Excellence and equity in education

Active contribution from private schools, parents, teachers and administration, and not just their cooperation, is needed for the RTE Act to shape the education ecosystem.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or the Right to Education Act (RTE), which came into force from April 2010 is a strange piece of legislation where the intentions are noble, the right is redundant and the provisions are controversial. As some of the provisions of RTE Act will be enforced from next month (three years from the commencement of the Act), a fresh look into the Act is important.

The objective of delivering quality primary education can be achieved, without tinkering with the existing structures of private and unaided institutions. Our past experiences with government interventions in private institutions and property are not very encouraging. While private sector should be considered an important stakeholder in the education eco-system, shifting the burden of delivering social justice to it is not convincing.


A challenge to the RTE Act comes from meeting the quantity and quality norms for teachers. Many studies reaffirm the immense contributions of a good teacher on the learning outcomes of a child. The quality of institutions which produce teachers is mediocre. Among the 8 lakh aspiring teachers, 99 percent with a valid education degree, failed to clear the Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET). The performance in the State Eligibility Test is equally worrying. Among 6.67 lakh teacher aspirants, only 2448 students (0.37 percent) passed the Tamil Nadu Teacher Eligibility Test (TNTET). In public schools alone, we have close to 13 lakhs teacher vacancies. Though there is a clause in the Act stating that the Central Government can relax minimum qualifications required for a teacher it should be the last resort. The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.

Meeting the infrastructure requirements specified in the Act is also a challenge. According to the Act, every school must have a library, play ground and a kitchen among other requirements. The difficulties in meeting these requirements should not undermine the need for this infrastructure. The mental and physical health of a child should be given consideration. However, all this is a huge burden on any private institution. In such a situation, intermediate options should be explored and allowed, for instance renting or sharing play-grounds, libraries and kitchen.The demand to waive off these norms is a regressive move.

This Act also makes Grade Retention illegal. It also makes continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) mandatory. The idea behind these norms is that the burden of learning should be more on the teacher than on the student. It is incumbent on the teachers and the school to address the learning disparities that a child may have accumulated till the age of six (or till the current grade). Grade retention discourages the student and effects his motivation to continue in the school. If the performance of a child is checked periodically and if the problems are addressed consistently, the need for retaining a child does not arise. For this framework to work, we need efficient teachers and administration. ASER reports show worrying levels of “functional illiteracy”- students are completing grades without learning the basics. Without proper systems in place, strengthening the administration and training teachers, these provisions (contrary to the intentions) can be counterproductive.

Another criticisms against this Act is that it does not address the issues of accountability. It is never an easy task to design a structure of accountability to a public education system, more so to our scale. The most effective and decentralised accountability mechanism is to make parents the stake holders of the system. But as Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta explains, “there is a brute sociological fact: no government school system can run successfully if there is a large-scale secession of elites from the public system. The accountability dynamics are largely determined by the presence of the powerful. In India this secession is almost total.” The Act makes a bold step in this direction by mandating that 75 percent of School Management Committee should comprise of parents. The challenge lies in convincing parents to send their children to school and monitor its functioning.

The intention of the government to regulate the education space is clear and the private sector must be prepared. As Dr Mehta says, all professions need to be regulated  to some degree and education certainly should be. Education should not be looked only as an instrument of individual mobility. It is also a powerful instrument for the government to mitigate socio-economic inequalities. Many studies confirm that it is possible to achieve excellence with equity, and countries which do well on primary education are those which combine the two.

Whether the RTE Act shapes out education eco-system in that direction depends not just in cooperation but also in contribution from private schools, parents, teachers and administration. Without this it will be just another legislation, grand on promises but nothing on delivery.

Photo: Simply CVR