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RTE's budget schools blindspot

Education World, September 2010
Jan Sjunnesson Rao, Former Associate Director, School Choice Campaign

With the passage of time as the fine print of the historic Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (aka RTE Act), which became law on April 1, is beginning to be interpreted, awareness is dawning that it will impact educators, parents, teachers, students and various segments of Indian school (classes I-VIII) education differently. In particular, a closer reading of the RTE Act indicates that it severely restricts the scope of private education entrepreneurs or ‘edupreneurs’ to operate primary schools, especially low-cost private schools unknown to the affluent elite and government.

For instance, s.19 of the RTE Act stipulates that when a school established before the commencement of this Act does not fulfill the norms and standards specified in the schedule to the Act, it should take steps to fulfill them within a period of three years from the commencement of the Act. The norms and standards stipulated in the schedule include minimum salaries for teachers and infrastructure facilities such as playgrounds and libraries.

These stipulations are likely to hit the country’s estimated 200,000 budget private schools serving 20 million children, very hard. These schools, charging monthly tuition fees of Rs.70-150 in rural areas, and upto Rs.350 in metros, cannot levy higher tuition fees. Many of them are located in unplanned colonies (slums) inhabited by low-income households.

Budget private schools, recognised or not by gover-nment, are economic alter-natives for parents who cannot afford the tuition fees of established/recognised private schools, but don’t want to send their children to government schools. Such institutions will find it impossible to meet the norms and standards specified in the schedule of the RTE Act. This will lead to large scale closures, which would hit low-income household students hard. In the circumstances low-budget private schools may be obliged to transform into supplementary tuition centres or private academies rather than deal with the bureaucratic wrangles engendered by the process of seeking recognition.

A conservative estimate of unrecognised budget private schools in Delhi is 2,000 with each school catering to around 200 children and employing 20 teachers and staff. The two norms that these schools will find toughest to meet are built-up floor area and teachers’ salaries. According to RTE Act norms, private primary schools need to have a minimum 800 sq. metres of built-up area and pay teachers on a par with government schools in which the entry level monthly remuneration as per the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations is Rs.23,000.

Private budget schools fear these conditions of recognition will create rent-seeking (bribe demands) opportunities for government officials. The manager of one school in Delhi, who had obtained government recognition under the earlier norms when the built-up area require-ment was 200 sq. metres, claims he had to pay a bribe of Rs.80,000 to Municipal Corporation of Delhi officials to obtain recognition. Moreover while he charges tuition fees of Rs.250 per child, in his books he is obliged to show Rs.500 to enable him to demonstrate capacity to pay teachers (fictitious) high salaries.

Clearly budget schools exist and modestly prosper despite the availability of free-of-charge government school education, because these schools serve a purpose and are demanded by parents. Therefore the stringent norms and standards mandated by the RTE Act need to be diluted to enable budget schools to survive and improve gradually.

One solution to their problems could be to dilute the floor area requirement and liberally grant recognition to schools with adequate rooms, sufficient ventilation and some open spaces. Most budget schools have 15-20 students per class and therefore it would make more sense to prescribe the minimum floor area per child rather than size of classrooms. Moreover teachers’ salaries could be decided on the basis of tuition fees schools charge rather than on the basis of government school norms. And since in most urban areas it is impossible for budget schools to offer playgrounds, the RTE Act rules should be amended to mandate that there is a park/open area in the vicinity which students can use for play.

Moreover given that the overall demand for primary education is greater than supply, schools found to be deficient in terms of required norms and standards should not be shut down cavalierly. A more equitable approach would be to provide every budget school with a ‘performance improvement plan’ and assess and enable its adherence to the plan over a period of time.

It’s quite evident that in this proposal to dilute the norms and standards stipulated by the RTE Act and prescribed rules to accommodate budget schools, there’s a considerable degree of official discretion involved. Therefore the monitoring mechanism will have to be corruption free so that budget schools are enabled to qualify for recognition without having to resort to bribery and inducement. Only if these concessions are made will smaller budget private schools be able to survive and work with government towards attaining the goal of elementary education for all.


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