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Plug loopholes in proposed law on Right to Education, have private partnership model

Access to education, Private schools, Quality, Right to Education

By Rajesh Shukla

The last two decades have seen paradigmatic transformations at many levels in India. Rapid growth has unleashed the aspirations of millions who were erstwhile dependent on state handouts. Desirous of a better future for their progeny, even poor parents have started allocating a larger share towards education in their budgets. For many households, the principal motivation of savings is, interestingly, not for medical emergency or old age security as one might have expected, but to be able to afford education for their children.

The returns to education from additional years of schooling, a switch from an illiterate status to a primary level, is about 21% and it further rises to 62%, 130% and 263% at the education level of matriculation, higher secondary and graduation respectively ( How India Earns, Spends and Saves, 2010) are enough of an economic enticement for all sections of society, especially the poor.

With education being seen as a passport for upward mobility, one would have hoped that the Right to Education Bill would help in creation of a conducive environment and lay the foundation to ensure quality education. Although the Bill has been welcomed by academicians, politicians and others, it raises the fundamental question of whether it absolves the government of its responsibility to provide quality education.

Further, with the courts sanctioning ‘reservations’ in private schools, this ‘victory’ conceals the fact that these school, primarily located in urban areas, account for only a small percentage of total institutions. With majority of children, as high as 90% in some states, enrolled in government schools, one would expect the focus to be on improving the quality of education they provide. A mere 25% reservation in private schools is but a small drop in the huge ocean that is India.

Majority of schools except those located in major urban centres are haunted by lack of necessary physical infrastructure, lack of adequately qualified and sufficient number of teachers and much more due to high absenteeism and multi-grade nature of teaching, i.e., one teacher attending to children from different grades in a single classroom.

Additionally, with regard to the proposed ‘reservation’, although it is being projected to be carried out in the name of the poor, the manner in which it has been drafted not only creates ambiguity but also leaves considerable room for wide ranging interpretations.

Consider the provision: “Child belonging to a disadvantaged group… belonging to Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, the socially-and educationally-backward class… other group having disadvantage owing to social, cultural… specified by appropriate government.”

The framing of this provision begs the question as to whether there will be a genuine assessment of the economic background of the family or whether this provision will ultimately be implemented taking into account caste and religious considerations that is already a contagious and ambiguous concept as far as development is concerned. Another provision reads, “No child…shall be held back in any class or expelled from school till the completion of elementary education.”

Another disturbing provision of the Act is that it effectively leads to the extinction of lakhs of unrecognised private schools. These schools, which charge pittance compared to ‘elitist’ private schools, cater to those economically-backward sections of society who want an alternative to the government schools, are instrumental in increasing enrolment rates. However, with this regulation effectively pulling down their shutters, the only option left for the poor is the government schools.

The crux of the problem is the deplorable situation of government schools. What is needed is a complete overhaul of the system, but measures proposed are palliative at best. In addition to the well-known infrastructure problems, multiple steps need to be taken to improve the quality of education.

It is remarkable, that the very legislation supposed to bring about equality in society actually ends up ossifying the very identities that have been the cause of inequality and discrimination. Will such a system of reservation then end up only perpetuating inequalities? Will the children from the economically-weaker sections of society be able to cope up not only with the education system but also the culture of these schools?

Reservations have often been accused of creating a ‘creamy layer’ rather than achieving their desired objective of providing the socially-weaker sections of society the opportunity to improve their condition and, thus, be able to compete on an equal footing. Will the outcome of this Bill be on similar lines?

We hope that in due course, governments and policymakers will focus on removing various flaws in the Act and enhance its ambit to include government schools as well, while simultaneously ensuring proper implementation of the Act.

It might be prudent for the government to realise the fact that it alone is not capable of managing the pressing need of providing quality education to the masses and, therefore, realises the urgency of adopting a more efficient model. Although every model does have its limitations, an objective and meaningful public-private partnership model might be worth experimenting with.

With all sections of society, including the poor, willing to pay more for quality education, the probability of this model succeeding is actually pretty high. With the traditional model not being up to the mark, it is imperative for the government that other innovative approaches be experimented with and be actively embraced before we end up creating a class of ‘educated’ but unemployable youth.

In fact, the country’s gains from the much-touted demographic dividend rest on the creation of a vibrant, educated and skilled labour force. It must be emphasised that unemployed educated youth are a dangerous mixture in a country that is witnessing massive inequality.

The Economic Times, 07 May 2012


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