New Education Policy ignores universality of learning that RTE ensures, focuses on autonomy of private schools

The impact of the 1954 Brown vs. Board ruling in the United States that made segregation in US schools, on the basis of race, illegal is still being realised. It was certainly not realised in six years, the time since the Supreme Court ruled strongly in favour of the “25 percent mandate” under Section 12(1)(c) of the Right to Education (RTE). For a mandate of this nature to be declared “well-intentioned”, but ineffective in the draft of the New Education Policy (NEP) is a regressive step that ignores some basic realities underpinning the political economy of schooling in India.

 New Education Policy ignores universality of learning that RTE ensures, focuses on autonomy of private schools

Representational image. Getty Images

The suggestions it makes are a climb down from a rights-based approach that fundamentally defined the RTE and a turn back to a charity based framework in which the disadvantaged are left waiting till decision makers realise the value of including them as part of institutions that shape society.

The draft NEP calls for a review of the 25 percent mandate. Periodic reviews of policy measures are always good. However, what needs closer attention is the manner in which the call for review has been framed. The draft frames the need for a review in the following manner: “In a basic sense, 12(1)(c) is extremely well intentioned, aiming to bolster the inclusion of students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds in private schools. However, the clause is not quite in tune with the principle of autonomy of institutions (including for student admission) in this Policy, which empowers schools and trusts them to do the right thing.”

Any policy choice requires making trade-offs between competing or conflicting principles. The implicit primacy of the “principle of autonomy of institutions” over other “foundational pillars of access, equity, quality, affordability and accountability” that the policy otherwise claims to build on is deeply problematic. Even on the issue of autonomy, it is not clear why institutional autonomy should be prioritised over the ability of choice afforded to parents and children by the mandate as it stands.

Finally, given the barriers parents have faced in accessing schools without strong governmental backing of the mandate lead us to wonder the direction in which schools, left to their own accord would exercise their autonomy. Private schooling in India has become far too commercialised to leave the objective of inclusion to schools “decid(ing) they want this” and that too only from “the impetus from educationists, NGOs, and public intellectuals”. Expectations such as these consign the task of inclusion to the benevolence of actors, while the state abandons its obligation to provide an equitable starting ground to all its children.

The public narrative around the threat to institutional autonomy of private schools also cites financial losses to private schools due to paltry per child reimbursement by the government as an issue. However, it is important to note that the schools suffering from this issue are limited to ~10 percent.

The Supreme Court's judgment in Society of Unaided private schools vs. Govt. of India on 12 April, 2012 noted the constitutional validity of RTE 12(1)(c) and stated that the obligation for delivering equal opportunity in education extended to private schools as well. If a restriction is in public interest and serves the needs of a child, there is a reason to impose regulations on private bodies. There are other laws and mandates in India having similar impositions on private bodies in the interest of public welfare.

Section 135 of Indian Companies Act prescribes a mandatory CSR spend of 2 percent of average net profits for large companies.

For instance, in Chattisgarh in 2018, only 16 percent of seats belonged to schools charging more than the per child cost reimbursed by the state government. Besides, the NEP committee does recommend restricting institutional autonomy so as to not let schools be run for profit by enterprises solely invested in monetising quality education, making them elitist and exclusionary.

If private school fee regulation is strictly enforced by governments, the per child cost of private schools will further reduce. With nearly 90 percent of India's private schools being affordable private schools, there is no solid ground to reinvent a policy citing the loss of financial profits for elite schools as a reason.

While the draft correctly says that “the clause has been implemented with very mixed effort”, it does not engage with the difficult task of asking why it is so. The draft seems to suggest the absence of institutional autonomy on the issue of admission is a significant barrier in making the policy effective. If true, then we need to be asking questions of institutions that claim they can work only with select set of children and not with others. Remember, we are talking about elementary education not higher education here, a stage of schooling where children are supposed to be learning foundational behaviour and skills.

The draft laments that the 25 percent mandate is “opening up a variety of possibilities of corruption”. This is an accurate but overstated element of the clause: which part of our lives is free and devoid of corruption? Should mandates ranging from driving licenses to land records be set aside because of the large-scale corruption that prevails there? To believe that “autonomy” to institutions would get rid of corruption, would be to completely disregard how economic and political resources unduly influence admissions in some of the most elite (and trusted?) schools, including higher education institutions in the US.

Moreover, it is unfair to punish parents and children when the sources of policy misuse, including the “increases in fees (including fees collected under other guises)”, are the institutions themselves. The suggestion that “the large amounts of money and effort spent on implementing this clause may be more effectively spent, e.g. by investing the money on the public schooling system – particularly in disadvantaged areas – which would directly support many more students from underprivileged backgrounds in a sustainable manner” would be welcome, if indeed it could be realised and accompanied with the promise of moving to a common school system.

The system of common schooling, which forms the backbone of educational systems around the world, unfortunately, finds no mention at all in the draft policy. The exit from public schooling of those with any kind of voice is what allowed the system to deteriorate, which created the need for a 25 percent mandate. Indeed, the first time many of us privileged enough to send our children to enclaves of high “quality” private schools thought about those from “unprivileged backgrounds” was when the mandate reduced seats in schools we aspired to send our children to.

If the public schooling system is truly made more effective, a natural consequence should be the elimination of ineffective private schools that now pervade the landscape and drain parental resources with little returns. The policy as it stands ignores the fact that the label of “private schools” applies to a very diverse group, the majority of who are not of significantly different in terms of quality from government schools.

Rather than abandoning the mandate, a far more effective step would be to ensure that admissions under the mandate are limited only to schools that meet a well-defined bar in terms of quality. This will also address a major complaint of the state governments that limited resources are being diverted from government schools to private schools. One of the proxies to measure school quality can be school fees.

High fee schools will offer the maximum gap in social distance between RTE and non-RTE students, providing for social inclusion in its true sense. Alternatively, a school quality index can be built which includes more indicators such as level of teaching-learning in the school and its infrastructure. But for that, the government will have to first collect such information about private schools. It’s not clear to us why National Achievement Survey cannot be extended to private schools.

Again, we are strongly supportive of reviewing the mandate. However, the review should be asking why several states have failed to implement an over nine-year-old constitutional mandate and why nearly 80 percent of schools required to implement it are still not doing it. The review should be supporting large-scale systematic studies assessing the impact that the mandate has made and how it can be furthered.

Our studies in Ahmedabad have indicated that reasonably sincere efforts to implement the mandate help disadvantaged parents access better quality schools than they otherwise would. More such research is needed in other contexts before reaching conclusions that the measure has not been “effective”. The review should also ask why the governments have not set up strong back-end systems to track students, strengthen administration to ensure timely reimbursements, and hand-hold private schools in this uncharted territory.

Further, there are immediate steps that can be taken to increase its effectiveness. Exemptions to minority schools have no place in a mandate that is supposed to help the disadvantaged, promote an integrated school system as well as society. We hope the government would challenge the court ruling that provided such an exemption. Further, the Central government should unambiguously make the mandate applicable from pre-primary by assuring reimbursements for the same.

In contrast to many other elements of the RTE, the “25 percent” clause is finding its way to become a social norm rather than just a legal one. Mandates such as these that are seeking to transform societies take time and a fair bit of learning. We believe the process is well underway at this point and should not be subjected to a misguided review. Instead, it needs support and strong commitment from governments that believe in creating more inclusive societies.

Ankur Sarin and Ambrish Dongre are faculty members at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and Kanika Verma is strategy lead, Indus Action

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Updated Date: Jun 20, 2019 13:05:48 IST