The wrong way to school

Tuesday, 30 March 2010
Parth J Shah

Heard of model rules? No? When an Act is passed in Parliament, there may still be vague areas that need closer attention. Model rules are written to help implement the Act. But the rules can never be better cooked than the original law was when poured into the parliamentary pressure cooker. No creative legislative masala can help cover up half-baked khana and half-thought laws. So it is with the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, and its model rules. The Act, commonly referred to as the Right to Education (RTE) Act, becomes law on 1 April.

One apparent sign of a half-baked law is the number of lawsuits it generates. Even before the Act has been notified, the cases have started flowing into the Supreme Court—the first challenging the power of the state to force unaided schools to follow a reservation policy. What dish would emerge and, importantly, when, from the Supreme Court grinder is anyone’s guess: In that case, the Act that is addressing one of the most pressing issues confronting the country may not be even on the menu any time soon.

So what’s in the Act and the rules? The hope was that they would at least do no harm to private schools, while helping to improve government schools. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Everyone is tired of hearing about the high rate of teacher absenteeism (25%) in government schools—and the fact that half of the teachers who are physically present are not engaged in teaching activity—except the makers of the Act and the rules. The “input” educationists hold the belief that teachers are absent because they work too hard with little reward in poorly furnished schools, so with a lighter work load, better pay and pucca schools, they will get better results. Get the best ingredients and we will get the best dish—that’s the recipe of the “input” educationists, who believe input equals output, regardless of the process in between. So they don’t ask about the chef.

The truth is the ingredients, even the best ones, don’t jump into the frying pan at the right time and in the right proportion on their own. A chef is needed: She is not just the principal or the administrator with the right skills and adequate powers, but also the larger system and mechanisms of accountability and assessment, as well as the clarity of goals. In all these critical areas, the Act is silent. And the drafters of the model rules have left the details for state education departments.

Consider that the proposed governing body of all schools—except for unaided private schools—is a school management committee that has no teeth to take disciplinary action against teachers or even assess the learning achievements of students. On the contrary, teachers are to be kept on a separate legal track when any action is taken against them. State governments, according to the model rules, must constitute special school tribunals at all levels for the grievance redressal of this persecuted species of public servants. Other sarkari officers have to follow the laws of the land and take the jammed, potholed road to the Supreme Court in case of disputes. Teachers take a short cut, set their own precedents with their own tribunals, as the rules ensure—leaving them entirely unaccountable.

There is neither mention of evaluating teachers’ actual competencies (which doesn’t end at getting a bachelor of education certificate, by the way), nor of students’ learning outcomes. But enrolment and attendance are to be checked. All students must be in the classroom? Yes sir! Teachers? Teaching? Learning? No. No. And hopefully.

As silent as the RTE Act and rules are on real teacher accountability, they are equally adamant on making all non-government schools immediately unrecognized on 1 April. No matter how long a school has existed or who is the proprietor, if it is not a government school, it must register again and meet all government requirements.

But what about government schools themselves? Well, they are already considered recognized, no questions asked. Under this Kafkaesque logic, the municipal school running from a tent for several years in New Delhi is legally superior to the swanky Vasant Valley School.

Still, the sadder part of the RTE Act is the looming closure of tens of thousands of low-cost private schools across India. Most of these schools serving the poor will not be able to meet the requirements of the land plot, building specifications, playground and such in the prescribed three years. When they finally close down in 2013, millions of poor students will be forced to sign up at government schools they had once opted out of. Bribes might keep some of the budget schools going for some time, but with the law stacked against them, anyone hunting for supposed ramshackle fly-by-night “teaching shops”—and there are many (read: leftist NGOs)—can persecute them.

The minimum that citizens should expect from the RTE Act and model rules is the improvement in learning achievements in government-owned and -operated schools. The role of teachers is central to quality education. But teacher accountability is left to teacher unions and school tribunals. After waiting for 60 years in the Indian Republic, citizens are going to be further disappointed—in fact, their pockets would be emptier in paying for this newly christened Right to Education. Or maybe the Act’s name itself ought to be rechristened: It is really the right to employment—for the ones fortunate enough to be hired as government schoolteachers.