On August 4, 2009, India enacted the Right to Education Act that describes the modalities of the importance of free and compulsory education for children between the age of 6 years and 14 years in India. When the Act came into effect on April 1, 2010, the country became one of 135 nations to make education a fundamental right of every child.

This Act was a watershed moment for Indian education because universal elementary education was enshrined as a fundamental right in its Constitution. Some of its key features included laying down parameters for teacher qualification, infrastructure and teacher-pupil ratio.

It also banned corporal punishment in any form. A controversial and significant part of the Act was Article 12 1(C), which requires non-minority private-unaided schools to reserve 25% of their seats for the socially and economically disadvantaged. While the Act has been considered vital legislation, it falls severely short on several aspects. It merits a thorough relook, especially in a post-Covid-19 scenario.

Where it’s going wrong?

To begin with, an interesting factor to consider here is that learning outcomes are not mentioned anywhere in the RTE Act. There is a significant emphasis on inputs but none on outcomes. As mentioned before, the act stipulates various norms that are entirely input related but does not mention what these inputs seek to achieve.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report 2016, the percentage of children in rural government schools in Class 5 who can read at Class 2 level or better is only at 50.3%, with massive differences across states. Similarly, the percentage of children in rural government schools in Class 5 who could recognise two-digit numbers was just 30.5%.

Scholars have noted that although the RTE Act has brought hope to schoolchildren, there is a striking inequality in elementary education both in quality and quantity, thereby causing disparities in its access across location, economic category, social group and gender, most importantly through socio-religious exclusion. For example, former Chief Economic Adviser of India, Arvind Subramanian and economist Rohit Lamba found that in terms of the number of years of educational attainment, India’s Hindu upper castes are converging with that of the most developed nations.

In contrast, the gap between upper caste educational attainment and that of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims is as great as three to three and a half years. The broad pattern of continuing inequality in educational outcomes across social and religious groups is consistent with theories that emphasise unequal access to learning as an instrument of elite dominance.

According to V Ramachandran, there is spatial segregation of the rich from the middle class and the poor, implying that children are going to different kinds and differently endowed schools.

Moreover, an analysis of the National Council of Educational Research and Training and Unified District Information System for Education data shows that there has been a significant increase in private schools enrolment. An analysis by the Central Square Foundation found that today 47.5% of students in India attend private schools, with over 16 states having over 50% of students in private schools.

The RTE Act needs to be amended to include online learning. Photo credit: PTI

Moreover, enrolment in government schools has decreased from 74.1% in 1978 to 52.5% in 2017. This drastic decrease in government school enrolment can only reflect the fact that parents are unhappy with the quality of education in government schools.

However, private schools are not faring necessarily better. From 2008-’18, the reading levels in India’s rural private schools have stayed the same, while arithmetic skills have worsened. In 2018, only 39.8% of Class 5 children could divide a three-digit number by a single digit.

Covid-19 and education

With an ongoing pandemic, institutes across the country have shifted to an internet-based model of schooling. However, the burden of providing infrastructure to children to access internet-based education is now on parents, with the government unable to furnish devices for children to access online classes.

As per the Broadcast India Survey 2018, there are only around 30 crore smartphones in the country. While internet adoption has doubled since 2010, there are still more than 70 crore of those in India who are not connected to the internet.

An analysis by Digital Global Statshot reveals that women make up the majority of these unconnected populations.

With such enormous entry barriers, the pandemic has brought forth the failure of the Union and State governments to implement “free” and “compulsory” education under the RTE Act. We are yet to see the effects of such a long gap in education. It is quite likely that a large group of students could have dropped out, and learning outcomes could have significantly deteriorated. Even the National Education Policy launched in 2020, which outlined the vision for India’s new education system, failed to mention anything about online education during the pandemic.

Reforms needed

There are two critical aspects to consider for reform here.

Firstly, the RTE Act needs to be amended to include online learning, which also has potential ramifications for the right to the internet to be made a fundamental right.

Moreover, the Union and state governments both need to identify that private schools are here to stay. A significant reform in regulating private schools for governance and infrastructure, and bringing about uniform quality indicators so that parents can make a more informed choice is something that is urgently required. By stipulating that all private schools must reserve 25% of their seats to economically backward sections of society, it seems evident that the intent is to abdicate the state of its burden on education to private players.

Through the current form of RTE, the government of India has given schooling precedence over education. The RTE Act seems to be more of a “right to access schooling” than a “right to education’’. With the pandemic, even the “right to access schooling” is coming undone. It is a right served all wrong.
Vishal Vasanthakumar is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an independent researcher working at the intersection of caste, politics and education.