Act has made strides to ensure provision for admission of children to age-appropriate classes. The enrollment statistics have significantly risen since the implementation of the RTE. However, the retention and passing numbers are far from ideal, learning levels are low, and teacher absenteeism is high. This led to poor quality of education in most government and government-aided schools.
Per the Act, government school students are authorised to receive free stationery, books, and uniforms up to eighth-standard. It would not be bizarre to compare government schools to a cage, albeit a faulty one, and the free uniforms, mid-day meals, and other monetary aid dangling as bait for the poor, easily lured by basic needs for their children’s sustenance. But what happens once the bait is taken? The learning outcomes barely reflect the speed at which students supposedly go to school. Beyond enrollment, there is little evidence suggesting that these students are acquiring knowledge at the level of their classes. Simply put, the current policies to ensure education for all are sending students to schools but not educating them.
With the added digital divide caused by the pandemic, numerous students were forced to drop out of school during the harrowing years of 2020 to 2022. Online classes became a privilege only a few could access. Despite smartphones reaching the most remote corners, it was inadequate to keep students in school. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021 survey noted that while smartphone ownership doubled since 2018, more private school students owned smartphones at home (79%) than those in government schools (63.7%), limited to one phone per household, with many users in need.
The recent ASER survey was carried out in Chhattisgarh focusing on learning outcomes. Per the report, children’s reading and numerical abilities had reached their lowest point in a decade. The percentage of second-standard students capable of comprehending letters fell from 76.3% in 2018 to just 57% in 2021. In arithmetic, the number of third-standard students who could do basic subtraction crashed from 20% in 2016 to an unfortunate 9% in 2021. Additionally, the RTE Act stipulates that no child, regardless of performance, can be held back up to the eighth-standard. This implies that they are entitled to an eighth-standard diploma even if they cannot recognise any letter or number. In its review of the Twelfth Five Year Plan, the NITI Aayog had contested, ‘But despite this good intention, the provision has a detrimental effect on learning outcomes, since it takes away the pressure to learn and to compete’.
The advancements made in the Indian education policies seek to bring much-needed reform, but their approach is misguided. A basic principle of a sound and effective public policy is considering the long-term impact on all communities. But the RTE’s mission to send kids to school begins and ends with enrollment. Little has been done to improve student retention in schools, with the added post-pandemic challenge staring us in the face: the dropout numbers highest in the decade, and learning outcomes at their lowest.
An exigent shift in focus is required to ensure effective education reaches the students. Using bait and distributing diplomas irrespective of performance has become a great demotivator for students to persist academically. A major reason behind the lack of quality education stems from teacher absenteeism and poor qualifications. An appropriate level of cooperation and understanding is required between the state and private entities to educate educators to drive curriculum reform and increase the number of graduates from these schools with adequate knowledge. Once the incentives of the teachers and the school heads align with the mission of the RTE Act, which is to provide quality learning to all students, will we see a positive change in our education system overall.
In conclusion, focusing on measurable outcomes, including retention and passing rates, is more crucial than a well-intentioned ‘go-to-school’ initiative. The existing student population can be well educated only once the policies favour curriculum reform and motivate students and parents to commit to schooling rather than viewing their children as an addition to family labour. The uneducated population needs to view education as a long-term investment, and it is crucial for the state and the existing policies to reinforce that perception. It is, therefore, the duty of the policymakers to not simply build schools but provide proper education to one and all.
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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.