Saturday, August 25, 2012

India's Move to Right to Education

It was Saturday afternoon; the world seemed to be on vacation but me, as I was busy serving guests at a lunch party at my masters' residence. Chatting and laughing was loud enough to be heard in every nook and corner of the house. But those were of least concern to me, because I had to respond to every single call for any requirement at the very word of the guests or the master in particular. It was 2009, and I was just seven, wearing a sweater and a half pant, watching a bunch of people boasting about the achievements of their wards and trying to prove ones child better than the other. When suddenly, an old man read from a magazine that the government was to pass a new act namely, Right to Education Act. But to me those routine talks about the household work made more sense than this new coming up topic, because neither I could read or understand there high-level conversation, which had diverted there talks from their children, on top of that I didn't even understand, what the word 'right' meant. That elderly fellow said something like...
History of the Act:
The Free and Compulsory Education Bill 2003 was the first attempt of the Central government to draft a comprehensive legislation on education after the 86th Constitutional Amendment that made education a fundamental right. The Bill was an excellent example of bureaucratic empowerment, creating up to 6 levels of various authorities to ensure the provision of free and compulsory education. Furthermore, the reservation of up to 25% of the private school seats for the economically backward students to be selected by these authorities ensured that the Bill was a throwback to the old licence-permit-raj regime. Following widespread criticism, the Bill was discarded.
The Right to Education Bill 2005 is the second attempt by the Central government to set the education system right. Some of the important provisions of the Bill:
• Promises free and compulsory education of equitable quality up to the elementary level to all children in the age group of 6 to 14.
• Mandates unaided private schools to reserve up to 25 percent of the seats for students from weaker sections. The schools will be reimbursed by the lower of the actual school fee or per student expenditure in the government school. The aided schools will reserve "at least such proportion of their admitted children as its annual recurring aid bears to its annual recurring expenses subject to a minimum of 25 per cent."
• Requires all remaining students to be accommodated by opening new government schools and within three years of the passage all students to have a school to go within their own neighbourhood.
• Forms School Management Committees (SMCs) comprising parents and teachers for state schools and aided schools. The SMCs will own the assets of the school, manage the accounts, and pay salaries.
• Establishes a National Commission for Elementary Education to monitor the implementation of the Bill, State Regulatory Authorities to address grievances under the Bill, and several 'competent authorities,' 'local authorities,' and 'empowered authorities' to perform a vast number of regulatory functions and meet out punishment to defaulters.
• Assigns all state school teachers to particular schools from which they will never be transferred-creates a school-based teacher cadre.
The finance committee and planning commission rejected the Bill citing the lack of funds and a Model bill was sent to states for the making necessary arrangements.
As is evident, even after 60 years, universal elementary education remains a distant dream. Despite high enrolment rates of approximately 95% as per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2009), 52.8% of children studying in 5th grade lack the reading skills expected at 2nd grade. Free and compulsory elementary education was made a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution in December 2002, by the 86th Amendment. In translating this into action, the `Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill' was drafted in 2005. This was revised and became an Act in August 2009, but was not notified for roughly 7 months.
The reasons for delay in notification can be mostly attributed to unresolved financial negotiations between the National University of Education Planning and Administration, NUEPA, which has been responsible for estimating RTE funds and the Planning Commission and Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD). From an estimate of an additional Rs.3.2 trillion to Rs.4.4 trillion for the implementation of RTE Draft Bill 2005 over 6 years (Central Advisory Board of Education, CABE) the figure finally set by NUEPA now stands at a much reduced Rs.1.7 trillion over the coming 5 years. For a frame of reference, Rs.1 trillion is 1.8% of one year's GDP.
Most education experts agree that this amount will be insufficient. Since education falls under the concurrent list of the Constitution, financial negotiations were also undertaken between Central and State authorities to agree on sharing of expenses. This has been agreed at 35:65 between States and Centre, though state governments continue to argue that their share should be lower.
1. Every child from 6 to 14 years of age has a right to free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school till completion of elementary education.
