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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 10, February 27, 2010

Implementing Right to Education Act

Monday 1 March 2010, by B.C. Mehta, Kranti Kapoor


The Bill to provide free education for all children in the age-group 6-14 (which has now become an Act) ensures that any child can demand provision of free education to him or her in his or her neighbourhood right up to the 8th class. It is also claimed that the state will provide compulsory elementary education. Here there is some confusion. Right to education implies that the parents of some children want to get their children educated but fail to do so because there is no school in the neighbourhood, or if there is a school, the school is not of their choice or they cannot afford to pay the fees and/or bussing and other charges. Violation of the right implies that the parents are willing to get elementary education for their wards but are unable to do so for reasons beyond their capacity or control. Compulsory, on the other hand, implies that there are parents who are unwilling or unlikely to send the children for schooling even when the facilities for free education are available in their neighbourhood. The state can and should compel them to send their children to school in the interest of the future of the children, their family and the society as a whole. If, however, compulsion is on the state for providing free education, then it is implicit in the right to education itself.

While it is true that a substantial number of students do not get education because there is no affordable school in the neighbourhood, specially in the tribal hilly areas and sparsely populated desert districts, in a very large number of cases education is not the first priority of the family. Survival is the top priority. Children working as rag-pickers, shoe-shine boys, domestic help, regular or contract or piece-wage workers in several kinds of factories and on farmlands is a regular phenomenon all over India, especially in the poorer districts. For example, there is the case of seasonal migration of child workers to work on Bt cotton farms from the tribal districts of Dungarpur, Banswara and Udaipur to Gujarat. In case of monsoon failure as in this year there is large scale migration of families. Child labour also works as an insurance mechanism against fluctuations in parent’s income.

To attract and retain children of these families to/in schools is not possible through compulsion alone, nor is it a question of opening of schools in the neighbourhood. The children of these families remain uneducated because of the mere accident of their birth in such families. They must not be allowed to suffer for no fault of theirs. They have the right to be educated. The state has to step in. It should be noted that though often the trade-off between school and child labour has been underlined, the two activities need not be mutually exclusive. Education strategies should examine the possibility of combining work and school by reducing the duration of school to just half-a-day and/or by changing the school timings. Special problems require special solutions. Schooling may be provided when the children are free from domestic duties or paid or unpaid work through night schools, mobile schools and the like. This will involve no cultural break and no cost to the family. Involvement of NGOs and teacher entrepreneurs would be necessary in such conditions.

The task to provide universal education to the girl child is even more complicated. The primary school enrolment of girls is far below that of boys even in the urban areas; the gap is much wider in the rural areas. The gulf widens as we move to the final years of elementary education. This implies that even those parents who send their sons to schools do not send their daughters and, in any case, they withdraw them from schools much before the completion of elementary education. The reasons for this are well known: social taboos, priority to education of sons, poverty, sibling care, domestic work, fuel wood gathering, fetching of water, cooking, early marriage, early parenthood and the like. These hard cases, where the parents have no inclination to send their wards to schools whether schools exist or not, whether they are free or not, are not exceptional. In several regions, especially in the BIMARU States, these cases are too large to be ignored. Therefore, tackling the schooling problem without tackling the basic livelihood and social problems is well nigh impossible, RTFE or no RTFE.

For the same reasons, even though universal or very high enrolment in primary education may be attained, class repetitions and school drop-outs and push-outs are common. In addition, because of the inefficiency in the country’s schooling system, actual school attendance is much lower than enrolment, and the rates of grade repetition are very high. Recent findings reveal that although about 93 per cent of Indian children in the age-group 6-14 years are in school a very large percentage either drop out or are repeaters and their learning achievements are very low. About 26 per cent of the students in the primary education system were bound to repeat in the first year itself, and retention rate at the primary level as a whole is only 70 per cent. As a result, many children abandon school with relatively low levels of completed education. The gap between age and grade is large. The problem is particularly acute in poorer and SC and ST neighbourhoods.

Now suppose an unwilling parent is persuaded to send his ward to school and subsequently the student drops out without completing his or her elementary education then who will be held responsible and penalised specially when retaining a student is not merely a function of the quality of teaching?


