Strengthening public education by implementing RTE

The percentage enrolment of children in government schools overall, is declining every year and that of private schools increasing, as the statistics collected by the Government of India indicate. ‘Private’ has become a buzzword for ‘quality education’, or at least to making a claim to be better than ‘government’.


Privatisation of school education


Most private schools1 are similar to hotels, where the clientèle is based on ability to pay tariff. The range of private schools, in terms of their resources and capabilities is wide; depending largely on the fees paid by the parents. At the top, there is a small percentage of well resourced elite schools catering to the upper classes. These schools have more than adequate infrastructure and support staff. Teachers tend to be well-paid, and they have a small teacher-pupil ratio of 1:20 or lesser, enabling individual attention to students. The annual fees for a child can easily be in excess of a lakh of ruppees.

Private schools which cater to middle class sections of society have basic infrastructure and adequate teachers, though teacher-pupil ratios tend to be larger than those in the elite schools. At the other end, are the so called ‘affordable private schools’ catering to the poor, these schools tend to have poor infrastructure, pay poor salaries to teachers, and can offer only a limited range of learning opportunities to students, due to paucity of resources. This stratification is inevitable as private schools are ‘unaided’; meaning they get no support from government and have to depend on fees paid by parents. Good schooling is expensive; providing schools, classrooms, libraries, playgrounds, equipment for sports and laboratories, qualified teachers and rich learning experiences requires significant initial and recurring investments.

While having a range of hotels is socially acceptable, this scenario is harmful in the case of school education. As the American philosopher John Dewey explains, the primary aim of education in any modern society is to help every student develop as a concerned and responsible citizen in order to evolve a just and democratic society. For Gandhi, the school was the primary institution to build a peaceful and non-exploitative society. The increasing privatisation of school education leads to increased stratification, which promotes social inequity. The rich and affluent are able to purchase good quality education (at least in terms of disciplinary knowledge) in elite schools, while the children of the poor suffer in poorly resourced schools, which are not capable of providing quality education. Providing poor learning opportunities to a section of society negates possibilities to evolve a non-expolitative, equitable and democratic polity and society.

The middle class has accessed government schools in the past and continues to do so in areas where there are none or few private schools. However, the increasing enrolment of students in private schools, often leaves behind only students from very marginalized groups in government schools. This contributes to the further weakening of the government system, as parents of students attending government schools coming from increasingly marginalized backgrounds are unable to provide pressures for greater accountability of the government school system. More universal a public system is, more the chances of the users enforcing accountability on the system. David Kynaston puts it across humorously, “One only has to witness pushy private-school parents to realise that the state sector will never achieve its full capability without them.”

Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish educator has described how Finnish education has evolved from a steeply hierarchical one, made up of private, selective and less-well regarded “local” schools, to become a system in which every child attends the “common school”2. He has asserted that Finland’s politicians and educational figures recognised that a profoundly unequal education system did not simply reproduce inequality down the generations, but weakened the fabric of the nation itself. In our country, already stratified on grounds of gender, caste, class, ethnicity and religion, school privatisation would further weaken national cohesion and ‘unity in diversity’.

Funding private schools

One cause of the increasing enrolment in private schools, is the partial implementation of the Right to Education Act (RTE), specifically, implementation of the provision requiring private schools to admit students from marginalized backgrounds, to the extent of 25% of their enrolment. The fees of such students is reimbursed by the government to the private schools, the reimbursement amount being the government’s per student expenditure in its own schools, or the actual fees collected by the private school, whichever is lesser. Parents are finding this a novel method to enrol their children in private schools, which otherwise would have denied their wards admission. With the government paying the fees, more and more parents are now able to fulfil their desire for enrolling their children in private schools. This move appears to have unfortunately strengthened the popular impression that private schools are better than government schools, as the government itself is paying parents to enrol in private schools! Parents desire for private schools is extending even to those schools which may not be well resourced to offer good education, and may even be worse off than the neighbouring government school, in some or all respects.

In many states, especially in urban areas, this has triggered an exodus towards private schools, with parents scrambling to participate in the admission processes. In some states like Karnataka, a software application has been designed and developed to manage this process and significant efforts and time of education department officials at the state, district and block levels goes to implementing this single clause of RTE, managing government funded admissions to private schools.

Implementing RTE fully

While the 25% clause of RTE may be causing declining enrolment in government schools, the best way to reverse it, would be to implement the RTE fully, in letter and in spirit.

The RTE is not only about providing ‘free and compulsory education’ for every child in our country, it requires that such education must be of ‘equitable quality’. Hence, it has clear and specific provisions stipulating the minimum physical and academic infrastructure required in each school, adequate number of teachers, minimum teacher qualifications, continuous teacher development etc. These clauses are critical to quality education. However, less than 10% of the schools meet all the norms. The remaining 90% schools include both government and private schools.

Strengthening government schools

The RTE is an act of parliament, ratified by state legislative assemblies; not a single school should be allowed to violate it. The resource requirements to implement RTE fully, are simply impossible for the ‘affordable’ schools to meet, since they require investments far exceeding the fees that poor parents can pay. Such schools must be closed, and students from these schools migrated to neighbouring government and private schools that meet these norms. This can be done in a phased manner, beginning with schools that are worst in their compliance, and extending to schools which are less in violation. This phased process may also put pressure on schools to work for compliance.

While the RTE intended that well resourced private schools should become inclusive with government funding, it did not intend that the low cost private schools (whose costs per student may even be lower than that of the governments) should get government subsidy to admit students to poor quality education.

Likewise, all government schools too must fully meet RTE norms. Unlike private schools which depend only on fees paid by the parents, government schools get budgetary support. The Central and state governments have to increase their education budget to ensure that schools are available all over the state with adequate infrastructure and well qualified and trained teachers. This is not an insurmountable challenge, as the government can raise resources to fulfil its obligations under the RTE. Indeed, countries that have been able to provide universal quality education, have only done so through adequate public investment.

Funding education

The 1966 Kothari commission recommended that India should spend at least 6% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education. The 2005 Tapas Mazumdar committee on funding RTE emphasized that budgetary support should even exceed 6%, if required to implement the act in letter and spirit. Unfortunately, nowhere in our history has this investment crossed 4.5%. Many countries poorer than India spend higher percentage of GDP on education. While India is ranked first globally for the number of children in the school going age, it is ranked 124th in percentage expenditure of GDP on education.

Professor Jandhyala Tilak3 has repeatedly argued that the Indian economy is quite capable of funding its schools adequately. The challenge is our polity, which is complacent about the need to provide equal opportunities to every child, irrespective of socio-economic background. This is painfully witnessed every year when the budgets are presented. The 2018 Indian budget for school education was around Rs. 50,000 crores, while concessions given to corporate sector was Rs. 85,000 crores, customs and excise revenue foregone was Rs. 154,822 crore (a quarter of this for import of gold, diamonds and jewellery), and concessions for individuals was Rs. 75,000 crores. Defence budget at 295,511 crores was nearly 6 times the education budget. Meeting 6% target would not be difficult, if some of these concessions were to be withdrawn or even reduced. The RTE clearly states that the central and state governments have concurrent responsibility for funding its implementation.

Table – Government expenditure on education in India, as a percentage of GDP

Year (Illustrative)

Education budget as a % of GDP