Over the last few months articles have been written regarding the deteriorating quality of elementary education, attributing it largely to the no-detention policy under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009. Having worked in the ministry of human resource development for over five years, I consider it appropriate to allay certain fears and apprehensions, and inform citizens regarding the various nuances of this legislation, about which most people would have known only through the prism of the media; very few may have actually read its fine print.
To put things in perspective, the RTE Act is a consequential legislation—to give effect to Article 21A of the Constitution, introduced by the 88th Amendment to the Constitution in 2002 titled “Right to Education” which states that “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine.” The Act was therefore to give effect to a fundamental right and overnight changed the approach of elementary education—from a ‘welfare’ approach to a ‘rights and entitlements’ approach.
The law is at an embryonic stage—just six years old, and even a eight-year cycle of elementary education is not over.
Also, it has taken considerable time to give effect to its various provisions, considering that implementation involves concerted action by the central government, the state government and local authorities, for over 13 crore children taught by over 44 lakh teachers in over 11 lakh schools, along with thousands of district and block/cluster level teacher training institutes and resource centres, and educational administrators, apart from the large amount of financial resources it entails. In 2009, there were an estimated 5.23 lakh vacant posts of teachers, while 5.1 lakh additional teacher posts had to be created to meet the Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) norm stipulated under the RTE Act. Further, over 8.6 lakh teachers in the state-run government elementary schools did not possess the nationally recognised professional teacher qualifications. These, and several other deficiencies, straddled elementary education at the commencement of the Act.
By far the most virulent criticism of the RTE Act is its no-detention policy. The attack is on section 16 of the RTE Act, which states that ‘No child shall be held back or expelled from school till the completion of elementary education’. This matter had come up before a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in Society for Un-aided Private Schools of Rajasthan vs U.O.I. & Anr, in which Justice Radhakrishnan had ruled that “Holding back in a class or expulsion may lead to large number of drop outs from the school, which will defeat the very purpose and object of the Act, which is to strengthen the social fabric of democracy and to create a just and humane society … to provide for special tuition for the children who are found to be deficient in their studies, the idea is that failing a child is an unjust mortification of the child personality, too young to face the failure in life in his or her early stages of education.”
The argument, that because of the no-detention policy, learning levels have gone down, may appear far-fetched. Firstly, learning level is determined by several factors—teaching practices, teacher quality, availability of books, socio-economic background of children, school environment, etc. To isolate one factor, policy of no-detention, as a sole determinant of lowering of learning levels is neither plausible nor justifiable. Secondly, implicit in that argument is that children study only because of the fear of being detained. This is a serious charge and hits at the very bottom of the entire process and philosophy of school education.
Thirdly, the no detention policy cannot be viewed in isolation but has to be looked at in conjunction with other provisions of the Act. The provisions of having an evaluation process which is continuous and comprehensive, having a class environment which is free from fear, trauma and anxiety, that there is no physical punishment or mental harassment of a child, ensuring that teachers perform their duty, including the requirement of transacting the curriculum as per schedule and in accordance with the laid down procedure, and assessing the ability of each child and providing additional instructions. All these are important determinants of quality education and improving learning levels. Gunning the no-detention policy is an alibi for sub-par teacher performance and classroom practices.
Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have argued (India : Development and Participation, 2002) that education ‘demands a good a deal of time and attention, for instance, preparing a child to go to school, stimulating his or her interest, helping her with homework, and even establishing a rapport with the teachers’ which is much more demanding for underprivileged families, especially when the child is first-generation school-goer. Based on empirical evidence, they found, that a large number of children, from marginalised sections, have left school after being detained, having found the school environment unfriendly and hostile. Children have dropped out due to traumatising experiences of physical punishment, social discrimination and other forms of discouragement effect such as alienating curriculum, inactive classrooms, and indifferent teachers. Surely, doing away with the provision of no-detention may hit hardest the children belonging to the poorest of the poor.
Let us be patient, as there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the RTE Act. Since the Act contains a set of visionary statements for conferring a fundamental right to the children of our country, involving multiple stakeholders, and huge financial resources, it will take time for its objectives to be achieved. Given the vastness of our country, its efficacy and success will have inter- and intra-regional variations.
The author is Vikram Sahay, a civil servant. Views are personal