The Right to Education Act is to be implemented through PPP (public private partnership). PPP here implies that the private sector will be encouraged to start primary and middle schools in non-served areas and they will have to admit wards of the weaker sections up to at least 25 per cent of their total intake in each class in the case of unaided schools and up to the percentage of annual recurring grant-in-aid to their annual recurring expenditure in the case of aided schools. The special category and unaided schools will be reimbursed the fee of such students to the extent of actual per child expenditure incurred by the state or the actual amount of fee charged whichever is less. Thus, the voucher system is to be implemented.

This arrangement raises several questions. PPP is not a new idea in India although the phrase is being popularised as something of a new innovation. It existed even in the British period and even in the princely states. Historically it operated in two ways. Some community groups, in most cases religious and caste associations as also secular bodies interested in the welfare of their community, initiated the idea of a school, received donation of land from some member or members, collected contributions from members and built a school building. The schools then applied for grants-in-aid to the government and were usually able to obtain the same in varying degrees. In such schools the fee structure, pay-scale of teachers, and syllabus etc. of the government schools were followed. Nobody was denied admission. Such schools are to be found in most of the cities and towns in all States. There was competition between different communities for starting schools and colleges specially in the urban areas. In fact, such schools helped spread education very rapidly in some communities with low education level. There are also some such schools started by individuals or religious bodies which do not depend on government aid. Nonetheless these are not run on a profit-making basis and they also charge low fees. In fact, to call these schools as private schools is a misnomer. These are real public schools started by the public for the public. These are ‘not-for-profit’ institutions and are run by NGOs and are quite different from the other private schools which are surprisingly called ‘public schools’. The latter are in fact ‘for-profit’ private sector undertakings established to take advantage of the urge of the emergent middle class for exclusive and branded education for their wards. This class, which reaped all the benefits of free education provided by the government or government aided schools, colleges and universities to reap huge rental incomes and high positions, has now become the most self-serving class and derides education provided by these very government institutions.


Now PPP has been given a new twist. There are to be no grants in aid from the state. At most you will get land for the institution on concessional basis. And now under the RTFE there will be reimbursement of the vouchers presented for admitting the poor. Let us see whether it will solve the problem.

Let us have a look at the present school system. Of the 12,50,775 schools imparting elementary education in the country in 2007-08, 80.2 per cent were all types of government schools, 5.8 per cent private aided schools and 13.1 per cent private unaided schools. Almost 87.2 per cent of the schools are located in the rural areas. In the rural areas the proportion of private unaided schools is only 9.3 and that of aided schools is 4.7. However, in the urban areas, the percentage of private unaided and aided schools are as high as 38.6 and 13.4 respectively (Arun Mehta: Elementary Education In India, Analytical Report 2006-07 and 2007-08, NUEPA) Thus running private unaided schools is mostly an urban phenomenon. Of these, several schools are special category schools, community schools like unaided madarsas or convent schools and private sector non-fee or low fee charging schools run by philanthropists.

Of the total students enrolled in primary classes in 2007-08 about 75.4, 6.7 and 17.8 are enrolled in government, aided and unaided schools. The total number of teachers working in these schools in 2007-08 was 56,34,589 of which 69.3, 10.4 and 20.7 per cent are teaching in government, aided and private schools, the average number of teachers per school being 3.9, 8.3 and 6.7 respectively. Nearly 10.3 per cent of the schools are single-teacher schools. Government schools have the highest percentage of teachers who are professionally trained at 43.4, followed by aided school (27.8 per cent) and unaided private schools (only 2.3 per cent). Thus very many private-for-profit schools are small-sized ones relying mostly on the services of relatively cheaper, untrained and locally available teachers.

