Saturday, May 18, 2013

What Right To Education? Failing to meet the prescribed norms, half of the existing schools will lose their recognition


What Right To Education? Failing to meet the prescribed norms, half of the existing schools will lose their recognition



The three-year compliance period for the Right to Education (RTE) Act is just over. What has the Act accomplished? Sadly, not very much that is positive.

A key provision in the law abolishes board examinations and grants automatic promotion to each child to the next grade at the end of the academic year. It also requires the award of a diploma to all at the end of eight years regardless of the knowledge and skills acquired. It is anybody's guess what value such a diploma will command in the marketplace.

With rare exceptions, teachers in India, especially in government schools, have been known for their absenteeism and lackadaisical attitude towards teaching. Student performance in examinations offered one last instrument to evaluate not just students but teachers as well. Therefore, it was widely predicted that the abolition of examinations would lead to increased complacency among teachers and reduce student achievements. That prophecy has now come true.

The latest Annual Status of Education Report 2012 (ASER 2012), published by NGO Pratham, documents an all-around sharp decline in student achievements from levels that were already low. In just two years between 2010 and 2012, percentage of fifth graders in public schools who can read second grade-level text has declined from 50.7% to 41.7%. Notwithstanding the fact that 2012 was designated the year of mathematics in India, achievement levels in arithmetic have fallen drastically. Percentage of fifth graders who could do a simple two-digit subtraction with borrowing has fallen from 70.9% to 53.5% in two years.

RTE proponents had opposed examinations because they produce stress in children. But for what kind of world does such education prepare children? A world that is waiting for them with a life on a silver platter? Would the real world give them handsome salaries without performance and evaluation? The solution to illness is not to abandon bitter medicine because it might stress out the child but to compassionately explain to her its benefits.

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the damage from the RTE Act. Another important provision in the law promises to do to elementary education what our labour laws have done to manufacturing. The law requires all schools to satisfy a set of highly demanding input norms, most of which have little to do with educational outcomes. These norms include all-weather building with playground, well-equipped library, separate toilets for boys and girls, fence around the school, proper sports equipment, maximum student-teacher ratio, availability of art, health and sports teachers and minimum hours of instruction.

The deadline for these norms was March 31, 2013. The law requires government to now withdraw recognition from all schools falling below these norms. Even more perniciously, once recognition is withdrawn, the government is to close down the schools.

While i do not have ready access to concrete figures, it is a safe bet that half of the existing schools, including many owned by the government, do not satisfy the prescribed input norms. So if the law is enforced, half of the schools will minimally lose recognition and maximally be closed down. But that would surely violate many of the children's right to education.

Like our myriad internally contradictory labour laws, all parts of this law cannot be simultaneously implemented. Therefore, it is a fair bet that an inspector raj would soon emerge whereby bribes will be extracted for delaying derecognition of recognised schools that do not meet the input norms and for letting unrecognised schools stay open. Of course, the real vic-tims will be the poor whose children disproportionately populate these schools and will have to pay higher fees to cover the bribes.

Moreover, just as onerous labour laws have discouraged the expansion of labour-intensive manufacturing in the organised sector, the demanding input norms in the RTE Act would discourage the entry of new low-cost private schools. Just as labour laws hurt low-skilled workers by hampering job creation, RTE norms would deprive the poor of quality education.

It is time that the United Progressive Alliance did some serious soul-searching and reconsidered its approach to converting every social and economic goal into a right. I sometimes joke that the willingness with which the government has been obliging vocal NGOs might soon bring us a legal right to happiness.

It is not an accident that the founding fathers placed economic and social goals such as those relating to education and health in the directive principles rather than fundamental rights. Rights such as the freedom of speech and religion and equality before law regardless of race, religion, caste and gender, originally recognised as fundamental rights, were "negative" rights that courts could enforce through "writs" when the state violated them. In contrast, economic and social rights require "positive" action by the state, which the courts cannot readily enforce.

The founding fathers also understood that unlike what they classified as fundamental rights, economic and social rights were not absolute and would vary over time and space. The minimum acceptable healthcare today may turn unacceptable tomorrow and what is acceptable to Bihar may not be acceptable to Kerala.

Creating fundamental rights that the government neither intends to enforce nor has wherewithal for undermines the respect for the original fundamental rights and makes a mockery of the Constitution.

The writer is professor of Indian political economy at Columbia University.

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