RTE Act: In The Hope of a Promising Dawn

The RTE brought new dawn upon the human capital of a rapidly developing country such as India. The ASER report from 2018 states that substantial improvements are visible over these 8 years in the availability of many school facilities mandated by RTE. The report stated that the fraction of schools with usable girls’ toilets reached 66.4% in 2018. The proportion of schools with boundary walls increased to 64.4% in 2018. The proportion of schools with books other than textbooks available increased from 62.6% to 74.2% over the same period. All of these are excellent indicators for making education relevant and accessible to all children across the country and bringing in equity.

Over 40 lakh children have been said to benefit from the RTE Act which came into play to ensure the government has a responsibility towards ensuring the fundamental Right to Education is not curtailed for any child. The Act is known to have substantially increased the chances of enrolment in a school for children coming from lower social-economic strata of the society and has been critiqued thoroughly for the many loopholes that have been advantageously exploited by the stakeholders during the implementation process. 

One of the fundamental and characteristic provisions of the RTE Act has been the reservation of 25% seats for underprivileged children across all schools, i.e. government-aided and private schools across India. It has been deemed to be an excellent intervention that uses existing resources to get optimum results at closing the gap between education and children. One of the primary reasons why children dropped out of school was the lack of access to affordable schools within a plausible radius from their residence. While the government could have built more and more schools to meet that demand, it wouldn’t have been feasible for quality control and hiring of resources (teachers, staff, etc) that are already short in numbers. Therefore, the government intervened to ensure that the existing schools which are already functional cater to all children irrespective of their social-economic background.

Unfortunately, the output of the intervention hasn’t quite been as desired. Only about 1/3rd of the seats available via RTE are filled each year in India, which indicates that 2/3rd of the seats go empty. This is also the time that saw low-income private schools mushrooming around underprivileged communities, providing a lucrative opportunity to parents for their children’s education. The problem with these schools was the same because of which the government didn’t build schools of their own all over. There were too many schools in an area, the fees were between INR 2000-4000 per month and the schools had underqualified teachers who were also severely underpaid, thereby starting a chain of workforce exploitation. 

That brings us to the question, what didn’t work here? 

The government had a plan of deriving maximum utility with minimum investment and that made a lot of sense to the entire nation. However, the one thing that went unnoticed was the absence of a feedback mechanism. As with almost all welfare policies in India, feedback mechanism has often been ignored which led to several policies turning into implementational failures. The only gap that exists here is a feedback loop that could continuously make the process more robust and updated with time. 

The provision is crisp and simple; 25% of the seats in each aided/private school will be reserved for underprivileged children. 

Unfortunately, the haphazard implementation has diluted the impact of a well-thought-out intervention. Here are the loopholes that have weakened the estimated impact of RTE Act:

Lack of a comprehensive list of all such schools across the country where RTE should be implemented

While the intent of the RTE Act has been commendable, there are many States where the schools haven’t introduced the Act in its spirit and made seats accessible to children. The lack of an exhaustive list of all schools that come under the ambit of RTE provides an excellent loophole for exploitation. This is largely due to the centralised nature of the Act which doesn’t see the State Government playing an active role. Much as it may be argued that centralised processes are good for quick service delivery, from an implementational point of view, without support from State Government, it is an incredible challenge to successfully invest all stakeholders on the ground. 

No provision of a cluster-wise list of potential schools for beneficiaries 

The Act assumes that beneficiaries would understand the fine print of it and get the children admitted to schools on their own. An unacknowledged fact to remember here is the awareness around any Act in India, specifically, if it’s a welfare Act for disadvantaged people is abysmal. It may not only be the fact that the Government doesn’t promote it via news/letters etc but that literacy or access to television is a novelty for many. Therefore many beneficiaries have no idea about the existence of the RTE Act, even though it has been 11 years now that it has come into play. In such circumstances, even though there is both demand and supply, there is no awareness of the supply. 

Non-standard quality of admission tests for students across the grade level

The schools have been given instructions on admitting students under the RTE quota through their regular process of admission tests to evaluate the child’s fit. While it was thought to bring in uniformity in the classroom and help the teachers get a gauge on the student’s readiness when they joined the school, it became another tool for systemic exclusion. In many schools, admission tests are designed separately for children who wish to avail admission via the Right to Education Act. The rigour of the admissions tests would at least be two grades higher to reject a student based on poor performance. This has worked in two ways – a) Beneficiaries haven’t been able to avail the benefit of the Act at a school where the child could have studied and made a future b) Indicated to underprivileged students that they may in fact not be at par with the other students in the school and therefore should not attempt to seek equity in Education. Therefore, defying the purpose of the Act entirely.

Lack of a mechanism to measure the learning outcomes of children who have availed RTE

Some schools accept students and make a separate section entirely for them. While the rationale behind doing it is often that these children aren’t at the same academic level as the other children in their class and therefore would need extra attention, it is often seen that the students are largely ignored or given up on under the pretext of being difficult kids. In direct conflict with the idea of inclusivity that the Act stands upon, the arrangement reduces it to a mere exercise for show and utterly disregards the learning outcomes of the children who avail admissions through RTE. The focus has been so intent on enrolment that there was no observation of the quality of learning that happened for these children until ASER stepped in. 

Lack of a dynamic dashboard that updates the status of reserved seats in each school.

The primary driver for accountability is transparency. In the absence of a dynamic dashboard, monitoring is delayed and inefficient. The beneficiaries have no idea of the extent of the impact made by RTE so far. Everything about the output of the policy remains ambiguous and therefore checks and measures are ineffective when no dynamic data is showing regular updates.

To ensure that RTE Act is utilised to create a pathway for children to pursue an education irrespective of however underprivileged their background is, it is crucial to address the factors which halt progress and make the policy a poor intervention. To begin with:

– Setting up a dashboard that is integrated with UDISE via partnerships with organisations like eGov, Janaagraha etc

– Involving the local government bodies to ensure that the beneficiaries are given a list of a cluster of schools with available seats in a given area, therefore reducing the barrier to accessibility.

– Having an audit of admission tests set by schools for accepting students under the RTE Act every year to promote a standard quality of admission tests for students across the grade level in a certain school.

– There has to be an annual report which draws a comparative analysis on the learning outcomes of students admitted under the RTE Act to that of the students of the whole class to get a gauge on the effectiveness of the current pedagogy and can be an excellent tool for making informed changes in the same to better outcomes.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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