2. Private schools must take in a quarter of their class strength from `weaker sections and disadvantaged groups', sponsored by the government.
3. All schools except private unaided schools are to be managed by School Management Committees with 75 per cent parents and guardians as members.
4. All schools except government schools are required to be recognized by meeting specified norms and standards within 3 years to avoid closure.
On the basis of this Act, the government has framed subordinate legislation called model rules as guidelines to states for the implementation of the Act.
The family, I had been working for, (walia family) had always been caring for me, with occasional slaps and abuses, to which I had become accustomed to and accepted them as a part and parcel of my monthly income of 700 Rs along with square meals and the discarded cloths of the children to the master. But then that was my life......bhaiya and didi (son and daughter to the master) were both elder to me by 4 or 5 years respectively and during my free time often played along with me, but again I was reminded of my being a servant whenever I forgot that...they had thought me to read and write my name in Hindi, which I always kept scribbling at the corners of the walls which resulted in a colour change of my cheeks to red from white, whenever caught. That Act being the burning topic of those days always managed to occupy some space at the front page of every news paper, which further became a topic of early morning drawing room discussion for the family as it was that day and just like every normal citizen he also started which his speech, with the critique of right to education act and its loop holes....
The Act is excessively input-focused rather than outcomes-oriented. Even though better school facilities, books, uniforms and better qualified teachers are important, their significance in the Act has been overestimated in the light of inefficient, corrupt and unaccountable institutions of education provision. Then the Act unfairly penalises private unrecognised schools for their payment of market wages for teachers rather than elevated civil service wages. It also penalises private schools for lacking the infrastructural facilities defined under a Schedule under the Act. These schools, which are extremely cost efficient, operate mostly in rural areas or urban slums, and provide essential educational services to the poor. Independent studies by Geeta Kingdon, James Tooley and ASER 2009 suggest that these schools provide similar if not better teaching services when compared to government schools, while spending a much smaller amount. However, the Act requires government action to shut down these schools over the coming three years. A better alternative would have been to find mechanisms through which public resources could have been infused into these schools. The exemption from these same recognition requirements for government schools is the case of double standards -- with the public sector being exempted from the same `requirements'. By the Act, SMCs (school management committees) are to comprise of mostly parents, and are to be responsible for planning and managing the operations of government and aided schools. SMCs will help increase the accountability of government schools, but SMCs for government schools need to be given greater powers over evaluation of teacher competencies and students learning assessment. Members of SMCs are required to volunteer their time and effort. This is an onerous burden for the poor. Payment of some compensation to members of SMCs could help increase the time and focus upon these. Turning to private but `aided' schools, the new role of SMCs for private `aided' schools will lead to a breakdown of the existing management structures. Teachers are the cornerstone of good quality education and need to be paid market-driven compensation. But the government has gone too far by requiring high teacher salaries averaging close to Rs.20,000 per month. These wages are clearly out of line, when compared with the market wage of a teacher, for most schools in most locations in the country. A better mechanism would have involved schools being allowed to design their own teacher salary packages and having autonomy to manage teachers. A major problem in India is the lack of incentive faced by teachers either in terms of carrot or stick. In the RTE Act, proper disciplinary channels for teachers have not been defined. Such disciplinary action is a must given that an average of 25 percent teachers are absent from schools at any given point and almost half of those who are present are not engaged in teaching activity. School Management Committees need to be given this power to allow speedy disciplinary action at the local level. Performance based pay scales need to be considered as a way to improve teaching.
The Act and the Rules require all private schools (whether aided or not) to reserve at least 25% of their seats for economically weaker and socially disadvantaged sections in the entry level class. These students will not pay tuition fees. Private schools will receive reimbursements from the government calculated on the basis of per-child expenditure in government schools. Greater clarity for successful implementation is needed on:
• How will 'weaker and disadvantaged sections' be defined and verified?
• How will the government select these students for entry level class?
• Would the admission lottery be conducted by neighbourhood or by entire village/town/city? How would the supply-demand gaps in each neighbourhood be addressed?
