Another brick in the wall?

The Pink Floyd's anthem on education will be a thing of past if the RTE Act is implemented in its true spirit
Monday, February 13, 2012
RTE Act envisages better infrastructure in schools. Source: Ravleen Kaur

“I beg to place the following resolution before the council for its consideration.…the state should accept in this country the same responsibility in regard to mass education that the government of most civilized countries are already discharging and that a well considered scheme should be drawn up and adhered to till it is carried out.. The well being of millions upon millions of children who are waiting to be brought under the influence education depends upon it...”

These were the words of Gopal Krishna Gokhale who moved a resolution in Imperial Legislative Council on March 18, 1910, seeking a law ensuring free and compulsory primary education in the country. It took us a century to consent to the idea and enact the Right To Education (RTE) Act in 2009. Even after India gained independence, the right to education was only retained in the directive principles of State policy, which though considered fundamental to the governance, are not enforceable by any court.

While government schools did provide highly subsidised education to the masses, nothing concrete had been done to enroll the out-of-school children till Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan happened in 2001 with the main motive to educate children from six to fourteen years free of cost. The mid-day meal scheme also played its part in impressing parents to opt for education. However, the legal status and involvement of private schools remained a chimera till the RTE Act came along.

The legislation holds lot of promise with provisions like child mapping, neighbourhood schools, no capitation fee and better infrastructure including science laboratories, playgrounds and toilets. However, much more than the material characteristics, RTE Act is going to improve the quality of education by enhancing the teacher-student interaction.

Education in crisis

Ban on corporal punishments, fixed teaching hours and optimum teacher-pupil ratio are bound to make schools a better place for both teachers as well as students. It has long been felt that an ideal class should have maximum of 40 students because teachers can then attend to their personal growths in a better manner. Teacher-student relationship has always been the driving force of our society. The gurukuls of yesteryears required children to stay with their teachers so that they get inspired not only from books but also through day-to-day behaviour of their gurus. Teachers remain supreme even in the present-day education system introduced by British. This is why still no other professional can invoke as many genuine fans as a good teacher can.

However, things started deteriorating lately with state governments adopting unfavourable service policies resulting in weak performance by teachers and hence poor education standards. According to official records, at the time of launch of the RTE, there was a whopping shortage of 5.3 lakh school teachers in the country. In addition, around 7 lakh more teachers were required for proper implementation of the Act. State governments tend to appoint both trained and untrained teachers on contract basis with a salary in some cases as low as Rs 2,500 a month. Such poor service conditions make it difficult to retain talent in government sector. Even in a comparatively small and financially-stable union territory of Chandigarh the teacher, pupil ratio is pathetic. An on-the-spot survey of five randomly selected government schools throws up startling findings with the ratio as high as 1:116 and as low as 1:60, thus nowhere meeting the 1:40 criteria.

Teacher, pupil ratio is pathetic going as high as 1:116 and as low as 1:60, thus nowhere meeting the 1:40 criteria. Due to poor service conditions, it's difficult to retain talent in government schools.

Interaction with teachers, principals and students reveal that the real reason for such an alarming teacher to pupil ratio was the high attrition of contract teachers, retirement of regular teachers and slow recruitment process. Till the year 2000, the education department used to appoint teachers on ad hoc basis to be regularised in case of vacancy. However, this practice has now been discontinued. Meanwhile, teachers hired under the Sarv Siksha Abhiyan (SSA), despite working on posts sanctioned by the Ministry Of Human resource & Development, have salaries much lower than those of the non-SSA teachers.

No wonder the contractual and SSA teachers constantly leave for better options in central schools or schools in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana. Over 600 of around 1,100 teachers recruited under SSA have resigned so far in last seven years and millions spent on the training and skill enhancement have hence been wasted.

How RTE deals with this

RTE model rules call upon the states to create permanent and professional cadre of teachers to ensure sufficient teacher-pupil ratio. Lakhs of posts have been sanctioned while to improve the quality of teaching, the National Council of teacher Education (NCTE) has been authorised to frame rules for appointment of teachers. These rules will override the specific recruitment rules of all the states and UTs. This posed serious problems for the state governments which had appointed substantial number of contractual teachers who don't qualify under the new rules of NCTE. Sacking these teachers would have created educational as well as political crisis which is why a middle path has been adopted by offering a grace period of three years for the untrained teachers to upgrade their qualifications. However, the things are not as simple as they seem.

Data released by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development on March 15, 2011 makes it evident that the RTE Act is nowhere near implementation. Only two Union Territories Andaman and Nicobar Island, and Chandigarh and seven states Chattisgarh, Manipur, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Orissa, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh have notified the Act. The grace period of three years in which the modalities had to be completed has now been extended to March 31, 2013. However, the local governments are not the only ones to be blamed. Though the finances for implementation of the RTE Act are being supplemented through Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan fund, states are expressing inability to contribute their part of share because of poor financial health.

RTE Act holds great promise for the Indian education sector and the deadline of March 31, 2013, is just a year away. But the real challenge for policy makers lies in generating financial support. The only way out in such a crisis is to hike the education budget because it's the kind of investment which is going to help us reap maximum earning later.

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