The Right to Education (RTE) Act emphasises the idea of inclusion. It seeks to demolish the class-centric exclusivity of private schools. It promises, at the level of idea at least, better education for slum kids and students from underprivileged backgrounds. As egalitarian fantasies go, this one is right up there. If it works the way it is perceived to, then this could go down as the greatest game-changer in education.
Even the Supreme Court has certified the constitutionality of the Act. The jury is still out on who would benefit more or suffer more — the students from the disadvantaged background or the kids from better off families, whether the 25 percent reservation idea would run into scandals after a period or whether it is more political grandstanding than real concern for the poor.
But let's be clear. Egalitarianism is okay, but the RTE Act is nowhere close to addressing the genuine problems of the education sector. Its basic flaw lies with the presumption that education is better in private schools. A few quality private schools do not represent all private schools. In fact, most of these are money-making enterprises aimed at fleecing parents. It is also not true that all government schools provide sub-standard education.
If we are looking at the RTE from the perspective of quality education, then it does not provide any solution. There are too many problems with our education sector, starting from poor infrastructure in schools to poor teacher-student ratio to lackadaisical school managements to abysmally low quality teachers. The RTE Act does not appear too keen on these areas. If it is designed to address the broader issue of inequality in society, well, it makes a nice point, though not a very convincing one.
Here’s a story from a friend in Navi Mumbai. His kid studies in a private school in Navi Mumbai which has branches in Mumbai. His complaint is that five teachers of his son’s class — he studies in standard 2 — have been thrown out by the school management in a span of eight months. Thus, there's a new teacher to handle the class every month-and-a-half. Every teacher takes time to get familiar with the students and starts studies afresh, in her own way. Sometimes, the new teachers are not qualified for the job; they are in because they are available for cheap. That the quality of teaching is bad is obvious.
There’s no way he can lodge a complaint with the principal. She is difficult to meet and there’s a risk of the student getting victimised by the teachers and the management once a complaint is lodged. The Parent-Teacher Association is of little help since it is disinterested. The friend does not have an option of shifting his son to another school. Most other private schools are as bad and the good one have few seats to accommodate new students. The entrance test is tough — sometimes five hundred applicants for a single seat — and 'influence' is an important factor.
So he has to suffer watching his son getting bad education. Meanwhile, the school keeps increasing the fees under different pretexts. His story could be that of thousands of other parents. The friend is not rich but rather well-off — a typical middle class guy in Mumbai. He would not mind spending a little more on his ward’s education.
However, this is the class that routinely goes under the radar when policies are framed. Interestingly, all ideas of inclusion exclude this section. Should this class suffer just because it does not officially qualify as poor?
The problems with the system as evident from the friend’s story is threefold: first, there is a shortage of quality teachers; second, there are no options for the students who want to shift schools; and three, the power with the schools to harass students and parent. Magnify this. It could be the story of the education system across the country. In villages and small towns, the situation is worse.
It is interesting that the country does not discuss these problems much. The political class will have its own calculations in changing the education system but the real effort should come from civil society groups working in this sector.