The Elite Institutions: Corporate Schools

In the most unlikely possibility of elite institutions opening schools in the rural areas will they be able to fulfil the objectives of RTFE? Firstly, the reimbursed fee will be very small compared to the usual fees they charge. Lowering fees in general will change the elite character without which they will not be able to attract students from middle and upper classes; they will also not be able to maintain the standard of buildings, grounds and other services. The new entrants from the poorest strata will not find courage to enter the premises and even if they somehow enter, they will find the atmosphere alien. The dress, shoes, the bag, even the water bottle, the books, the stationery and the like are so costly that they can never afford them. These schools also do not provide mid-day meals. What kind of tiffin will these students carry? The medium of instruction will itself pose a problem. Will he/she not feel completely outcaste? Then there are several other expenses. Toffees are to be distributed on one’s birthdays. There are educational trips. There will be need for sport shoes and equipment. There is an atmosphere of intense competition necessitating private tuition and coaching. Why will the school make effort and expend money on special coaching of these lagging students? Can anybody expect this poor kid to complete education in such an atmosphere? Dropping out is the only real possibility. In that possibility, the school management can always claim that that they cannot help, they want to admit poor students but nobody is coming forward.

In the urban areas, elite schools are already there. And to be sure, there are usually many juggi-jopdis near these localities. In theory, students from poor families can be admitted to these schools and fees can be reimbursed by the state. However, the first generation students from below-poverty-line families will have to face all the problems enumerated above. Thus, these schools do not provide a feasible solution to the problem of providing universal elementary education.

Small Entrepreneurs

However, not all private schools are high-fee-charging exclusive schools. For instance, Tooley (Tooley, James, 2001, The Global Education Industry, 2nd edition, Institute for Economic Affairs, London 2001, p. 13) observes:

Any visitor to the `slums’ of any of the big cities in India will be struck by the sheer number of private schools—there seems to be one on almost every street corner or down every alleyway….. they are wholly private in every way and are certainly not elite institutions.”

Similar obvservations are made by Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das and Asim Ijaz Khwaja (2008) in a World Bank study (A Dime a Day, The Possibilities and Limits of Private Schooling in Pakistan, WPS4066) regarding schools in the rural areas in Pakistan:

These schools are overwhelmingly for-profit enterprises—they have sprung up around the country without much state regulation or subsidy.

These private schools charge relatively low fees in comparison to the elite schools. They further observe that:

They hire predominantly local, female and moderately educated teachers who have limited alternative opportunities outside the village. Hiring these teachers at low cost allows the savings to be passed on to parents through very low fees. This mechanism—the need to hire teachers with a certain demographic profile so that salary costs are minimised—defines the possibility of private schools—where they arise. It also defines their limits. Private schools are horizontally constrained in that they arise in villages where there is a pool of secondary-educated women. They are also vertically constrained in that they are unlikely to cater to the secondary levels in rural areas, at least until there is an increase in the supply of potential teachers with the required skills and educational levels.

If the private sector is to be made partner in the task of universal elementary education, only these small scale private entrepreneurs will be of any help. They will gladly accept the vouchers. Since the scale of operation in villages has to be small and prospects of high profits would be limited and the student intake would also not be to their liking, no elite institution will offer its services.

NGO (Aided) and Concession Schools

Domestic NGOs should be encouraged to take the lead in providing educational services in underserved areas and segments of population. Studies comparing the performance of NGO schools and other educational providers show that non-profit NGO schools are more successful in encouraging literacy and imparting elementary education specially to girls. Considerable externalities arise from their independent interventions in the form of impact on the formal, conventional providers of public services such as state and state-aided private bodies. [Mohammad Niaz Asadullah and Nazmul Chaudhury (2008): Madrasas and NGOs: Complements or Substitutes? Non-State Providers and Growth in Female Education in Bangladesh, World Bank Research Paper, WPS 4511] NGO intervention has directly increased enrolment, specially of girls, and also lead to the opening up of predominantly all-boys religious education madarsa system to girls. In India, aided schools can be termed as NGO schools. They should be encouraged.

Another form of PPP is private provision of public (government) education as followed in the charter school system in the USA and the concession school experiment in Bogota Colombia in 1999. (See Felipe Barrera-Osorio1: The Impact of Private Provision of Public Education: Empirical Evidence from Bogotá Concession Schools, Impact Evaluation Series no. 10, WPS4121).

