Sunday, April 14, 2013

A hoax of a law

A hoax of a law

The problem with writing a topical column like this one is that I am often forced to ignore issues that I consider very, very important because of the race to keep up with 'breaking news'. So I have wanted for some time to write about the hoax that the Right to Education Act is and been unable to because of more topical topics intruding. This week I have my chance as this law is the topic of the moment. Today marks the deadline for compliance with the provisions of the RTE Act and nearly half of our schools remain non-compliant. Some lack teachers, some girls' toilets and most lack the infrastructure decreed in the Act, so several good private schools will be shut down by the inspector raj that this new law will strengthen. As for the elite private schools that were supposed to reserve 25 per cent of their seats for underprivileged children, they have simply found ways to avoid complying. In short the Right to Education act is a big, fat flop. The law was a mistake from the start because instead of paying attention to the abysmal standards of learning in government schools, it concentrated on infrastructure. Of course schools should have girls' toilets, drinking water, provisions for disabled children and sufficient teachers. But if these do not exist 65 years after India won freedom, then it is almost entirely because of an educational licence-quota-permit raj. In keeping with the socialist mindset of free India's early decades, we instituted a system that gave officials enormous powers to interfere in education in a manner that benefited only them. Inspectors can make a lot of money out of their interventions and very rarely is their meddling designed to improve standards of learning.
The result is that more than 90 per cent of children who go to government schools leave without being able to read a story or do a simple sum. International tests like PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) prove this. When Indian students participated for the first time, India came in second from bottom out of 73 countries.
In earlier times the average Indian paid no attention to the atrocious standard of government schools because he lived in such desperate poverty that sending children to school instead of forcing them to earn a living was a luxury. When things started to change in the past 20 years and a measure of prosperity made parents understand the importance of giving their children a decent education, they quickly realised that government schools were no good. So private 'English-medium schools have spread like a rash in small towns and remote villages. On my travels in rural parts I have often seen tiny private schools bursting with students and government schools entirely bereft of them.
Government schools usually have better physical infrastructure but nearly always have very bad teachers who behave like masters of their small universe. They usually live in the nearest town, instead of in the village, and come and go at their own sweet will, rarely bothering to make any effort to provide children with what they need most: learning. Even very poor Indians try to send their children to private schools because of this, but as a result of this ill-advised right to education law, they may soon find that their children's schools have been closed for not meeting the high standards that the law ordains.
The problems of school education in India are huge but they can be solved if state governments realise that what is needed more than anything else is sweeping decentralisation. If elected village officials had charge of the school, standards would almost certainly improve. But, as things stand, if a village school needs a boundary wall rebuilt, permission is needed from the collector.
With such an obvious need to end officialdom's control over education, why has there been no serious attempt to end it once and for all? Well, because nobody benefits more from licences and quotas than our political leaders. If you examine the activities of the wives and progeny of senior political leaders, you will nearly always come upon a family NGO that runs a college or a school. Politicians have the clout to obtain licences and circumvent the plethora of permissions needed to set up an educational institution that mere mortals do not.
They like to dabble in the business of education because it gives them powers of patronage and the right to obtain public land at throwaway prices. If the Right to Education law had put an end to at least this kind of dubious practice it would have been worth something. Since it has not gone near addressing this kind of issue or improving learning standards it could end up as a worthless piece of legislation.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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