The 2009 general election is driving the United Progressive Alliance government to finally push through a long pending Bill to make primary education a fundamental right. With the Union cabinet’s approval, it is set to be introduced in the current Parliament session.
The burden of spending that implementing this ambitious legislation would entail will fall on subsequent government(s). Will that spending ensure the Right to Education Bill delivers the promised genuine access to equal opportunity for disadvantaged children? Unfortunately, no.
The gap between “education” and “learning” is the biggest concern—it is not access or enrolment but the pace of dropouts that is the problem. So, how can making education a fundamental right be meaningful, in the absence of reforms in India’s statist education sector—reforms that are crucial to improving quality of outcomes?
Both anecdotal evidence and research have told us the poor also prefer to pay—for at least a base level of quality of teaching in private schools, opting out of state-run institutions.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
True, the Bill acknowledges all this and has a stated aim to improve quality. But its approach is wrong—it seeks to do so with more state controls, when experience has shown just how futile that has been for India.
We don’t say the government should get out of primary education. Far from it. It is vital to understand the difference between funding and provision of education. The fact is that government money would be better spent if it directly provides the power to purchase education in the hands of the poor— school vouchers, for instance. The provision—or supply—of education is better left to the entrepreneurial class. It is enhanced choice that would drive quality outcomes by sheer force of competition.
The big crisis that remains is that of teaching talent. This cuts across both government and private schools in varying degrees. As a study by Educational Initiatives shows, students across both kinds are not learning with understanding—something that’s crucial to gain competitive skills.
An educational system geared to nurturing mediocrity will naturally fail to produce good teachers, as well as relevant curricula. The Bill seeks to introduce accountability, yes, but doesn’t break free from the legacy of licence raj. There’s a silver lining. The demand for accountability will intensify with education being accorded the status of a fundamental right.
Will this Bill improve access to equal opportunity? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org