Historically, education has been looked at as a means to achieve the end of enlightenment. From understanding basic principles of scientific truths to grappling with higher ethical dilemmas, the more educated one is, the better is the chance to lead the good life. From a more secular perspective, education offers a realistic chance of upward mobility in economic and social systems. Several modern societies have rightly adjudged the utility of education as a right, not as a privilege. On that note, this article delineates the growth and crystallization of education as a right in India. It also analyses the role of the Right to Education Act, 2009 (‘RTE Act’) and highlights the lacunae in the practical application of the same.
In India, the importance of education was reiterated in the Constitution (Eighty-Sixth Amendment) Act, 2002 which recognized the same as a fundamental right. Moreover, the RTE Act further strengthened this resolve with the aim of providing free and compulsory education to all children between the age group of 6-14 years. This legislation puts the onus of ensuring access to free of cost, quality education on all schools run by or partially funded by the state, and mandates private unaided schools to reserve 25% of seats for students from disadvantaged communities. As per the Educational Statistics at A Glance Report, a total of 1522346 schools in India (including government, government aided, private schools) offer the service delivery of education to 196717 students from Grade I to Grade VIIII, thereby ensuring the pursuance of the aims of the RTE Act.
Although legislation in India is often drafted with the best of intentions, the ground reality seldom depicts the desirable objectives. For instance, the RTE Act expects adolescents in the last year of schooling (Grade 8) to have developed strong foundational base of conceptual learning. But, the schools within the mandate of the RTE Act, have managed to achieve its goals with varying degrees of success. According to the ASER Education Report of 2018, 50% students of class 5 and 27% students from class 8 cannot read a class two level textbook. This data point is particularly crucial, for the first batch to gain full benefits of the RTE Act (2011-2018) graduated from Grade 8 that year.
On that note, government schools in India continue to have a dismal record of learning outcomes when compared to their private counterparts. Interestingly, government schools need to spend much more money on providing primary education as compared to private schools. Apart from operational costs, aspects such as mid-day meals, provision of textbooks, uniforms, basic school supplies etc., account for the higher spending on public education. Education being a subject in the concurrent list, is supported by budgets from the Central government as well as the state governments. Historically, we have a tendency to spend far less on education than what is required to fulfill the promise of high-quality, free of cost education in government schools. This information, however, is not new.
Upon closer inspection of the ground reality as a Fellow teaching in a low-income government school, two main perspectives are worth considering before we hope to plan corrective interventions;
The Teacher’s Perspective
Availability of teachers and teacher training are twin problems which are commonplace in a government school set-up. Under sections 24 (c) and (d) of the RTE Act, the teachers are expected to complete the curriculum and bridge the learning gap for students simultaneously. While this is a fair ask, in reality, a government school teacher’s average day is filled with administrative duties unrelated to teaching, which often leave little time to complete instructional hours. Since government school students are beneficiaries of several welfare policies and entitlements, the administrative work required to be done per student is far more, when compared to that of private schools. Moreover, instances of sporadic visits by officials, last minute requirements for documents/information etc., often disrupt the schedule of instructional hours. Appointment of permanent teachers is a rare occurrence, and contractual teachers are often appointed much later into the academic year. As a result, the understaffed government schools are overburdened with work. Additionally, there is no compensation for the extra hours that teachers put in, thereby reducing the willingness even further. Often, lack of intention in teachers is not the problem – it’s simply a bandwidth issue. Section 27 of the RTE Act states that teachers are required to work during the census data collection, disaster relief duties and election duties. Admittedly, these instances are less frequent, but coupled with the otherwise erratic schedules of deliverables for government schoolteachers, the core job of teaching and remediation often takes a back seat. Considering the uncertainty of getting a permanent job in this field, and the lower compensation offered to contractual teachers, this profession is not the most desirable option for people seeking employment. Even though Section 23 (1) of the RTE Act states a person with “minimum” qualifications laid down by a competent authority is eligible to be hired as a teacher, it provides no details about teacher training and upskilling.
The Parent’s Perspective
Traditionally, it is assumed that sending the child to a school is the parent’s responsibility but the onus of teaching is entirely on the schools. This is far truer in cases of government schools, than private schools. In urban areas, government schools usually cater to first generation or second-generation learners, whose parents seldom possess the ‘academic’ qualifications required to aid their children is schoolwork. Moreover, with both parents usually employed, the reliance on the school to perform the function of imparting learning is understandable. Sending one’s child to a government school not only ensures learning, but also takes care of factors such as nutrition, health-checkups, direct benefit transfers, etc. However, education in a government school does not come at zero cost for parents. Ancillary expenses such as transport, co-curricular and extracurricular activities, additional supplies etc., are not covered in the costs borne by the government. Many times, medium of instruction is an important factor while choosing the school, as parents usually wish to enrol their children in English-medium schools as opposed to schools with regional languages as medium of instruction. Furthermore, availability of other co-curricular and extra-curricular facilities is not uniform across schools. These factors also push parents to opt for schools which may not be very close their residence, owing to their relatively better reputation. This decision consequently results in a dearth of extra-curricular opportunities for students; as students being dependent on their rickshaws, school vans and other means of transport, it often becomes difficult for them to opt for after-school activities. Additionally, the overall reputation of public schools prompts several parents to enrol their children in private tuitions, thereby increasing the cost of education in reality.
When one moves to considering possible measures to solve this crisis in education, it is necessary to understand that sustainable change for the better can only happen when all stakeholders of the system are invested and empowered. In terms of institutional and systemic reforms, much has been said world over. The recent New Education Policy 2020 devotes substantial segments to elements like teacher training, infrastructure development, improvement in access to education for all etc. However, we are yet to address the underlying fact that education is not considered to be of great utility in its current form by students and parents who are a part of this ecosystem of government schools. The current system places no real stress on differential learning support and comprehensive evaluations, nor does it place any real obligation on the learners for taking ownership to make their learning visible.
It is therefore important to build purpose amongst these primary stakeholders while simultaneously working on systemic reform. Considering the fact that students spend about one-fourth of their day in school and the rest in their homes/communities/neighborhoods, it is not prudent to assume that the school’s influence can outlive that of the outside world. Thus, it is imperative to have parents, guardians and larger community influences on board to ensure that the student’s learning is of value.
(This article has been written by Sakshi Sohoni. She is a Fellow at Teach For India, Pune)
Cite As: Sakshi Sohoni, ‘The Two Puzzle Pieces: Learnings from a public school’ (The Contemporary Law Forum, 11th November, 2020) <insert link> date of access.