Recent reports from India show that the country is grappling with several issues surrounding the implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, also known as the Right to Education Act (RTE). RTE was signed into law in 2009 with the aim of providing every child between the ages of 6-14 with a high quality, compulsory education. Yet, as outlined below, the country’s efforts to comply with the law have brought to light various issues that have hindered an already confusing and complicated process.
The apparent first step in the effort to educate all children involves enrolling them in school. In some parts of the country, such as Navi Mumbai, 80% of public school seats remain unoccupied. The Times of India quoted one official as saying that last year only a handful of the over 3,000 available private school seats had been filled. The Indian Express noted the particular concerns raised by parents of nursery school children, as well as children with special needs. As one Delhi school principal shared, “In totality, there are no dearth of seats in city schools. But when everyone is looking to get their children into the ‘so-called best schools’ in the city, it is then we have a problem. And frankly, the problem will continue till the problem of supply and demand is solved.”
Reports from areas such as Aurangabad show that private schools, which are legally required to designate 25% of their highly coveted seats to disadvantaged students, are finding ways to bypass this requirement. By altering the application schedule, or failing to post admission dates in public spaces, and in some cases even creating illegal admission tests or enrolling fictitious students, these private schools violate the RTE. As a result, civic organizations are taking up the effort to disseminate information to parents, and the government has promised strict oversight of admission procedures. However, this year the government has also transferred the admission process online, which raises questions about how those who are illiterate and/or do not have access to the internet will be able to apply for school admission at all (some reports indicate that this online system is purposely intended for “unaided,” or private, non-minority schools). Reports from Chennai show that the government has declared only a one week time period for enrolment, which would further hinder the process and is contrary to the spirit of the RTE.
Even with these enrolment issues, some reports point to a drastic increase in applications from urban poor families, from 140,000 last year to 360,000 for next year. As more and more families seek to enroll their children in school, the standard lottery admission process has proven tedious and contributed to an increase in complaints. Many of the complaints derive from the lack of transparency, which has led some parents to apply to a number of schools to increase the changes of their child getting in.
Once students are enrolled in school, concerns arise about what goes on inside of schools. On this topic, reports point to schools’ lack of compliance in terms of infrastructure and teacher training. According to dnaindia.com, only 59.67% of students are in schools that have met the teacher student ratios outlined in RTE. Further, while RTE mandates that all teachers in the country be trained by 2015, India has 660,000 untrained teachers and 500,000 vacant positions.
Student attendance is an additional concern, as The New Indian Express reports that the Education Department in Karnataka has called for an RTE amendment that would establish an authority to maintain attendance records, notifying the parents of absent children. A recent article in The Times of India, quotes Ossie Fernandes, director of Human Rights Foundation (HRF), as saying, “there is no auditing…to check whether RTE is implemented.” Fernandes went on to suggest that if government and private schools are serious about implementing RTE, they should be open to independent school inspections.
Yet, some say that India must first address the larger issue of childhood poverty and slavery, which has forced many children into the workplace rather than the classroom. According to the recent Global Slavery Index, India is home to half of the world’s modern slaves. Despite the government’s 2012 ban of all types of child labor under the age of 14, little has changed in the past two years. With a poverty rate of approximately 25%, and more than 50% of the population under the age of 25, a recent editorial in The Nation suggests that implementation and enforcement of either the child labor law or the RTE will require the ratification of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182.