RTE a smoke screen for India’s real education problems

Pic: courtesy facenfacts.comEarlier today, I caught a tweet with the intriguing title RTE: The Unasked Question. Glad I clicked on it because the linked article (by Jaideep Prabhu) made for a very interesting read.

Prabhu is a doctoral student (in history) at Vanderbilt University and  also the International Affairs & Security Editor at the Centre Right blog. He sees little good in the (probably) well-intentioned but train wreck of legislation that is RTE. But that’s not even the thrust of his article – selective quotes below.

On the current dismal state of India’s education system:

It has become about giving more people the same poor education than actually reforming India’s decrepit education system to produce able citizens; worse, the government is hijacking private infrastructure to do so. Despite constant reminders from industry about the poor quality of students and shameful results of international evaluations (such as PISA), there is little that the Government is doing to actually improve education in India. And the cost of this non-action? A whopping Rs. 1.78 lakh crores (though there are “assurances” that the cost will decrease by 66% within five years).

On India’s real problems (six to be precise) with education:

  1. A poor curriculum,
  2. Poor quality of teachers
  3. Insufficient teachers
  4. High truancy of teachers
  5. Inadequate physical resources (buildings, blackboards, drinking water, toilets, etc.)
  6. Use of teachers to do non-school work, such as election or census work

Pic: courtesy thehindu.com

Is it an education budget problem? No, writes Prabhu.

Lest this be blamed on insufficient funds, let it be known that despite being a Third World country, India is no longer short of money – the education budget has witnessed a rapid climb from Rs. 204 billion in 1997-2002 through Rs. 438 billion in 2002-2007, Rs. 52,060 crores in 2011, to a planned Rs. 61, 407 crores in 2012. Over three-quarters of this is slated for primary and secondary education.

Not just loss of future pecuniary benefits to the children…

This wasting away of India’s most valuable resource – its children – does not stop with merely the loss of future pecuniary benefits to the children themselves, but undercuts national growth (not just financial) in the long run. Social problems will remain unresolved; environmental issues will not be taken with due seriousness; economic questions will be slave to petty party politics; and the twin challenges of inclusive growth and quality of life will receive little to no attention. None of these can be genuinely taken up with a closed mind, an attitude that doesn’t question the status quo. But none of this is the focus of the RTE.

On the philosophy of education and paideia…

Obviously, India needs a massive overhaul in not just education, but also the philosophy of education. Universities have become credentialing offices and are seen only in a utilitarian perspective. The notion of paideia has been completely lost. To paraphrase Thomas Browne, no man should approach the temple of knowledge with the soul of a money changer. And yet, with legislation like the RTE, the government is ensuring that more people get poor and incomplete education, most probably at the cost of deteriorating quality for everyone. Piggybacking on private infrastructure as the RTE does is only a few steps away from the nationalisation enacted by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s which brought the country to its knees.

And he concludes with:

By distracting the populace with talk of minorities and reservations, the government is only admitting that it is incapable of the, admittedly, Herculean task. The United Progressive Alliance has abdicated all responsibility for governing, while the primary opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is absconding. The RTE has caused bitter opposition across the country which it would not have had the Rs. 1.78 lakh crores been sanctioned to raise teacher pay, raise teacher standards, provide better facilities, and create a functional curriculum (by way of example, I’d suggest something similar to the International Baccalaureate). If even 10% of India’s children can learn to think critically, there is great hope for this mutt of a country.

> “this mutt of a country”

Can honestly say I’ve not heard that epithet for India before!

