Sibal’s RTE Act is just not working

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

15-year old Indian students, who were put through a two-hour international test for the first time, stood second last among 73 countries, only beating Kyrgyzstan when tested on their reading, math and science abilities. In contrast, 25 per cent of the 15-year olds in Shanghai demonstrated advanced mathematical and thinking skills to solve complex problems. The desperate situation calls for a new Right to Education Act.

Pushpa M Bhargava

It is a tautology that something that cannot work will not work. How true this has been for the Right to Education Act (RTEA)! It was said when it was passed a few years ago that it was unimplementable. And, as was expected, no provision of it has been so far implemented.

Let us look, as examples, what has happened or is happening, in contrast to what should have happened if the Act were implemented. RTEA says that admissions in private schools should be conducted only through lotteries or some equivalent random process of selection to avoid discrimination.

According to the New Indian Express, Hyderabad, managements of virtually all private schools (with the few exceptions of non-profit-making private schools) in Hyderabad are flouting this norm and conducting tests for both parents and children, now that it is admission time and some 1.5 lakh parents are seeking seats for their little ones in the city’s so-called ‘better’ private schools. These schools also demand capitation fees, which the parents are ready to shell out ‘if the school caters to their requirement’.

Random selection

Let me quote two instances reported in NIEH. In the first instance, the irate parent says, “My child could not make it to a prestigious school last year as they demanded a sum of Rs.1 lakh after assessing my husband’s annual income. We decided to get her admitted to a nearby school. They charged Rs. 30,000 per year. This year we plan to go in for admission to the second standard in the same school”.

In the second instance, the parent says, “My son has good communication skills but the interactive session was hardly anything beyond the few set questions on numbers and colours, apart from daily routine. I feel that the purpose was to estimate the amount me and my husband were willing to spend for a seat. It was humiliating, to say the least. We had little choice but to shell out Rs.65,000 for admission to pre-primary, as it is the only good school close to Madhapur,” where they lived.

The irony is that the schools defend their above action openly, making statements such as, “The lottery system or that of first-come-first-served does not take into account the family” or “School is about grooming and not about Chemistry and Physics” (make out what you wish of that!).

Management of one school says, “We look at parenting skills of the family and, for the child, we look at normal development, hand-eye coordination and basic etiquette such as saying ‘thank you’, during interactive session”.

Worse is the fact that the parents, who can afford to send their children to expensive private schools, too, are in favour of having their children screened. A majority of them are ‘perturbed by the system of lottery instead of written examination for testing’. “And how is it fair to the child who is better?”, they ask.

Parents, who send their children to expensive private schools are also worried about the children coming in contact with the children of poor families if they are admitted according to the 25 per cent quota prescribed for them by RTI.

“What if our children pick up bad habits from them? Is it fair that we pay a large sum of money for admission to a premier institution, and they avail the service for free ?”, asks a parent, whose daughter studies in an international school.

“I send my son to a prestigious private school. Where will children from economically weaker sections fit in, in such an atmosphere ? Such a move will dilute standards”, says another parent. And in Khammam, where a survey was carried out recently, 76 private schools are running without a permit.

Government schools

Let us now look at the Government schools. The RTEA was supposedly designed to make Government schools as good as the better private schools, so that even the affluent would want to send their children there as they would be free. After all, the Central Schools run by the Government of India are amongst the best in the country, with children of all social strata going there, as long as their parents are in a transferable Government job.

Sixty-four per cent of the schools in Andhra Pradesh do not have toilets. So, the girls either do not go to school or learn to hold their thirst. The RTEA emphasised construction of toilets in every school but, perhaps, not one toilet has been added in the last few years in the existing government schools after the RTEA was passed.

Leave aside toilets, virtually all government schools (excepting Central Schools) lack even basic facilities like chairs, benches, drinking water, a good (not dilapidated) building, enough rooms and teachers. No wonder a school building in the old part of Hyderabad city collapsed in July last, injuring five students. No surprise, then, that many schools have few students.

Even the poor cut down every other expense – including that on basic necessities – to send their children to the mushrooming private schools, which have a shine and charge high fees but may not be imparting any better education than the unsatisfactory government schools.

Some crowded areas in cities like Hyderabad do not have enough number of even bad government schools to take care of all the children in the area.

Quality of education

Let us now look at the products of the government schools. Some 71 per cent of the students of Class VIII in the rural schools of Andhra Pradesh cannot divide. Some 42 per cent of them cannot subtract. And 55 per cent cannot even read a Class II Text Book. These are some of the findings reported in the Annual Status of Education Report 2011.

The same report says that less than a third of class III students in rural Indian schools can solve simple two-digit subtraction problems. There has also been an alarming decline in mathematical skills, in the number of children in Class V that are able to read Class II books, and in attendance, over the last year.

At the international level, 15-year old Indian students, who were put for the first time on a global stage, stood only second last, only beating Kyrgyzstan when tested on their reading, math and science abilities. India thus ranked second last among 73 countries that participated in the programme for international student assessment conducted annually by the OECD to evaluate education systems world-wide.

The survey was based on a two-hour test that half a million students were put through. By contrast, ‘more than one quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year old demonstrated advanced mathematical and thinking skills to solve complex problems compared to an OECD average of just three percent. And we want to be counted in the same league’ as China!

It is abundantly clear that we need a new Right to Education Act, which would be implementable and in the interest of all the citizens of the country. The new Act must recognise that if we wish every child in the country to grow up to be a fully responsible citizen, there is no alternative to de facto de-commercialising school education and resorting to a common (neighbourhood) school system, where parents (irrespective of their social status or circumstances of birth) living in a particular locality will have an obligation to send their children to a particular neighbourhood school.

It is only when children of the affluent and privileged go to a government school that there would be enough pressure on the authorities concerned to improve the school in terms of facilities, teachers and standards, as has happened in the Central Schools.

Further, education up to class XII must be free and compulsory as is the case in most other countries. The tragedy is we – the ‘ruling class’ – do not want every child in the country to have sufficient quality education for, in that case, there will be no one left for us to exploit. ‘Where shall we, then, get our household servants from?’

Sibal’s RTE Act is just not working. P.M. Bhargava. The Tribune, 18th March 2012.

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