• What will be the mechanism for reimbursement to private schools?
• How will the government monitor the whole process? What type of external vigilance/social audit would be allowed/encouraged on the process?
• What would happen if some of these students need to change school in higher classes?
Moreover, the method for calculation of per-child reimbursement expenditure (which is to exclude capital cost estimates) will yield an inadequate resource flow to private schools. It will be tantamount to a tax on private schools. Private schools will end up charging more to the 75% of students - who are paying tuition's - to make space for the 25% of students they are forced to take. This will drive up tuition fees for private schools (while government schools continue to be taxpayer funded and essentially free).
Reimbursement calculations should include capital as well recurring costs incurred by the government.
By dictating the terms of payment, the government has reserved the right to fix its own price, which makes private unaided schools resent this imposition of a flat price. A graded system for reimbursement would work better, where schools are grouped -- based on infrastructure, academic outcomes and other quality indicators -- into different categories, which would then determine their reimbursement.
Quality of Education
The quality of education provided by the government system remains in question. While it remains the largest provider of elementary education in the country forming 80% of all recognized schools, it suffers from shortages of teachers, infrastructural gaps and several habitations continue to lack schools altogether. There are also frequent allegations of government schools being riddled with absenteeism and mismanagement and appointments are based on political convenience. Despite the allure of free lunch-food in the government schools, which has basically turned the schools into a "dhaba" and school teachers to "chefs", many parents send their children to private schools. Average schoolteacher salaries in private rural schools in some States (about Rs. 4,000 per month) are considerably lower than that in government schools. As a result, proponents of low cost private schools, critiqued government schools as being poor value for money.
Children attending the private schools are seen to be at an advantage, thus discriminating against the weakest sections, who are forced to go to government schools. Furthermore, the system has been criticized as catering to the rural elites who are able to afford school fees in a country where large number of families live in absolute poverty. The act has been criticized as discriminatory for not addressing these issues. Well-known educationist Anil Sadagopal said of the hurriedly-drafted act:
"It is a fraud on our children. It gives neither free education nor compulsory education. In fact, it only legitimizes the present multi-layered, inferior quality school education system where discrimination shall continue to prevail."
For me this new topic was like Ramayana being recited in the house, although Ramayana was still Hindi, but this was complete was Wednesday afternoon and the family members were all taking rest when I decided to run away from that house, and then actually did...but when was back home I was scolded brutally by my father who said 'here comes one more, person with his mouth wide open, good for nothing creature'. After few days, I was as well enrolled in local village school, which served lunch to every student who attended the school. But the food wasn't easy here too, every pupil was made to cook food and wash dishes, the left out time was utilized in fulfilling the desires of the school teacher. I did everything in the school but study. But my sister was not as lucky as me, although for sake of attending school, she was only enrolled in there but the reality was that she hardly attended any classes due to engagement in the household work, as that was more important and education for marriage than that what was written the school books. The only day we had a feast was when inspection was on the calendar. I did wanted to study but my pockets didn't allow me, I always pondered but couldn't make out what was wrong with my school when compared to those big ones in the cities but the answers were nowhere for me......
The RTE Act has been passed; the Model Rules have been released; financial closure appears in hand. Does this mean the policy process is now impervious to change? Even today, much can be achieved through a sustained engagement with this problem.
Drafting of State Rules
Even though state rules are likely to be on the same lines as the model rules, these rules are still to be drafted by state level authorities keeping in mind contextual requirements. Advocacy on the flaws of the Central arrangements, and partnerships with state education departments, could yield improvements in at least some States. Examples of critical changes which state governments should consider are: giving SMCs greater disciplinary power over teachers and responsibility of students learning assessment, greater autonomy for schools to decide teacher salaries and increased clarity in the implementation strategy for 25% reservations. If even a few States are able to break away from the flaws of the Central arrangements, this would yield demonstration effects of the benefits from better policies.