Link to Jaideep Prabhu’s article: RTE: Asking the Unasked Question

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  • nisha ambika

    Thanks for posting this article. However, after reading the excerpts itself, I feel that the entire article is written ‘in the heat of the moment’ rather than hard based facts. I do not know who is Mr. Prabhu blaming, the UPA government or the Indian State. I agree with the objections that he raises, but I would blame it on the Indian state. A state which took around 60 years to make something so basic a fundamental right. A state which promised that it will allot 6% of its GDP to education and which till recent times was able to give only 3% of its GDP. Mr. Prabhu is hence wrong there. We are way behind what needs to be allotted and rightfully given to the education of the nations’ children. India in that sense is hardly a rich nation. If he has stepped into the nation’s schools, he will realise that schools are the primary seats of power at the local levels – villages, slums, cities etc. Not just the teachers, but the local politicians, the Panchayat, upper castes and classes, play huge games of power in schools. And that is what RTE is at least attempting to address and cater to. If one reads the right document carefully, we can see that it certainly has many many loopholes but it also has good points such as describing and laying down what is meant by quality education, what should be the method of assessment. It is placing huge demands on an age old system, which now has no other option other than to change to meet those demands. The Right brushes under the carpet, many problems that exist in the education system but to call it a wreck would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. 

    He mentions international evaluations such as PISA, and our performance on those. But those very evaluations are being increasingly questioned because they measure children from different ethnic backgrounds on the same criteria. Something similar to our current educational examinations. Something that in educational debates has been questioned always. Why have international curriculum when each country have their own curriculum, suited to their needs. The kind of nation that India is, the values that are upheld in Indian Constitution, should be the basis of Indian Education Curriculum, rather than aping mindlessly and perhaps making us devoid of our ethnic background, other countries curriculum. The nation’s children should be equipped to adapt to and live in different life situations and face its challenges, rather than learning skills and concepts that are not even applicable in their own lives. I am not saying that PISA findings do not indicate anything, they certainly do, and they inform me that all is not well with our education process, but do we need an international evaluation to tell us that. Before the RTE many children were kept out of the educational process because of their caste, class backgrounds, now they can demand justice and their right. Discrimination to them was done by teachers, headmasters, now they at least have a voice. If I had to have objections against the RTE, I would have the following main three objections. These are not new, most of Indian Educationists have raised these points over and over again: – 
    a. RTE is for children of ages 6 to 14. What about children of ages 0-6 and 14 to 18. Since both crucial ages and stages of life have been left out, we are leaving out not just a sizeable chunk but also the fact that we are perhaps doing a stop gap arrangement for the children. 
    b. Teachers- different states have different policies of recruiting teachers, which defines the very notion of who will be a teacher. From a doctor, graduate to a elementary school graduate, anybody and everybody can be a teacher. 
    c. State’s role – It seems that the state itself has shrug its responsibility towards the children. The act talks about what will be punishment / fine against the school administration, the parents if any of the stipulated clauses are not met, but what about the state. Where is the state’s accountability in the act. 

    I am not having the severe, chronic problem of not looking at the problems of my nation, myself. I see my nation’s reality extremely well, but I would not use such strong words to describe it. We all need to strive towards achieving utopia but with the realisation that there is a beautiful world existing even now. 

  • First, thanks to Vishy for highlighting my post and getting more people to think on this issue. I would consider just that a success!

    Second, I vehemently disagree with Nisha Ambika’s response, not for its content (we can agree to disagree) but for its framework. My response:

    1. I am not blaming anyone because I am blaming everyone. UPA has been incompetent, BJP has been impotent, parents have been apathetic (beyond percentages scored). This is too big an issue to blame one person or group. A national rethink is required – what educationists said in their emails to me after this article was posted needs air space. The difficulty is that between media and politicians, educationists are not exactly the most vocal group in the fray.

    2. % of GDP is not a good indicator for multiple reasons. If India’s GDP were what it was in 1990 and 6% was allocated, would that have been enough? However, if India’s GDP is equal to the US GDP now, 3% would be a lot of money. But by Ms. Ambika’s logic, the former is to be preferred!

    3. The RTE does not mention methods of evaluation (nor should it) – the IB is not legislated and yet it serves quite well. We cannot expect the state to do every little thing for us; greater autonomy would be a positive first step in fixing quite a few of the country’s issues.