The programme is a partnership between the public and private education sectors, with private schools providing public education in the 25 selected schools for a period of 15 years. The state provides the infrastructure, selects the students and pays a pre-agreed sum per full-time student per year. The concession schools are allowed relative flexibility to contract administrative and teaching staff and can freely implement their pedagogic model. The concession schools must meet performance standards (on quality and quantity) set by the Secretary of Education.

Tests show that the system has yielded positive results. This is simply contracting-out the schools to NGOs and private providers. However, this option has limited scope. You cannot hand over lakhs of schoolteachers to the private sector; moreover, no private provider will accept permanent government teachers. Then where will the government school teachers go?

Government Schools

However, the major burden of providing education to the unserved and mostly unmotivated sections, especially in the rural areas, will have to be borne by the government though, no doubt, presently the government school system is in a very bad shape. Absenteeism of teachers and lack of serious teaching activity even when present is a major problem, specially in the rural and remote areas. Moreover, the quality of their services in terms of impact on schooling outcomes is quite weak. Motivation and accountability are two major factors determining the outcomes. Poor learning in schools is, in part, also due to the incapacity of parents to monitor and help the study of the child at home and in school.

In their study of differences in the learning level of students in different category of schools in Pakistan and UP in India, Jishnu Das, Priyanka Pandey and Tristan Zajonc (2006): Learning Levels and Gaps in Pakistan, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4067, November 2006) report some revealing and interesting results. Levels of learning and the structure of the educational gaps are similar in these countries. Children know little relative to what they need to know to function in society and relative to their curriculum. Differences across schools account for at least 50 per cent of the overall variation in test scores. While there are differences across children from different parental backgrounds (children from wealthier backgrounds or with more educated parents know more), these differences are dwarfed by those across government and private schools and across good and bad government schools. In English, the difference between children in private and government schools is twelve times as large as the difference between children from poor and non-poor households after controlling for observed differences between children.

While the best schools are not always private schools, the worst schools are almost exclusively government schools. These dismally performing government schools often record achievement levels so low that the pupils tested must have virtually no cumulated knowledge or skills after four years of education.

However, not all government schools are the same—the difference in learning between a high-performing and a low-performing government school is twentyfour times the difference between children from poor and non-poor backgrounds after controlling for observed child-level differences. There are indeed very large differences between schools in the same village, there are some good (and some bad) schools in every village. There are no “bad” villages and “good” villages.

Therefore, for improving learning, we need focus on the characteristics of schools. Thus, improvements in learning can be achieved by designing appropriate policies that influence teachers to come to school and put their effort and also goad parents to improve their parenting and oversight practices.

As already pointed out, all public sector or private sector institutions are not equally efficient or inefficient. India’s number one export is manpower—unskilled as well as highly skilled workers, scientists, engineers, doctors, teachers, professors and even writers and teachers in English can be found all over the developed world. However, not more than three per cent of all schools can be categorised as the ‘efficient’ private sector ‘public’ schools. Surely, India is not competing globally on the strength of this minuscule proportion of population. Moreover, even these have received, in a majority of cases, their higher education in government colleges and public sector university departments other than IIMs and IITs despite the fact that government schools and colleges have lost some of their glory in recent years. This is because governments are also bent upon weakening the public sector education system by starving them of funds, blocking appointments, encouraging part-time per period teachers, and gross political interference. The government sector educational institutions, small or large, schools or colleges or universities are run as normal government departments.

Though government schools have the highest percentage of teachers who are professionally trained at 43.4 and unaided private schools the lowest (2.3 per cent) learning achievements are higher in private schools. Private schools may be better able to fire teachers with low levels of intrinsic motivation and performance. In private schools, pay is linked to performance. In contrast, government teachers are paid according to a fixed-salary scale that rewards experience and training, but little else. And they cannot be fired. Moreover, in several States they receive time-bound promotions which are mostly unrelated to performance. There is no pressure on them to perform, innovate and experiment. There is no effective incentive/disincentive system. Thus, better training as well as higher pay packets alone do not ensure better results if motivation to perform and accountability are lacking.

