The Right to Education Act (RTE) is under attack. The PM Modi government, in alliance with various state governments, is trying to turn back time and to weaken the Act that has come into existence after a long struggle. The answer to this attack must be to strengthen it further.
The Right to Education Act came into existence in 2009 after a long fight and various failed attempts. Every child between six to 14 years has the fundamental right to quality education. The specifications of this right are meant to be laid down in a law. This law is the RTE Act. This law is under attack now by the Central government as well as NITI Aayog.
What do we mean by attack? And what exactly is being attacked?
Despite overwhelming national and international evidence that high-stakes exams and detention for children in elementary schools are bad and are pushing disadvantaged children out of school, the Centre has decided to reintroduce the option to detain children. A joint statement by organisations including Right To Education Forum, Nirantar Trust, National Coalition for Education, All India Primary Teachers’ Federation, CARE India, Child Fund India, Oxfam India and World Vision India says that “there is no established cause-effect link between ‘learning levels’ and ‘no detention policy’; research highlights how it is the poor quality of education, lack of infrastructure, teacher vacancies and the presence of untrained teachers that have had an effect on learning outcomes and not just the lack of examinations as argued by the ministry.” Even from an economic point of view, supporting struggling children is much cheaper than making them fail. An opinion piece on Zee News says, “Additional remedial interventions like these can cost Rs. 800 – 1,000 per child […] the cost of providing such programs would be Rs. 150 crores. […] the cost of failing children would exceed Rs. 2,000 crores.”
So the question at hand is, why did the PM Modi government decide to scrap the no-detention policy? The reasons might vary, yet the convenient option for private schools to push out ‘failing’ EWS-children under the quota, as well as the option for states to hide their failures by detaining and pushing out children, must at least be debated.
A debate is what should have taken place in parliament, but this was not done properly. Education isn’t on the priority list of most parliamentarians – be it from the NDA or opposition.
A question that must be asked to consecutive governments and MHRD stakeholders must also be why they have tried to corner ever more seats (reaching 25 times their quota) in central schools year after year if it is true that all is right with state governmental schools.
There must also be rightened some wrong claims regarding the no-detention policy:
Education should be considered as a public, universal social good, not a private commodity. Indeed, all high-performing educational systems have a strong public education system as their backbone. The reason is simple: If you are running a private school in a system like ours which is stuck in a low-quality equilibrium, you will get enough students by just being a little better than the governmental school. That is, you have enough comparative advantage by still being of poor quality, but at least a little better (even this is not true on average as the ASER report showed). So, unless we have a cross-sectional commitment to a strong public education system, even the middle-class occupied private schools are internationally not competitive. That is why all of us should indeed care about good governmental schools.
NITI Aayog is attacking the essence of the RTE Act and of Article 21A on large scale. Amitabh Kant, its CEO, has previously argued for schools and even prisons to be handed over to private hands. Everyone who has looked a little bit at what this privatisation mantra led to in the countries who adopted it (whether Chile under the dictatorship of Pinochet or the US in recent times) would at least question this seemingly simple solution for all ills. Your public sector is not efficient? Privatize it! This, as most simple solutions, will of course not solve the core problem. The fact that someone in such a position argues in this simplistic way is worrisome and makes one question about his motive.
NITI Aayog, however, already has literally a plan to get closer to this vision:
Point 20.9 of their Action Agenda reads:
Modify RTE requirements on inputs.
The Right To Education (RTE) Act stresses on inputs, causing resources to be focused on things like building schools, hiring teachers, having playgrounds and libraries while learning outcomes have steadily dropped since the introduction of the Act. The RTE needs to be modified to actually become a Right To Learning, instead of being, as it currently is, a Right to go to School.
It goes on in Point 20.10:
[…] To remedy this situation, all the requirements on inputs such as school buildings, playgrounds and pupil-teacher ratios should be removed or relaxed to take the form of guidelines, and the focus should shift to outcomes instead.
So to sum up, NITI Aayog wants to delete everything that is enforceable. Deleting binding minimum norms and standards on pupil-teacher ratios, teacher education requirements, library provision etc. is associated with transforming the “Right to School” to a “Right to Learning”.
This sounds exactly like the wish-list of the private school lobby: Let us open schools in every shop, no need for libraries, playgrounds or educated teachers. Let us create an unregulated wild-west so that entrepreneurship can foster.
Two points: 1. This never worked, anywhere. 2. This completely denies the character of education as a social good transforming it entirely to a private commodity.
What NITI Aayog is doing here is a direct attack on all those believing in an equitable, a public, a fair school education system in our country. As a middle-income country, we cannot afford to have such a high share of private schools. We must progress. We need better public, that is governmental, schools.
NITI Aayog makes the argument that to establish a “Right to Learning”, we should NOT have libraries, NOT have qualified teachers, NOT have any norms. This is obviously logically flawed and raises once again the question of the real motive behind this agenda.
We argue: To establish a “Right to Learning”, we should go beyond inputs. This does imply: All input norms under the RTE remain and must be enforced. But adding to that, we must focus on the difficult task of all these inputs combining routinely to actual learning taking place in classrooms. We are for making a progressive step forwards, NITI Aayog argues for a degressive step backwards. NITI Aayog’s reform suggestion is to close libraries in schools. Ours is to focus on intrinsic teacher motivation, on creating a movement to rejuvenate the public spirit in our teaching profession. Ours is to make fund flows transparent and to establish accountability in administrations. Ours is to focus on support of schools instead of ineffective and inefficient competition. We are not saying this will be easy. But we have worked on this, and we continue to do so.
What should the answer of the progressive and caring people be who want to stand on the right side of history? We think we should also demand amendments to the RTE Act, but not to weaken it, but to strengthen it:
The time is running out. The RTE Act is being dismantled. We must fight back now before it is too late.