The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), in effect since April 2010, was a much debated piece of legislation, which, not surprisingly, came under attack from various quarters. Proponents of ‘low-cost’ private schools felt that it imposed an unnecessary burden in terms of infrastructural norms on schools.
Since 2010, Assessment Survey Evaluation Research (Aser) has reported compliance on many RTE norms, such as those related to school infrastructure, teacher appointment, teaching learning materials (TLMs) and pupil teacher ratio (PTR). Aser 2011 reports a marginal increase in compliance on the PTR front and a significant improvement in the provision of girls’ toilets and school libraries. In most other indicators, there has been marginal or no improvement.
However, RTE norms are fuzzy in the area of children’s learning achievement. Phrases like ‘building up child’s knowledge, potentiality and talent’ and ‘development of physical and mental abilities to the fullest extent’ are used. In many ways, the RTE continues the tradition of focusing on inputs rather than outcomes.
Inputs are necessary and are easier to target and monitor. But if ‘education’ entails more than just being enrolled in school, then we need a set of outcomes that we expect the education process to lead to. The outcome is ‘learning’, defined in some manner, and its necessary pre-requisite ‘attendance’. Unless children and teachers attend school and instruction takes place, learning, however defined, will not take place no matter how many classrooms, toilets and playgrounds are built.
Indeed, the Aser data shows that learning outcomes are not correlated with the school PTR or with school infrastructure variables. The school characteristics that seem to matter are child and teacher attendance and presence of a usable library.
Aser 2011 depicts a disturbing picture. Nationally, reading levels have declined — the proportion of children in Class 5 able to read a Class 2 level text has dropped from 53.7% in 2010 to 48.2% in 2011. Most of this decline is seen in the northern states. While decline is evident for both government and private schools, it is much more pronounced for government schools. At the same time, private school enrolment has been rising year after year for the 6-14 age group — from 18.7% in 2006 to 25.6% in 2011. This trend towards privatisation is also seen in the rising incidence of paid tuition classes. Approximately 50% children in rural India are availing of some kind of private educational inputs, in the form of private school enrolment and/or private tuition. And this is accompanied by falling attendance in government schools.
The RTE requires private schools to comply with its infrastructural and PTR norms. Schools have been given three years to come up to the mark, failing which they will be de-recognised. It is more than likely that small unaided private schools will be unable to comply, resulting in closure, leading to distortions in the market for education. Further, if learning outcomes are better in private schools, as the evidence suggests, then closing down such schools will only exacerbate the problem of low learning outcomes.
In its present form, the RTE is more a guarantee of ‘schooling’ rather than of ‘education’ or ‘learning’. Enrolment is the first step, but does not necessarily translate into attendance and/or learning. A great deal of recent evidence, whether it is the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results, the HUNGaMA report or Aser, point to the gravity of the situation — our children are malnourished and behind in school. To reap the demographic dividend we need a healthy, well-trained and productive labour force. The RTE should be viewed as an opportunity to focus on outcomes to ensure that every child is in school, attending regularly and learning well.
Wilima Wadhwa is director, Aser Centre
The views expressed by the author are personal