The RTE abstractions

For a country betting high on its demographic dividend, universal and compulsory education seemed like a reasonable way forward. The Gandhian idea of basic education broached at the Wardha conference can be said to have found a good expression (albeit with some tweaks) in the RTE enabled scheme of things. But in the wake of sustained debates, RTE is fast becoming a classic case of ‘Good Intentions but Bad Implementation‘.

The intended benefits notwithstanding, much of the serious criticism has come along the qualitative aspect of the education thus delivered. While civic societies and think tanks have done well in establishing those learning gaps through data based analysis, there are still a few more challenges waiting in their abstraction. I intend to take up some of these issues which derive their abstraction from the constitutional etiquette and unintended social consequences of policies so ambitious.

The write-up, in no way, discounts the issue of learning impediments which set in by the age of six or so because of the ‘No Child shall be held back‘ rule but the verdict is already out on that. And while we are at it, we should take a moment to thank Kyrgyzstan, the country – if not for it, we would have kissed earth at the global stage of education. India ranked second last among the 73 countries that participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted worldwide by the OECD.

With the passage of the RTE act, primary education became a public good, which by definition is “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable”. Severely stunted in terms of HR and infrastructure, the government schools needed their private counterparts to shoulder the burden and the act provided with a mandatory 25% reservation of EWS to extend that help. Now the magnitude and criteria of the reservation (with unclear definition of neighbourhood, random sampling) can still be debated and refined but the fact that minority schools have been excluded of this responsibility seems irrational. The constitution has been interpreted in the light of directive principles of state policy but the minority rights have been held absolute and immutable! How can inclusion of minority schools impair their raison d’etre; at the very least they should be made to admit the EWS among minorities.

The entry to a private school works via a voucher system which compensates (in moderate amounts) for the tuition fee of the student but does not allay the expenses along the usual paraphernalia of an elite setup. This is bound to make the class distinction salient and if the objective of the act is integrated classrooms, this can go against the grain. The presence of a stereotype can contribute to measured ability differences and reinforce the stereotype, argues the World Development Report 2015.

Research showed that boys from backward classes were just as good at solving puzzles as boys from the upper castes when caste identity was not revealed. However, in mixed-caste groups, revealing the boys’ castes before puzzle-solving sessions created a significant “caste gap” in achievement with the boys from backward classes underperforming by 23 per cent.

Further, the act seemed to have envisaged little about the long term consequences of this social experiment. What happens after these children complete the free elementary education in the elite schools? In the most likely event that their parents cannot afford the fee, do they discontinue and go back to schools of questionable standards and perhaps elicit a need for a new study!

The situation however, is not so grim and there will be countless government reports to prove that. With the level of informed discussions going on, there is every reason to believe that the new government will take due cognisance of these issues and act. There are also rumors that SRK is being called back to host another season of Kya Aap Paanchvi Paas Se Tez Hain? “Let’s wipe that smile off these naysayers. What’s the capital of the Kyrgyzstan, you say?”

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