In 2009, the Government of India passed the Right to Education (RTE) Act, the legislation that was to spearhead the country’s aim to meet the Millennium Development Goal of ‘education for all’ by 2015. In 2009, about eight million children were out of school, and the focus was on increasing the enrollment numbers of children, aged six to 14 years old, in primary schools across the country. In the two years since then, RTE and focused interventions through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan saw enrollment figures surge. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education 2011 (ASER 2011) report found that nearly 97% of 6-14 year olds in rural India are enrolled in schools. The report also noted that over a quarter of all children in the same age group were now going to private schools. With funds allocated under RTE being doubled from INR13,000 crore (~US$2.33bn) in 2009-10 to INR25,000 crore (~US$4.49bn) in 2012-13, India’s plan to ensure 100% access education seems well in place.
Reservation and Reactions
Through an amendment in April 2012, the government is taking the RTE Act one step further by ruling that 25% of total seats in un-aided, non-minority private schools must be reserved for children from low-income households. The financial burden of these students will be borne by the government. This regulation is an attempt to address educational inequality and create heterogeneous classrooms.
Since the problems cited by schools and analysts were both operational and socio-cultural, immediate reaction to this ruling ranged from applause to anxiety. Most schools have completed the admissions procedure for the current academic year, and this judgment created an operational challenge because they now have to create new seats, as well as plan infrastructure, for these additional students. Many schools are also concerned about the drain on their resources since the government’s reimbursement will be equal to the amount spent on educating the child in a government school or the actual fee charged by the private school — whichever is lower. In most cases, because private schools charge higher fees for their ‘regular’ students, the fees charged by the private school will be higher than the cost of educating the child in a government school. Many school principals and analysts also feel that the amendment have not taken into account certain socio-cultural issues that may crop up upon overnight implementation of these conditions. It was suggested that given the existing class and cultural divide, some amount of pre-sensitization of students and teachers would help in easing the path for new students from low-income households.
Media reports seem to indicate that most schools, while lauding the move as positive, are grappling with implementation challenges. In Mumbai, where the state has been firm about implementing the rule this academic year, there have been reports that schools are looking to move away from their ambit by acquiring a minority school tag through agencies outside the state like the National Commission for Minorities. In Bangalore, the public instructions department has received several complaints of schools rejecting applications on grounds of incomplete information or errors in date of birth or income certificates. This is occurring despite the fact that the schools stand to lose affiliation to their respective boards if found guilty of using such means to avoid granting these students admission.
Implementation on the Ground
Resistance from schools notwithstanding, applications and admissions for these students is only trickling in. News reports from different states indicate that not too many low-income parents have applied for these seats. Given that the government ruling is so recent, many of these parents may not actually know what the amendment entails or how their children can benefit from going to these private schools. Furthermore, families need to furnish documentation to prove their lower income status, and it is likely that this process reduces the number of acceptable applications since many poor families lack documentation, including proof of identity.
Indore, in Madhya Pradesh, has nearly 10,500 seats reserved for students from lower economic strata. As of the end of June 2012, only 3,500 seats have been filled. In Chennai, some low-income parents learned of the law through their employers or through NGOs. However, when they contacted local private schools, they were told that there are no vacancies. In Bangalore too, there have been reports that the admissions applications received so far for underprivileged children would fill less than half the available seats. Information from different education blocks in the city indicates that this is most likely due to the lack of awareness among parents. In Mumbai, by the end of June, only 100 students have gained admission through this reservation. Sanjay Deshmukh, Director of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, in charge of implementing the reservation, felt that uptake of these seats would be better next year.
In absence of admissions applications, schools that have set aside or created additional seats are now filling them with students from other “disadvantaged” groups, such as scheduled castes and tribes, students with HIV/AIDS or disabilities, and children of transgender parents and waste pickers.
Looking Beyond Access
As with all legislation that changes existing systems, it is hoped that this regulation will be implemented and the confusion around it will ease over time. Lower-income parents will become more aware of their choices and the benefits of a private school education; schools will find ways to integrate these students and balance their financials; and regulators will fine-tune the requirements, paperwork and processes. More important than these adjustments, though, is the true adoption of the spirit of the regulation – all children, irrespective of their economic conditions, should receive a high quality education. This will not become a reality if adherence to the law is merely on paper.
Importantly, it cannot be denied that nearly 70% of school-age children still study in government schools. Clearly, the regulation is unlikely to move all these students over to private schools. Public schools have come under intense scrutiny for their poor quality of education. Teacher absenteeism, poor infrastructure and sanitation facilities are commonly cited problems for the poor quality. For education provision to truly become inclusive, these gaping holes must be filled.
It is also important to note that private schools are really not a homogeneous group – there are affordable private schools catering to the bottom-of-the-pyramid at one end of the spectrum and very expensive private schools providing international curriculum at the other end. Even schools that fall between these extremes differ from each other in fees (INR30 – INR6,000 per month), infrastructure (dependent on location) and quality of education imparted. It is therefore unlikely that children are going to benefit equitably when moving to the neighborhood private school.
While enrollment numbers have increased to 135.2 million over the past two years, nearly one-third of the states have seen an increase in primary school dropout rates, with more girls dropping out than boys. Countrywide, the dropout rate still hovers at around 7%. This increases as students move from primary school to higher education. Currently, the gross enrollment ration (GER) is reported to be 15%. India’s Human Resources Development Minister, Kapil Sibal, wants to double this ration by 2020. A first step towards this goal would be to ensure a lower dropout rate and correcting gender imbalances in primary schools.
Against the RTE mandated student-teacher ration of 30:1, most schools operate with a ratio of 40:1. Implementation of RTE requires an estimated additional 1.2 million teachers, and 600,000 sanctioned teacher positions are yet to be filled. Although teachers accounted for 44% of the total budget in 2011-12, teacher salaries paid by the government are considered low, and investment in teacher training and learning equipment seem inadequate.
Achieving Inclusive Education for All
Nisha Thapliyal, an educator and RTE researcher, states that the RTE brings India closer to international frameworks where education is seen more as “a process to develop human potential rather than a goal of creating skilled workers.” Clearly, then, for equitable education provision, changes need to be implemented simultaneously in both private and public schools. While private schools need to be encouraged (not merely by regulation but also through financial support) to admit students from all socio-economic strata, quality of education in public schools too needs to be improved. Only then can students’ school choice and educational opportunities be deemed equal. As Ambarish Rai, National Convenor of the RTE Forum, says, “Education is a social tool, and is beyond the rich and the poor.”