Most of us who work with school education have been completely mystified by media reports and related opinion pieces which claim that thousands of private schools are being shut down because of the Right to Education Act (RTE).
We (Azim Premji Foundation) conducted a field study to investigate this matter. Getting valid and timely data on any such matter is very hard in India. There is no reliable repository of such public interest data for the country or the states. This holds true not only in education but across many fields.
As two examples outside education, if you wanted to know the actual pendency period of civil cases across courts in India or how many primary healthcare centres have been actually staffed adequately, no one will know this. Such data is rarely collected and maintained, while the need is acutely felt by many.
To get such data, you have to go to the relevant primary source where it is generated—that is, where the action happens. We can all imagine how much harder getting the next level of detail on any such matter would be. There are only a few exceptions to this public interest data vacuum—for instance, on forest cover and urban air quality. The near impossibility of getting authentic data permits people to get away with armchair estimation or in some cases plain falsehoods. This phenomenon is even more blatant and prevalent where the target of such speculation and falsehood is the government, because the government is neither organized nor tuned to defending itself in such matters with any finesse.
Our field study required us to directly contact the offices at the block and district levels which administer the schools, and are responsible for the implementation of RTE. The report is available on our website; let me share the summary of the findings.
The study has data from 69 districts in seven states and one Union territory. There are 34,756 private schools in these districts. As far as we could find, only five private schools have been closed, seemingly for non-compliance with RTE norms.
Aside from these closures, 7,156 schools across these 69 districts have been served notices. These are not notices for closure, but for the schools to get more time to fulfil RTE norms. Seven thousand of these notices which give more time are in Bihar, and are part of the regulatory process for the “recognition” of as yet “unrecognized” schools.
In addition to the numbers, our sense of the situation is that the implementing authorities have been supportive of schools rather than rigidly procedural. While the report does not cover the entire country, 69 districts is about 10% of the country, a large sample. To complete the nationwide picture, similar primary source-based data will be required.
The claims that RTE is forcing the closure of thousands of schools is false or ludicrously exaggerated. The tone of these claims discloses why these false claims are being made. The tone is, essentially, that “lakhs of children are facing hardship because thousands of schools are being closed”. There can be hardly anything more effective to mobilize public opinion than the deeply emotive issue of children facing hardship. The goal is to exert pressure for stopping the implementation of RTE norms.
RTE expects schools to meet rather basic norms that ensure child safety and enable a nurturing educational environment. Meeting these norms has cost implications, which a large proportion of private schools have no willingness to bear. And that is because they have little or no interest in education; they are interested only in their bottom line. These are businesses not schools, and so are expectedly orchestrating a campaign to protect their profitability and survival, enabled by a media which loves sensationalism. Certainly, there are also some public spirited and deeply committed private schools; these statements do not apply to them.
RTE is far from perfect. These inadequacies are not because RTE asks for too much, but because it doesn’t ask for enough. The flaws in its implementation have largely been of omission. Its basic standards must be more rigorously demanded of all schools, including public schools. And if this were to happen, then many more private schools may be shut down, as they should be. The majority of such schools are in such pathetic condition that the children will be better off without them.
There is a public school within one kilometre of every habitation, so every child in India has an accessible school which provides free education. Let’s not forget that learning levels across public and private schools are similar in rigorous controlled comparisons, and that almost all other conditions are on average better in public schools.
If we have private business interest in spheres of public good like education, distracting controversies of this nature are bound to be manufactured. India needs to invest in and improve its public systems; the markets cannot deliver public goods.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.
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