Four years after it became an Act and a year of implementation later, it is becoming very clear that the Right to Education Act (RTE) is deeply flawed. The Act was called a sieve by this author in this very publication in 2010, and much of what was predicted has come to pass. It was a significant piece of social re-engineering where the intent was to bring the rich and the poor to the same classroom. The RTE Act was a daring piece of legislation for two reasons. One, it implicitly admitted that quality education was being delivered in private schools, so they must be co-opted to serve the poorest despite the availability of government schools in their area. Second, the Act virtually nationalised a quarter of the private sector provision in school education for children, with the exception of those that could be certified as minority schools. It could have changed the landscape of learning had it focused on that—learning. Instead, the RTE chose to be an administrator’s tool to standardise schools to look uniform regardless of what was happening within classrooms. It legislated the trappings of education while ignoring the process and outcomes. While neither policy, nor a law is charged with the onerous burden of implementation, they are written to achieve certain outcomes. If one cannot get a sensible answer to the questions “how will this be done” and “what will it look like in reality”, then the formulation itself is suspect and will suffer from failures in implementation—as has largely been the case here, so far.
The new government has spoken of a fresh education policy, but before that it is clear that the RTE Act itself requires some amendments at the very least. We have seen that even four years after its enactment very little has changed in schools. Teachers are not doing things differently, nor has learning improved. The pressure on quality private sector education has increased—reallocating places does not enhance either quality or capacity. The Act needs to be turned on its head so that it starts to measure progress against its goals. While the popular view is that the measure of success of a school and its teachers must be the learning outcomes achieved, it may be wise to take a step forward and work towards value-add measures. Let us try to answer the questions “how much has the student learnt during the year?” and “how many learning levels did the student advance?” This not only brings the focus back to individual student abilities, but is also more fair to the teacher than an absolute measure of learning outcomes at milestones. Let the reformed law ask for achievement to be measured, not just the inputs as has been the case thus far.
The new RTE Act also must ensure that the implicit cross-subsidization of weaker students does not hamper learning. This shows up in two ways—cross-subsidization of fees and of classroom learning time. The current compensation offered by the government does not meet the cost per pupil for many schools, the deficit is necessarily transferred on to fee-paying parents. The cost of extras is a grey area still, and there needs to be some support to fill this gap. But the bigger gap is the learning achievement gap and that is clear at the very beginning. The Act needs to make a provision to provide remedial support. Without this support, academically weaker students slow down the class, thus lowering learning levels for all. This “learning cross-subsidy” is an avoidable cost and can be remedied in the reformed Act.
Age seems to matter more than learning levels in the RTE Act, and this too deserves a serious rethink as the peg to age has consequences. It means that a child with little or no learning may be asked to enter an age-appropriate cohort despite being several levels behind in learning. It has also led to undermining examinations, and indeed the authority of teachers in schools—since there are no adverse consequences of not meeting any required learning levels. One advances by age, not by competence. The RTE as it stands, stands against meritocracy. Surely, that could not have been the intent and needs to change. The most urgent reform required is in the recognition of schools.
There are many that provide adequate learning outcomes but do not meet the input criteria mandated in the Act. Asking these schools to shut down leaves students with options they had rejected earlier as being sub-par, and certainly not constructive when systemic strategy must be directed towards raising capacity. The Act needs to recognize that some schools can achieve full recognition, others need help to meet standards. Any discussion on recasting the RTE must include pathways via secondary recognition to such learning centres.
The Act discriminates between private and public schools and the amendments to the Act must include equal compliance and accountability. A school report card, school improvement and development plans, school management committees and more must be equally applied to all schools regardless of ownership. Similarly, the requirements for recognition that apply to private schools must be met by government schools too. Parity in operating and reporting must be the cornerstone for providing universal quality education. The new RTE Act must hold all schools to similar standards, rather than harp on standardization as it has done so far. Interestingly, the RTE Act is a good example of a living Act with vigorous and even discordant negotiations with stakeholders over the past four years. Normally the consultation during the writing of the Act is supposed to create consensus; in this case most of the action happened after the Act was promulgated. But the Act needs more than tinkering, it needs to pivot along with the needs of the nation, and for that, it is time to recast the RTE Act.
Meeta Sengupta is a writer and adviser on education. Views expressed are personal.