In this article, Geeta Kingdon, Professor of Education Economics and International Development, University College London, discusses some of the provisions of the Right to Education Act, 2009 that are leading to declining learning levels. In her view, the most important plank of the New Education Policy must be to nullify the effect of such provisions by bringing in a new ‘Right to Learn’ Act, 2016 to supersede the RTE.
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Education policy in India ensures children’s right to sit in school but not their right to learn. Yet schooling without learning is meaningless, squandering the life-chances of millions of Indian children and jeopardising economic growth.
The New Education Policy (NEP) documents circulated so far ignore the Right to Education (RTE) Act but many of its provisions are harming education and leading to declining learning levels from an already pitiably low base in 2009. Thus, the most important plank of the NEP must be to nullify the effects of such provisions by bringing in a new ‘Right to Learn’ Act, 2016 that will supersede the RTE, 2009.
In this article, I highlight four reforms that seem to be most promising for improving education in India.
1. Use the power of incentives to reform public school quality
The RTE’s Section 6 obligates state governments to establish neighbourhood public schools in all localities, but public schools have been emptying due to their perceived low quality - so the legislation is binding states to create more of the kind of schools that people are deserting. Since 2010, enrolment in public schools has fallen by 11.3 million students and enrolment in private schools has risen by 18.5 million students and the number of ‘small’ public schools (with a total enrolment of 20 or fewer students) rose to 96,9651. That is why Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh state governments closed down 23,700 small public schools in 2014-15.
The major reason for parents abandoning public schools is the lower teacher effort (absence /time-on-task) and lower learning outcomes in public schools – it is not high pupil-teacher ratios (28:1 as per District Information System for Education (DISE) data) or a lack of trained teachers (public schools have far higher percentage of trained teachers than private schools). The crux of the issue is teacher accountability. Two provisions in the draft RTE Bill 2005 that would have increased teacher accountability - making teachers a school-based cadre, and giving school management committees the power to hire and fire teachers - were removed just before its enactment in 2009 in deference to teacher union demands.
It is time to be honest and acknowledge that reform of accountability structures is politically infeasible (due to teacher union opposition). Thus, instead of the creation of yet more non-accountable public schools along existing inefficient patterns, the NEP needs to promote well-considered public private partnerships (PPP) of the kind that have worked elsewhere in the world, such as voucher schools2, since this form of funding gives schools an intrinsic incentive to provide good education in order to attract and retain students. Another incentivising tool is to introduce teacher appraisal and a mild form of performance-related pay and promotion.
2. Judge school quality by learning outcomes not by inputs
Section 19 of the RTE obligates state governments to close down schools that do not obtain a certificate of government recognition by complying with the physical infrastructure and pupil-teacher ratio norms specified in the Act. However, since Section 18 exempts public schools from having to obtain a certificate of recognition, non-compliant public schools are not closed down. Moreover, enthusiastic state governments have added a number of other norms and conditions for recognition, which are more difficult to comply with, for example Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) Government Order dated 8 May 2013 notifies about 40 different recognition conditions. However, there is no evidence that those inputs improve learning. By one estimate, state governments have closed down 4,355 private schools and given closure notice to another 15,083 private schools for non-compliance with the recognition conditions, affecting nearly 4 million children (National Independent School Alliance, 2015). These schools provide education at a small fraction of the per-pupil cost of government schools: the median fee of private schools (rural and urban schools all taken together) is Rs. 300 per month, as per National Sample Survey (NSS) 2014 data.
An Act which avowedly guarantees children’s right to education is paradoxically snatching away children’s right to education in the name of some recognition conditions that have only a dubious connection with school quality. Even the National Human Rights Commission took suo moto cognisance of the closure of the Deepalaya private school in a Delhi slum in spring of 2015, as it regarded it a violation of children’s right to education! Thus, the NEP must ensure that a new ‘Right to Learn’ Act is brought in that adopts criteria for judging school quality that are not related to inputs but rather to the learning outcomes of students. This has already been done in the Gujarat government’s RTE Rules 2012, which allow for giving recognition to schools where children are learning well even if they do not have the requisite infrastructure.
3. Change incentive structure for public schools by changing the form of funding
The RTE does not touch the issue of the form of funding to government and aided schools. NEP must radically change the way funding is given to public and aided schools, making it per student, rather than a block grant as in the current system. When the funds that a school receives from government are made dependent on the number of students, then schools will have a stake in making efforts to give good quality education in order to attract and retain students; otherwise they will risk losing resources and teachers. While it is sure to be opposed by vested interests, this kind of reform will have a powerful effect on the incentive structure for schools.
4. Reorient teacher training courses to strengthen subject-matter knowledge
Teacher competence levels are pitiably low in India – both the SchoolTELLS and Inside Classrooms studies showed that subject-matter knowledge, ability to teach and ability to spot/correct students’ mistakes are deeply problematic areas. For example only 25-28% of teachers could calculate percentage and area sums of the kind that appear in grade 5 textbooks of UP and Bihar. Performance in the Teacher Eligibility Tests (with pass rates of less than 10%) reinforces the notion that teachers’ subject-matter knowledge needs drastic improvement. The NEP needs to ensure that major attention is urgently given to reorienting teacher training courses to ensure they focus on the development of subject-matter knowledge, rather than assuming that a person with a BA (Bachelor of Arts) or equivalent qualification must already possess primary school-level literacy and numeracy skills.
To neglect quality aspects in education would be to sleep-walk into disaster. The aim of the NEP must be to massively improve the quality of the dysfunctional and emptying public schools where 70% of India’s children study. It must advocate a new ‘Right to Learn’ Act with evidence-based prescriptions.
- These nearly 100,000 public schools have an average of 12 students per school, a pupil-teacher ratio of 6.7, a per pupil teacher salary expenditure of Rs 84,500 per year, and a staggering teacher salary bill of Rs. 9,600 crore in 2014-15.
- Vouchers give poor students the entitlement to attend any school of their choice, including private school, and the government compensates the school for each such voucher held (each child taught) by the school.