However, government schools are not inherently inefficient providers of education. This is evidenced by the fact that test-scores are vastly different across government schools and there is a huge variation in teacher effort across government schools and across regions and States. Then the question arises: why are schools that used to perform very well and were rated very high in the past are rated very low now? Explanations have to be found.

Some 40 years back when government and aided schools were almost exclusive providers of education, they catered to all sections of the population, there was enough competitive pressure from students and parents on teachers pushing them to higher and higher efficiencies. Now because of the migration of wards of competition and quality conscious parents to elite private corporate sector schools that pressure is missing. The culprit is thus the segregation of schools into elite and commoner schools.

Presently, the liberalised, sensex-sensitised elite have created their own India with exclusive schools for their children. Parents monitor the progress of their ward. However, this all is missing in the schools which cater to the poor. Thus, quality school education cannot be provided to the poor in this socially and resource segregated school system of today. Establishment of the neighbourhood school system wherein parents from all educational, social and economic back-ground are required to send their wards to a school in their neighbourhood, whether it is private or government school and the school cannot refuse admission, is the best solution. This will also abolish the need of bussing. However, the emergent middle class that controls the bureaucracy, political parties, judiciary, media, think-tanks and universities have seen that this policy is not implemented so as to monopolise on good education and the benefits derived from it. Hence, the public (government plus community school) system has to be strengthened so that students from all classes are attracted to these schools as is the case of the central school system.

Central schools, Navodaya schools and military schools are all government schools. Their standards are not in anyway worse than the so-called ‘public’ schools. Similarly, central universities and institutes, IITs and IIMs are all government institutions; still they are well known for their high teaching and research standards. In contrast, government educational institutions in several States are mostly the worst performing institutions.

Mostly wards of Central Government employees of all ranks seek admission to schools run by the Central Government. The parents are highly competition conscious and motivated, so are their wards. They are highly demanding of the teachers and the schools. Moreover, there is practically no political interference in appointments, posting, transfers and evaluation of teachers. The political centre is too far away from the widely distributed network of schools to indulge in political and bureaucratic interference. There are well-thought-out rules and regulations for promotion and evaluation based on results. The oversee committees are also effective. Therefore, the teachers are motivated to perform. If the non-served children are admitted to these schools then they will also perform well and the problem of drop-outs will be minimised.

In the State government schools, on the other hand, political interference in appointments and transfers have gained epidemic proportions in several States. There are annual transfer melas. Transfers and promotions are not related to performance. For example, in Rajasthan, promotions to higher scales are almost automatic even if the teacher does not fulfil the qualifications for that scale. Mass transfers have become an annual feature. Transfers are unrelated to performance and results. Much time, energy and taxpayer’s money is wasted in this unnecessary political exercise. Now, when it is proposed to promote all students upto the fifth class and class X examinations are to be discontinued, the teachers are almost given the license for not working. Moreover, only poor families get their wards admitted in government schools. The parents have no motivation, no time and above all no capacity to press for high performance.

Priyanka Pandey, Sangeeta Goyal and Venkatesh Sundararaman (2008) (Public Participation, Teacher Accountability, and School Outcomes: Findings from Baseline Surveys in Three Indian States. World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper WPS4777) conducted a baseline survey of teachers and students in randomly selected government primary schools in MP, UP and Karnataka in 2006 for assessing public participation, teacher accountability, and school outcomes.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan initiated in 2001 to universalise quality education, envisages increasing accountability of schools to the community through greater involvement of village education committees and parent-teacher associations. The situation has not improved much in the case of most. States as evidenced from this study of MP and UP Karnataka is in a better state. Learning achievements differ substantially across States, these are very low in both MP and UP and much higher in Karnataka. For example, in UP and MP only 46 and 54 per cent of children after four years of schooling can read three or more words from a list of five compared to 92 per cent in Karnataka. And barely 22 per cent in UP and 33 per cent in MP at the end of grade 4 can read a simple sentence compared to 73 per cent in Karnataka. Knowledge in Mathematics is still more miserable.

