From more rights to last rites

Written by Sunil Jain | Updated: Apr 14 2012, 07:24am hrs
It is when the Right to Education Act leads to closing of private schools that we will realise the damage caused

If the government was upset with the Supreme Courts verdict on the 2G licenses, it should be ecstatic about the Court upholding the constitutional validity of the Right to Education Act (RTE). Since the RTE mandates every private school has to reserve a fourth of its seats for weaker sections and socially disadvantaged groups, this effectively absolves the government of all responsibility to provide education of even remotely acceptable quality. Dont like the education provided in the government school Just go to Mrs Bharat Ram at Shri Ram! What do you mean shes completed her quota of 25%, why doesnt she expand the general capacity and then admit more disadvantaged kidsdo you want me to take this to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes

An educational duty of the central and state governments, to fund which we pay taxes, has now been transformed into essentially a policing one, with each private school to be now under the sway of an education bureaucracy that is free to extract whatever it wants, whenever it wants, from hapless schoolsapart from other horrors described later, the RTE says no kid is to be held back in any class or expelled (there goes even the slightest chance of discipline of any sort), the medium of instructions shall, as far as practicable, be in the childs mother tongue, and no teacher shall engage himself or herself in private tuition or private teaching activity.

While the altruistic sorts in Sonia Gandhis set-up who thought up this noble solution probably didnt have any evil in mind, the scope this throws up for harassment and corruption is an absolute delight. Under the RTE, apart from the Shri Ram Schools and the Delhi Public Schools that have to reserve a fourth of seats for kids the government decides are from vulnerable sections, all schools have to be recognised. Waulden Public School, three houses away from mine, caters to poor children in the neighourhood, but it isnt recognisedunder the RTE, it has 3-5 years (since the Act came in 2009, 3 years are up) to get recognised. This means it must meet the Delhi government norms on classroom size, teacher pay etc.

Each state has different rules, Punjab for instance says an elementary school should be on at least a 750 square metre plot (Waulden is 250!), each classroom should be 200 sq feet at least (minimum width is 10 feet) and the door passage shouldnt be less than 3 feet by 6 feet; the library 250 square feet and the laboratory 225 square feet at least. These are laudable criterion, but once it does all of this, Waulden will be out of reach for the parents who pay R700-800 per month to get their kids in. And were not even talking of the salary hikes for teachers that the government will likely insist onteachers in unrecognised schools probably make around a third or a fourth of what their government school counterparts get.

In which case, Waulden has two options, either bribe its way out of trouble on a continuous basis or simply shut shopthough Anna Hazare would dispprove, one wishes Indias famed corruption will come to the rescue! The alternative is horrifying: unrecognised private schools, enough studies like Prathams Aser show, have better standards of teaching, but cost a fraction of what government schools doin even rural areas, a fourth of all kids go to unrecognised private schools. Close these schools and what happens to the children who go to them Theoretically, they can go to Shri Ram and Delhi Public School, but these schools dont have anywhere near the capacity the unrecognised schools do, and were not even talking of the problems they will have in assimilating 25% kids from a totally different background and what happens to the kids they replace.

What is truly amazing about the RTE is a) given it is the governments job to provide education (what else are those taxes for), the RTE explicitly accepts the government is simply not up to the jobin which case, why not just hand over government schools (sans the teachers!) to the private sector, at least this will defray capital costs which tend to be quite significant; b) this passing the buck seems to be taking place while the government is, at the same time, experimenting with PPP schools; schools where, in return for a one-time grant and a recurring fee per kid, private persons set up schools.

But, the argument will be made, PPP and RTE are really the same thing. Under RTE, the government will also pay Shri Ram School and Delhi Public School a certain fee (the exact formula isnt clear yet) per kid. The big difference, however, is that while PPP is voluntary (you decide if you want to set up a school under the PPP formula), there is no such choice in the case of RTE. Like it or not, profits do matter and with a lowering of profits, less schools will expand.

Since education minister Kapil Sibal has been quoted as saying he thought big schools could certainly take on this burdenhes not worried about the unrecognised schools since he thinks they teach nothingpresumably this means hell support a Right to Justice Act (RTJ) where a fourth of the time of top-notch lawyers like him will be spent on defending the weaker and disadvantaged sections of society, not for free of course, but to be paid for by the government at the rate it thinks appropriate!

sunil.jain@expressindia.com