The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009 stipulates that private schools reserve 25 per cent of seats at the entry level for children belonging to ‘disadvantaged groups’ and ‘weaker sections’.
The Central Act originally defined a ‘child belonging to a disadvantaged group’ as one belonging to a Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, socially and educationally backward class or such other group facing disadvantage owing to social, cultural, economic, geographical, linguistic, gender or other similar factors.
Mentally and physically challenged children, entitled to free education in special schools, were included in the definition through an amendment last year.
Meantime, the State government issued an order on November 8, 2011 which expanded the definition, specific to Tamil Nadu, to include orphans, HIV-affected children, transgender and children of scavengers. The G.O. also defined a ‘child belonging to weaker section’ to mean one whose parents or guardians earned less than Rs. 2 lakh a year.
But is the RTE Act working in practice?
M. Kochadai Muthiah, who earns a living by ironing clothes at Moovendar Nagar here, says that neither his daughter nor his son benefit from the RTE Act. His daughter is moving to Standard IX this year and, therefore, not eligible for any benefit under the Act that is applicable to elementary education. She attends a government aided Tamil medium school and he spends around Rs. 3,000 a year on her education.
"My son, studying in a private English medium school, has been promoted to Standard III this year. I enquired about claiming benefits under the RTE Act. But they said reservation was available only in LKG. In any case, my son cannot claim a right to be admitted under the RTE in the same school because it is beyond three kilometres from my residence. This Act is of no use to me and I continue to pay a fee of Rs. 500 every month for my son," he adds.
Premalatha Panneerselvam, Senior Principal of Mahatma Group of Schools here, points out that though almost all private schools in the district have agreed to reserve 25 per cent of seats at the entry level, the response from people has been lukewarm. She pointed out that only four to six students got admission under the RTE in each of the four schools administered by her.
Lack of awareness
"Lack of awareness about the Act, inability to meet the distance criteria and difficulty in obtaining necessary certificates from government authorities could be some of the reasons for the poor response. Only when the number of RTE applications exceeds the number of seats reserved in a school, do we go for random selection by picking lots. But this year, there was no necessity for it at all," she points out.
But Chief Educational Officer (CEO) C. Amuthavalli says that the government is serious about ensuring 25 per cent reservation at the entry level in all private schools from this year. "Though the Act came into force in April 2010, we did not act against schools which failed to reserve seats in the previous years because there were many issues that required clarification," she points out.
Though the Act does not speak of penal action against private schools if they fail to reserve the requisite seats, the CEO says steps would be taken to withdraw recognition to offending schools. A total of 204 private schools, including those offering the CBSE and ICSE syllabi, in the district have been asked to reserve the seats, conduct admissions and submit a compliance report to the education department by the end of this month.
On the other hand, an office-bearer of an association of private schools, who prefers to remain anonymous, feels that the government is forcing private schools to reserve seats without making sufficient financial allocation. As per Section 12 (2) of the RTE Act, the government should reimburse the expenditure incurred by private schools for admitting students free of cost.
"A G.O. issued on November 15, 2011 states that the reimbursement shall be at the rate of expenditure incurred for a student in a government school or the fee fixed by a committee constituted under the Tamil Nadu Schools (Regulation of Collection of Fee) Act 2009, whichever is less. But many schools in Usilampatti area are yet to receive reimbursement for admissions made by them under RTE last year.
"We represented the matter to the officials concerned on many occasions. But the standard reply we received was that they would look into the matter. In such a situation, how could the government force us to admit students without clarity on reimbursements? Moreover, the Act is evolving day by day due to court judgements and ceaseless instructions issued by the HRD Ministry," he notes.
Private unaided schools run by religious and linguistic minorities in the State have been exempted from the purview of the Act.
Apart from the obligation imposed on private schools to reserve 25 per cent of seats, the Act requires the State government as well as local bodies to make sure that every child between 6 and 14 years of age is admitted in a class appropriate to his age (in order to avoid embarrassment) and provided with special training to cope. Section 10 of the Act states that parents are duty-bound to ensure that their children pursue elementary education.