Assisting private unrecognized schools
Since unrecognized schools could face closure in view of prescribed recognition standards within three years, we could find ways to support such schools to improve their facilities by resource support and providing linkages with financial institutions. Moreover, by instituting proper rating mechanisms wherein schools can be rated on the basis of infrastructure, learning achievements and other quality indicators, constructive competition can ensue.
Ensure proper implementation
Despite the flaws in the RTE Act, it is equally important for us to simultaneously ensure its proper implementation. Besides bringing about design changes, we as responsible civil society members need to make the government accountable through social audits, filing right to information applications and demanding our children's right to quality elementary education. Moreover, it is likely that once the Act is notified, a number of different groups affected by this Act will challenge it in court. It is, therefore, critically important for us to follow such cases and where feasible provide support which addresses their concerns without jeopardizing the implementation of the Act.
Most well-meaning legislation's fail to make significant changes without proper awareness and grassroot pressure. Schools need to be made aware of provisions of the 25% reservations, the role of SMCs and the requirements under the Schedule. This can be undertaken through mass awareness programs as well as ensuring proper understanding by stakeholders responsible for its implementation.
Ecosystem creation for greater private involvement
Finally, along with ensuring implementation of the RTE Act which stipulates focused reforms in government schools and regulation for private schools, we need to broaden our vision so as to create an ecosystem conducive to spontaneous private involvement. The current licensing and regulatory restrictions in the education sector discourage well-intentioned 'entrepreneurs' from opening more schools. Starting a school in Delhi, for instance, is a mind-numbing, expensive and time-consuming task which requires clearances from four different departments totaling more than 30 licenses. The need for deregulation is obvious.
Today, I am 15 in age, out of school and again away from home, working only to earn hand to mouth, to boast that am literate I have gained my elementary education but the fact is, I only know how to write my name in Hindi along with few more things and that's not because of the school but I owe that to Mr walias' children. And today, the biggest question for me is, why should anyone get enrolled in a school to gain elementary education, when that education is doing no good to him in the future? After 14 I had to leave the school, in spite of me being still in standard four, I couldn't support my studies further so ultimately all my efforts went in vain, leaving me all to myself, just to ponder what should I do????
The Act has failed in identifying what actually ails our education system and so not surprisingly it offers solutions that are either redundant or counter-productive. Its unrelenting faith in the bureaucracy and its seething animosity towards private initiatives in education reflect a bygone era. However well-intentioned the government may be, the central planning approach cannot serve the future needs of India. It has failed in economics and it cannot do any better in education. The promises made in the Bill then amount to political grandstanding.
The fulfillment of the constitutional obligation does not necessarily require the state to build and manage schools. It can discharge its obligation successfully by restricting its role to the provision of financial resources to those who cannot afford and enabling all parents to make informed choices. The education system should be designed in such a manner that there is competition and choice. The schools should compete with each other to attract students and the students should in turn have the freedom to choose their school. This would ensure the best allocation of scarce resources and an improving quality of education.
One way for the government to finance education that would guarantee access to school and would create right incentives for improving quality is to fund government schools on the basis of number students in the school. Instead of a lump sum grant, the government fixes a per student charge, which multiplied with the number of students, determines the grant that a school would receive. The state can also provide financial support to students in the form of a voucher that can be redeemed only at educational institutions to cover the expenses of education. With this education voucher, the student would be in a position to choose from amongst the various public and private schools.
This would ensure competition amongst schools and thus good quality education. Furthermore, the financial resources of the state would be put to more effective use by targeting them towards the poor only and by optimally utilizing the management skills of the private sector. There is no doubt that privately managed institutions have made a tremendous contribution to the cause of education, and in the last decade particularly the unrecognised private schools for the poor. It would be a tremendous loss of social capital if these schools were forced to close down. If the government opens a new school and runs well, there would be no reason for parents to send their children to a fee-charging, unrecognised school.
They would go out of business automatically. One more reason not to outlaw these schools with the passage of the Act is the chaos and harm it would create since they will have to close down well before the government will be able to open new schools across the country. In its zeal to fulfill its constitutional mandate, the government would achieve the opposite.

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