Regression and Reform: India’s Education System

In 1976, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi added the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ to the existent description of India as a ‘sovereign democratic republic’; yet, each one of these aspects has been disregarded by governments in the past as well as the present. The preamble may declare India to be a socialist country, but the nation has failed to deliver basic services such as education and healthcare to its masses.


Even as capitalist a country as the US provides its populace with free public schooling. In contrast, supposedly socialist India is unable to provide education to its children. As Pranab Mukherjee, the deceased former president of India said, “education is the true alchemy that can bring India its next golden age.” India, currently in its youth-bulge phase, has 600 million citizens under the age of 25. The education of these citizens can and should be India’s catalyst for economic, social and political growth.

The socio-economic benefits of education outweigh its costs. Girls with no schooling or only primary education are much more likely to be victims of child marriage than girls who have completed secondary or higher education. In fact, the pervasiveness of child marriage in girls with no education is 30.8%, while the prevalence amongst girls who have received higher education is only 2.4%. Bearing in mind the fact that more than 1 out of 4 Indian child brides become teenage mothers, providing girls with education could help solve the problem of child marriage, which would subsequently combat teenage pregnancy and high infant mortality rates. Education could also reduce the rampancy of child labour, while also reducing rates of preventable diseases.

How is education legislated in India? What is RTE?


Education in India is positioned under the concurrent area of legislation, which implies that both the central government in Delhi and the state governments individually can form laws on the subject. Generally, schools are administered by the state department of education, while the central government dictates overall guidelines and policy. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) oversees the education and literacy of the entire country.


India has three kinds of schools: private unaided schools, private aided schools, and government-funded and government-run public schools. According to data from the Indian Education Ministry, 75% of all Indian schools are government-owned, and approximately 65.2% of all school students in 20 states go to these government schools.


The RTE, or the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, is a national act that establishes certain parameters, procedures and standards for both private and public schools in India to follow. The act places a primary emphasis on the idea of ‘education for all’ by dictating that every child between the age of 6 to 14 must be eligible to receive free education in India.


Despite an elaborate legislative channel and an act that on the surface assures free education to all children, Indian children are still struggling to obtain the education promised to them. The most adversely affected are the children who live in rural areas, who make up 73% of the Indian youth. 90% of the schools in these areas are government-run public schools that struggle with untrained teachers and poor infrastructure, and fail to meet the standards set by the RTE.


What is the problem?


The RTE is poorly drafted. It is unclear and repetitive. According to the District Information System of Education, as of 2016, only 13% of all Indian schools achieved compliance with the RTE norms.


The RTE that was created to improve access to education, has instead limited access to education for thousands of students. Schools that do not follow the standards that are set by the RTE are forced to shut down, and in several cases, these schools were the only option that children had to receive an education. For instance, in the state of Punjab, 933 schools have been closed, and 219 schools are facing closure. If even 200 students attended each of these schools, their closure amounts to 230,400 students either unable to attend a school of their choice or unable to receive an education at all. The issue with this idea is that despite the schools shutting down, the officers in charge of the schools are not being held accountable. There is no deterrent and no consequences for the officers in charge, it is ironically only the students who suffer.


The RTE has failed spectacularly. Despite the cry of ‘education for all children’, total enrolment as of 2016 in public schools was only 1% higher for elementary schools, and 2% higher for secondary schools, in comparison with the datums of the year 2000. An issue consistent with every facet of criticism for the act is state-wise discrepancies. Data from 2016 reveals that enrollment decreased in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal.


The act has misguided provisions that may be well-meaning but are highly damaging. The RTE mandates a 25% quota to be reserved at the entry level of educational institutions for students from economically weaker sections (EWS) and disadvantaged groups (DG). The law states that the central government must reimburse schools for the costs incurred due to this quota, by either paying schools’ per-child expenses, or the fees charged, whichever is lower. However, this exists only on paper. There are several state-wise inconsistencies with respect to how effectively this has been followed. In 2013-14, Madhya Pradesh filled 88.2% of the 25% proportion and Rajasthan filled 69.3% while states like Uttar Pradesh satiated only 3.62% and Andhra Pradesh 0.21%. The effectiveness of an act can only aptly be judged by its impact on the nation as a whole, and thus while the RTE may look appealing and successful to certain parts of the country, more holistically it is difficult to proclaim its fruitfulness.