Further, Section 28 asserts that no teacher should engage in private tuition or private teaching activity and Section 21 mandates the State government, local bodies and government aided private schools to constitute School Management Committees (SMCs) consisting of representatives of the local authority, parents or guardians of children admitted in such schools, and others, for performing various duties.
"The SMCs are supposed to ensure enrolment and continued attendance of all children from the neighbourhood of the school. But these obligations remain only on paper as we continue to see children either begging on the roads or involved in child labour.
The government is failing to perform its duty and trying to hide its shortcomings by focusing only on private schools," the office-bearer said.
There does not seem to be an end to the doubts raised and clarifications provided with respect to the Act even after three years.
The recent clarification provided by the Department of School Education and Literacy under the HRD Ministry is that reservations under RTE in residential schools would apply only to day scholars and the Act would not apply to Madhrasas and Vedic Patshalas.
Educationists point out that the distance criteria contained in the Act is problematic. The HRD Ministry has sought to clarify the reference to “neighbourhood schools”.
But this is at variance with the interpretation of the Tamil Nadu government, which defines neighbourhood to mean a distance of one kilometre from a primary child’s residence and three kilometres in the case of an upper primary child.
The State government has tinkered with the Act in other respects as well, but with little benefit to disadvantaged children.
For all its flaws, the RTE Act is a progressive piece of legislation that aims to take education to the masses and fill the gaps in the social system.
Updated: Thu, Feb 16 2012. 11 09 PM IST
The recent press reports on the state of Indian education have been depressing. The government responds to these in the same, standard way—it picks holes in the analysis, deflects accountability, says that the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act will solve all these problems, etc. The intention of the RTE Act is good—every child in India aged 6-14 has the fundamental right to education. But the RTE Act continues to lay emphasis on what inputs the bureaucrats and political forces believe are necessary to have better education in India.
Some key clauses of the RTE Act say that no child can be held back until the completion of elementary education, unrecognized schools are banned, donations and capitation fees are banned, interviews are banned, 25% of seats in private schools are to be reserved for the poor (to be reimbursed, based on a formula, by the state), the responsibility to get kids into schools is with the government and all schools have to adhere to the prescribed norms and standards within three years. Some of these clauses are very noble, but the devil lies in the details and in the delivery. I will look at one of these issues—the norms set for schools.
But instead of allowing schools to proliferate, the RTE Act focuses on inputs—infrastructure, teacher qualification and compensation, standardized textbooks and curriculum, etc. Many schools will not be able to meet these criteria by the end of three years. The impact will be felt the most by the private, unaided budget schools, where enrolment numbers are growing fast and which many parents prefer over government schools. These budget schools do not have the financial means to meet the criteria set. They invest in basic infrastructure, their teachers are not necessarily qualified and are paid low salaries (Rs3,500 per month against Rs15,000+ at a municipal schools)—all because these schools charge a low fee of around Rs200-500 per month, which poorer parents can afford. Many parents prefer to pay a fee and send their kids to a private school because they have lost faith in government schools and, in many cases, the teachers in private schools are more passionate and dedicated.
Not all government schools are bad. Similarly, not all private schools are good. But low-cost private schools are the ones that can help reduce the education gap in India. The RTE Act could effectively shut down these schools.
Recently, the Centre for Civil Society helped play a role in helping these schools get together to form an association—National Independent Schools Alliance—to articulate their concerns about the RTE Act and to work on improving standards and governance in their schools. The RTE Act will deter fresh investment in the K-12 (kindergarten to class XII) segment, according to a December 2011 report, Indian Education, by Anand Rathi Research.
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, in their book Poor Economics, say, “Somewhat bizarrely, the issue of learning is not very prominently positioned in international declarations...the implicit assumption, presumably, was that learning would follow from enrolment. But, unfortunately, things aren’t that simple.”
In conclusion, the RTE Act will neither help get significantly more number of kids into schools nor will improve the learning quality of kids drastically. It is time the government started focusing on output (i.e. the quality of learning) instead of inputs in education. And only then will India perform better in education surveys and, more importantly, reap the benefits of its demographic dividend.
Luis Miranda is chairman of the board of advisers at the Centre for Civil Society.
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