Consider what mothers from poor rural households had to say in recent focus groups in Bihar and Uttarakhand. They are sending their children to school these days. But they see government schools as having low quality and poor discipline. Parent teacher committees are largely irrelevant. Private schools are seen as better, with more diligent teachers, but lower caste and Muslim households mostly cant afford the fees. Many use local tutors to supplement government teaching. Interviews with teachers in neighbouring government schools found a familiar story of low motivation and poor working conditions. In Bihar, this included newly recruited panchayat teachers, who resent the much lower pay and feel caught in local patronage networks.
These impressions are consistent with national data. There is a residual, if important, issue of children not enrolled in school. The Annual Status of Education Report, from Pratham, found 4% of rural 6-14 year olds were not enrolled in school in 2009. But the big problem is dismal quality. Only half of Standard V children can read a Standard II text, less than 40% can do simple division. There has been little or no improvement on average since 2005. Teacher absenteeism is less of a problem than in the past: only 10% were absent in 2009 on the day of visit. But absenteeism of children is serious, with a quarter of enrolled kids not presentdespite mid-day meals.
Is private schooling the answer Some 20% of rural children go to private schoolsmany more in urban areasand there is a rising proportion using tuition (45% of Bihari kids). Private schooling delivers slightly better results once other household factors are taken into account, at typically much lower teacher salaries, but is not transformative.
In contrast with this picture, the RTE focuses primarily on enrolment and input-oriented questions, such as pupil-teacher ratios. It is weak precisely in the two areas that matter mostquality, and creating incentives for change when quality is inadequate. This is in sharp contrast with the approach adopted in the UK and the US, where quality failures are met with remedial action. An input focus extends to policy towards private schoolsschools that fail to meet input standards will lose recognition and have to close (though the practical effect could be to raise the bribes these schools have to pay inspectors). The requirement that private schools reserve a quarter of their places for disadvantaged and economically weaker children could bring an interesting dynamic, but only if carefully designed. It could also become either a tax on private schools or a source of inequalities between those who gain and those who remain stuck in the government system.
This focus on input-related standards is symptomatic of a broader problem in Indian policy design, in education and beyond. It is a diversion from the underlying challenge, of creating an accountable state that is responsive to its citizens. It might be argued that making an aspirational constitutional right a real law will do this. But that is unclear. As legalised rights proliferate, their credibility declines. Current grievance processes reside in the local authorities, who are also charged with implementation! Grievances could get channelled into judicial processes, but these take time and place decisions in the hands of judges who often lack competence in the areas of concern.
So what can be done Transparent measures of quality need to play a central part in the tracking of progress. This could be linked to a strictly pragmatic approach to how quality is deliveredgovernment schools, private schools, tutoring will all play a role and should be controlled by transparent measures of outcomes, not inspections of inputs. Grievance processes need an institutional arrangement that is practical and fully independent of implementing agencies. Crucially, government schooling systems, from administrators to teachers, need to be made accountable, with the quality-grievance-feedback process having bite. These changes will probably now have to emerge from innovations and pressures at the level of the states, where the real action now lies. Unfortunately the current focus appears to be on finance, not mechanisms.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education could be another example of fine rhetoric and weak action. Or it just might provide the starting point to effecting real change.
The author is at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Centre for Policy Research