    4. Ms. Ambika may be entirely right about villages – my experience is overwhelmingly urban.

    5. PISA – for the level at which it was conducted, I do not think we can bring cultural difference into the equation. I do find it amusing to see how Indians like to nowadays hide behind an exaggerated East vs. West dichotomy. Basic arithmetic has no culture, and a Std. V child should be able to read and write at a certain level. Now, whether they read Enid Blyton or RK Lakshman is not of concern here as long as they can read at a certain level!

    6. I agree with suggestions (a) and (b) Ms. Amika makes – those points have also been conveyed to me by folks who are more involved in the education policy world than I am, and they seem sensible and valid. I don’t completely object to (c) because we are, after all, talking about government schools. However, prescription of curriculum should not be in state hands beyond the broadest framework. For example, “Indian history in Std. VII should cover the following chapters…” not, “Say this about Shivaji, and this about Tipu Sultan, and such about Cornwallis…” The NCERT and its political kabuki with textbooks should be jettisoned, allowing textbooks to be sourced privately and subject to competition. But how curricula should be set is a mammoth topic for here and perhaps I can write another post on it 🙂

    7. I didn’t think I was being harsh, but if I sounded that way, it was because of the magnitude of the crisis. Assuming that India is littered with schools which have drinking water, toilets, and dedicated teachers (a VERY big assumption), the adulation of rote learning and percentage points is still a huge problem. My post, Paideia, discusses those issues in a round about way – the notion of vocational schools, fundamental inequality of ability, and commodity fetishism of a certain type of education. Anyway, to be brief, the utilitarian approach (I agree there are good reasons for it, which only compounds the problem) is a recipe for disaster.

    • nisha ambika

      Thanks for such a long reply to the arguments that I had shared here. 
      I have just one small clarification to make. I agree to your point on what percentage of GDP should be given to education. Even if we give 10% of GDP, that might not be enough. 
      Apart from that, I would simply say that my perspective of looking at things is that change is happening. It might not be really visible right now, it might not be a movement, a revolution still, but there are people and organisations that are increasingly talking about meaningful learning, rather than ‘adulation of rote learning and percentage points’. Right to Education is creating those demands. There is that discomfort, that disturbance that I see in teachers, parents and headmasters alike because of these demands. Talk to government school teachers and they will talk how they are not clear about Continuous comprehensive evaluation. Ditto for private school teachers. Kendriya Vidyalaya teachers. I would consider this discomfort a significant improvement over the ‘I don’t care and give a damn attitude’ and zombie like attitude towards teaching other people’s children. 
      Being inside the education system, working to improve it, I find that many of educationists do voice what they think. Provided we listen to the right places.

      • I do not think we are in disagreement…at least I don’t see it! Two things at play here:

        1. the public discourse to which we are all exposed to talks about RTE, minorities, quota, etc. The blogosphere talks about how schools want to get around it, fees going up, etc. I did not hear any critique of what education ought to be. However, the moment I posted the article, I received five emails and a couple of twitter contacts which basically said what you are saying – that serious educationists are indeed thinking along these lines. This is very good news, but I was not aware of it since I am not in the Indian primary/secondary education circles. So I accept your point that serious people are talking about it. My only corollary to it was that the public debate remains woefully ignorant on the topic.

        2. it seems to me that you see a greater role for the state in all this than I do. That may be a wrong reading of your comments, but that is what I meant when I said we disagree structurally more than on content. Let me explain why I have less faith in the state – you say that teachers in the KVs, private schools are talking about quality. But how much power do they have to change the syllabus of the class they teach (assuming they are qualified)? I went to a very good public school (in the British boarding sense) in India, and we had good teachers there. However, I doubt even the principal there could have decided to teach us C instead of BASIC in Computer Science class. The power lies in the hands of idiot administrators when it should be with the teachers and educationists who understand the problem.