Apart from the lack of fulfilment, there lies another issue with the quota system. The RTE does not explicitly draw out any common methodology of reimbursement to be followed by states. In order for the quotas to be appealing and acceptable to private and public schools, the methodology undoubtedly needs to be more streamlined and universal. In Maharashtra, the compensation is calculated by dividing the amount spent by the government on the students by the number of students, but in Tamil Nadu, it is calculated by the Regulation of Collection of Free Committee as a fixed fee. This variation incentivises schools of certain states where schools receive higher compensation. However, in states like Uttar Pradesh, where the expenditure per child is rupees 3064 but only rupees 450 is compensated, schools are disincentivised to fill the quota, evident from the aforementioned 3.62% quota accomplishment rate.


The RTE has not addressed the fundamental issue of the lack of quality in Indian education. According to the Annual Status of Education Report, in 2018 55% of fifth-grade children in public schools could not read a second-grade textbook. A statistic like this can unquestionably be attributed to the quality of teachers available, and subsequently the effectiveness of their pedagogies. As of 2015-16, of the 6.6 million teachers employed at the elementary level, 1.1 million were untrained, 512,000 of which were educators in public schools. According to the Annual Status of Education Report 2018, in some states, less than 10% of the teachers actually pass the teacher eligibility tests.


Furthermore, infrastructure in government schools is also not only minimal but also unacceptably inexistant. In 2018-19 only 28% of all government schools had computers, and only 12% had an internet connection. Despite the BJP government’s campaign for a ‘digital India’, little progress has been made to modernise and technologically equip government schools.


Education in the pandemic


The pandemic has deeply, and perhaps irreversibly, increased educational inequity in India. Over 1.5 million schools have closed down, depriving 6 million children of basic education. The government has been preoccupied with one issue after another such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the migrant crisis, the farmer protests and state elections.

The RTE and the new education policy have no provision for combating this crisis. The pandemic has proven that socialism is an empty slogan chanted by the Indian political elite. Private schools have adopted online classes and virtual learning. However, only 23% of all Indian household have access to a computer, a figure that drops to only 4% amongst the rural population of India. For rural India which is struggling with the migrant crisis and unemployment, education is ranks lowly on the priority list. 80% of government school students have received no education since the pandemic began. Furthermore, despite the government broadcasting certain classes on television for students, several students have been unable to access this due to poor infrastructure in their homes. Over 200 million Indians do not own a television, phone or radio. Additionally, this form of teaching and learning has proved optional, un-interactive, and difficult to grasp for several students around the country.


What can India do to fix this?


India, as of 2020, spent only 3.1% of its GDP on public education, despite every national policy since 1968 recommending a figure of 6%. This figure is in stark contrast with other developing countries such as South Africa, which spends 6.5% of its GDP on education, and Brazil, which spends 6.3% (as of 2017). Even monetarily rich states such as Delhi do not have adequate funds to hire enough permanent teachers. The government of India needs to spend more on building better infrastructure and training teachers to make them competent enough to lead the future of India well.

The teacher recruitment process needs to be made less corrupt so that competent teachers can teach at schools and teacher absenteeism can be mitigated. A nationwide study on absenteeism revealed that the teacher absence rate in rural India is 23.6%. This issue needs to be addressed by increasing teacher accountability, while still ensuring that teachers are not micro-managed and are free to adopt different pedagogical approaches.

The control and accountability of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers in the education sector also need to be assessed. These officers generally have no background knowledge or experience in the education sector, which makes it easier for them to mismanage tax-payer money. They do not send their own children to government schools, which sometimes disincentivises them to work on providing adequate quality of education for other children. Furthermore, there is no bottom-up accountability in the education system. The voices of parents must be heard, and their suggestions and issues addressed.


Instead of building more schools in remote parts of India, if the government of India used those funds to improve internet facilities and make online education more accessible for students even in rural areas, perhaps this would ensure better use of money by warranting a ‘quality over quantity approach’. 13,500 villages in India do not have schools; building schools in each of these villages could take decades, but providing these villages with an internet connection would take only a few years at most. The online education model has worked successfully in adequately funded private schools around the world, and if the technology is made available to rural India as well, perhaps the government could save millions.


Lastly – accountability. The government needs to establish accountability for schools that do not comply with RTE standards. Deterrence and fear of culpability could drastically incentivise schools to work harder towards building a better, more efficient and prosperous education system.


India needs educational reforms now more than ever. With the pandemic putting millions of young minds out of school, the government needs to make education a priority in order to fulfil the promises of sustainable economic prosperity. India must strive to build itself into a nation where government ministers such as Devendra Fandavis and Uddhav Thackerey are not unwilling to send their offspring to public government schools, and where ‘education for all’ really is a reality.