Teacher attendance and engagement in teaching are low in both MP and UP and much higher in Karnataka. On an average, 88 per cent of teachers were present in Karnataka, 65 per cent in UP and 67 per cent in MP. However, low rates of teacher attendance and teaching activity are only part of the problem of low learning achievement. What is going on in classrooms when teachers are present and teaching takes place is obviously quite important. The researchers found that the average fraction of teachers present and actively engaged in teaching was 68 per cent in Karnataka, 25 per cent in UP and 30 per cent in MP. In all the States, a high proportion of teachers are male and from the high caste. More than 50 per cent of the teachers have a college education in MP and UP unlike Karnataka where 72 per cent of the teachers have a grade 12 degree or less. Both MP and UP have a large cadre of contract teachers who have significantly higher attendance and activity compared to regular teachers. Despite these positive factors, learning achievements are much lower in UP and MP in comparison with Karnataka. An interesting result is that more qualified and permanent male teachers are less likely to perform well. Salaries and qualifications of government schools teachers are above the norm for the country. Indeed, if anything, absenteeism increases with salary and qualifications. Trade unionism is often blamed for this mess. This is only partly true. Trade union power has been reduced considerably in the liberalised post-1991 scenario. One probable reason is that election work in India is almost exclusively done by teachers and they can help in silent booth capturing and other election related mal-practices. Hence political parties in power try to keep them pleased. This explains the transfer melas and complete absence of monitoring of the teaching work.

One basic reason is that

in MP and UP, the communities do not have the capacity to hold the teachers accountable or communities are largely uninformed or unprepared or unmotivated about the controls that have been devolved to them. Parent members of Village Education Committees (VEC) and Parent Teacher Associations (PTA) are not actively participating in their oversight capacity and have very low levels of awareness regarding their roles and responsibilities. The headmasters seem to be executing most of the functions of VECs and PTAs. The communities at large are not even aware of the existence of these committees.

In another study, the researchers launched structured campaign providing information to communities about their oversight roles in schools. They found a positive impact on process and behaviour outcomes, delivery of inputs to students, teacher effort and learning outcomes in all three States. Outcomes at baseline were much higher in Karnataka suggesting greater efficiency in delivery than in MP and UP. The differences in impact may be due to the differences in the initial conditions and also in the different decentralisation set-ups in different States..

Better results regarding teacher attendance as well as teacher effort can be obtained if the school committee is obligated to verify the teacher’s presence in order for the teacher to receive his or her salary as in MP. The changing behavior of oversee committee members and villagers to change school outcomes requires time to take place. Barriers to collective action take great effort and much time to be overcome. It is also important to induce teachers to be highly motivated and altruistic.

Better performance out of the highly paid teaching staff in government schools in the educationally backward States can be extracted if lessons are learnt from central schools as well as from the better performing States like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and the recent experiments even in the laggard States like MP. Political interference in management of education at all levels will have to be given up. One way out is that teachers are appointed on contract basis for upto five years, though in the same grade as the permanent teachers, and with leave facilities and PF contribution from the employer. This is the practice in Law universities. The Education Minister proposes to introduce this pattern in other institutions too. If efficiency cannot be ensured by high wages or high degrees alone, neither can it be achieved by giving starvation wages to teachers. Examinations have to be retained in some form so that teachers are made accountable. Contract teachers are not to be transferred. In other cases too, transfers should be minimised and should be based on set rules and regulations. Contract renewals and promotions should be strictly based on performance as verified by the VEC or PTA or as per the social audit. It is necessary to introduce social auditing as in the case of the NREGA. The problem of achieving cent per cent elementary education is also acute in areas under the coverage of the NREGA. Social auditing of the NREGA can and should be extended to schools in areas covered by RTFE.

Concerns about too heavy burden and tension of frequent examinations and grade achievements may be valid in the urban schools catering to the middle and upper classes. But not so in the rural schools catering to the first generation students. Promoting all students upto 5th or any standard in their case will be counter-productive. What will be the guarantee that the students are really taught and there are no fake admissions, fake promotions to higher classes and therefore fake universal education just to collect the voucher money?

Dr Kranti Kapoor teaches at the National Law University, Jodhpur, and he can be contacted at; Prof B.C. Mehta is an Emeritus Professor of Economics, and he can be contacted at

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