RTE (The Right To Education Act) was introduced as a fundamental right in the form of Article 21A in the Indian Constitution which conferred a right to free and compulsory education for children of ages six to fourteen in 2002 which was hailed as a landmark move in the Indian education sector and the RTE act was finally passed in 2010. Read on further to find out what it meant for the Indian education system and how it has panned out so far.
After the provisions and adjustments under the 86th Amendment Act, 2002 were made to bring the Article 21A of ensuring free and compulsory education for all under Part III of a fundamental right, the RTE act was finally passed in 2010 primarily had an input-based approach to education and essentially there was a lack of distinction between ‘schooling’ and ‘learning and having access to schools was equated to gaining knowledge. This input-based approach unfolded itself in the form of strict rules concerning infrastructure. On the curriculum and pedagogy front, syllabus completion, enrolment rates, retention rates, and teacher-pupil ratio were used as proxies for learning outcomes, and a ‘no detention policy’ was implemented. Although these inputs were easy to monitor, they harmed the education sector and children which it was supposed to ironically serve since this approach did not pay attention to the learning outcomes.
Although the enactment of RTE has been a promising move towards the right direction of enabling access to education for all, the road ahead seems to be ridden with obstacles since the ‘how’ of the act lacks in some of the significant aspects of education.
A huge amount of low-cost private schools that had sprung up in poor areas were rendered illegal and had to be shut down when RTE came into being as it allowed the government to close down private schools that did not meet stringent criteria in terms of infrastructure like having a playground or classrooms of fixed size and fixed teachers’ pay. It has been argued that this criterion of shutting down schools was unfair since learning outcomes were not used as a metric to assess the utility of school while metrics like not having a playground (that isn’t remotely related to learning outcomes) were considered a legitimate concern to shut down schools. Various evidence-based reports and empirical research have found that such input mandates do not correlate with learning outcomes (Muralidharan K,2019)1. This led to a decreased access to education for many children who would have otherwise studied in these low-cost private schools that their parents chose of their own accord.
Since the act used syllabus completion as a standard metric to assess the school’s performance, pedagogy and curriculum development took a back seat and the focus was primarily on syllabus completion and rote learning without due attention to learning outcomes. While the focus on input drove up enrollment rates, attendance rates remained static and learning outcomes showed declining trends. (Chavan & Banerjee, 2013)2. (Shah & Steinberg, 2019)3 shows how the test scores in both math and reading have declined dramatically since the institutionalization of RTE by using two household surveys, by ASER and NSS, and one administrative dataset released by the Indian Ministry of Education (DISE). The paper cites reasons like lack of testing and universal promotion of students in primary school behind the dramatic decline.
To further aggravate the situation, a no-detention policy under which a child cannot be detained or expelled from school till elementary education i.e. classes 1-8 is covered has been implemented under the RTE. This leads to a student being promoted to higher classes without having fundamentals of reading and arithmetic clear, creating heterogeneity in student learning levels within a class (Muralidharan K,2019). This leads to students falling behind and not understanding anything despite attending school. It creates a problem of instructional mismatch where it becomes a demanding task for teachers in handling such variations and coming up with pedagogy to impart knowledge to all. Thus, this further disincentives them to engage with such pupils which ultimately leads to high dropout rates.
The inputs-based approach under RTE, a top-down approach of imparting education remains coercive since it gives the government an unfair amount of power over the functioning of private schools owing to license raj in education that has been abolished in other sectors. This leads to obstruction in demand signals and natural feedback mechanisms being put out in the market and reduce competition and thus accountability of already existing schools. Therefore, it becomes of utmost importance that we start shifting our focus from such inputs to quantifiable learning outcomes to see any sort of a tangible change in the education sector of India.
1. The RTE is a step towards the right direction to enable access to education however, the route has significant problems like no-detention policy, fixation over inputs, etc. which need to be properly assessed.
2. Empirical evidence points out that even though the enrollment rates, teacher-pupil ratio, etc. have gone up due to RTE, there’s a dramatic decline in learning outcomes.
3. Policy recommendations like re-orienting the act towards educational outcomes instead of inputs and employing appropriate mechanisms for monitoring these outcomes and placing accountability on the concerned authorities can go a long way to ameliorate the decline in learning levels.