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The right to fix your education

Can the RTE empower students and parents,instead of a bureaucracy?

Written by Yamini Aiyar |
November 14, 2011 2:47:21 am

On Friday,the Prime Minister launched the Shiksha Ka Haq Abhiyan — a yearlong nationwide campaign for promoting the Right to Education (RTE). As these efforts gain ground,the country faces one important choice: should elementary education be delivered through the current model,which focuses on the expansion of schooling through a top-down,centralised delivery system? Or should we use the RTE as an opportunity to fundamentally alter the current system,to create a bottom-up delivery model which builds on an understanding of children’s learning needs,and which privileges innovation and accountability for learning,rather than schooling?

Lets’ first understand the current system. For decades,India’s education goal has been to create a universal elementary education system by expanding schooling through inputs: building schools,hiring teachers,and enrolling children in these schools. Substantial finances have been provided to create these inputs: in 2008-09 the country spent Rs 6,314 per child (this is a low estimate,as available data is yet to take into account post-RTE budget hikes). Most of this money has gone toward creating a large education bureaucracy controlled and managed by the state and central government.

When PAISA (an annual survey of elementary education plans and finances) analysed the budgets of 7 states between 2009-10 and 2010-11,it found that,on average,76 per cent of the education budget is allocated to teacher salaries and management costs. All critical teacher- and administration-related decisions,whether salary payment or hiring,are taken by the state (and in some cases the district) bureaucracy. School infrastructure receives about 4 per cent of this money. Funds for building are often channeled directly to school accounts; but all decisions,whether about the nature of infrastructure (buildings or toilets or on procurement are taken by the district bureaucracy. Investments directly in children account for just 6 per cent of the total budget.

Interwoven in this top-down system is an intention to involve parents in decision-making through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA),which mandates parent committees to make plans and monitor school activities. But SSA has done little to empower these committees. For one,teachers,as pointed out already,are not accountable to them. Second,committees have spending powers over just about 5 per cent of SSA funds. And these expenditures are expected to be undertaken based on norms set by the Government of India.

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So,if a school wants to spend more than the norm on,say,purchasing teacher material by dipping in to its maintenance fund — well,it can’t. In essence,SSA has had a bottom-up rhetoric with no bottom-up control or decision making power. It’s no surprise then that studies have pointed out that these committees under SSA were defunct. After all,why participate if you have no control?

To the extent that expansion of schooling has been the goal,this top-down model has been effective. Schools have been built,teachers hired and the country has reached near universal enrollment levels. But there is no evidence that improved infrastructure has resulted in children acquiring basic abilities in reading and arithmetic.

Between 2004-05 and 2009-10,India’s elementary education budget has nearly doubled. Yet learning levels have remained stagnant. According to the Annual Status of Education Report,only half the country’s Standard 5 children can read a Standard 2 textbook,far fewer can do basic arithmetic. The current top-down system can create inputs but the assumption that this model can deliver on the next generation challenges of elementary education does not hold. A fundamental rethink is imperative.

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The good news is that the framework for an alternative model is already in place. Like SSA,the RTE mandates parental involvement through school committees that are tasked with making annual school development plans. Crucially,RTE entitles all children to “age-appropriate mainstreaming.” It also lays down entitlements for schools,through norms related to inputs. It thus requires the system to focus on the needs of individual schools and children,where the emphasis is on understanding children’s learning levels and building skills appropriate to their age and grade. This necessitates a decentralised,bottom-up system.

To ensure that the RTE avoids the SSA trap of bottom-up responsibility with no bottom-up control,the current financina model needs to be fundamentally altered. Rather than dropping funds to schools through tightly controlled line-item budgets,the current model could be altered to provide a basket of monies to the school and allow the school plan to determine whether it wants to build a boundary wall in a given year,or purchase new materials,or provide extra training for children and teachers.

Above all,SMCs should be empowered to hold the education bureaucracy accountable. This could be achieved by giving them some role in decision-making over teachers assigned to their schools. In a 2006 study,Pritchett and Pande lay out an innovative framework for building a district cadre of teachers and empowering Gram Panchayats and school committees to draw on this cadre,and assign teachers to their schools. Teachers will be assigned on a contractual basis,renewable on performance and paid through the panchayat or committee.

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Will this lead to more learning for schoolchildren? At the very least,such a system will serve to strengthen parent engagement and ownership with the school and encourage accountability to parents. This is a critical first step.

The writer is with Accountability Initiative,Centre for Policy Research,New Delhi

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First published on: 14-11-2011 at 02:47:21 am
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