Not by inputs alone

April 1 marked the third anniversary of the passage of the Right of Children for Free and Compulsory Education (RTE). There is little argument that the implementation of the RTE in these three years has been less than satisfactory. Deadlines for the enforcement of input norms — infrastructure, pupil-teacher ratios — have come and gone and potentially game-changing provisions, like 25 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections in private schools and forming school management committees, are yet to be implemented effectively. Above all, three years of the RTE has done little to guarantee quality education to India's children. Student learning levels remain disturbingly low and as highlighted by ASER data, have in fact fallen in the last few years. This failure to effectively guarantee a right to education holds important lessons both for implementing rights-based social policy in general and the RTE in particular.

The broad social policy lesson from three years of RTE is that rights legislation, without corresponding investments in administrative capacity, is unlikely to yield results, even when all that is expected of the state is a business-as-usual expansion of the system. The main focus — and the main weakness — of the RTE is its preoccupation with promoting a business-as-usual expansion of school-level inputs: toilets, drinking water, classrooms, hiring and training teachers. To provide these inputs budgets increased, deadlines were set (all state governments were expected to meet RTE infrastructure targets by March 31, 2013) and even the Supreme Court issued orders directing state governments to meet RTE standards. Despite this focus, budgets have not been spent. In 2011-12, reported expenditure on Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was as low as 61 per cent. And not surprisingly, progress has been slower than expected. No state met the infrastructure requirements in time for the deadline.

The truth is that spending money in government is not easy. As Accountability Initiative's PAISA reports highlight, local administration in India suffers from serious implementation constraints. Funds are slow to travel through the system, staff capacity is low, vacancies are high, workloads are unrealistic and work-flow inefficient, making it near impossible to spend money and get things done efficiently. In the last few years, consequent to rights-based legislation, budgetary allocations and expectations of delivery from the state have risen exponentially. However, this has not been accompanied by an effort to deal with implementation constraints and strengthen local administrative capacity. Given this, the failure to meet RTE targets is hardly surprising. Our policymaking process has simply not paid adequate attention to questions of administrative capacity. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta has argued, legislative interventions and policy changes are never accompanied by a serious assessment of the administrative requirements — staff, skill-sets, training needs, management systems — to implement these changes. To expect results without investing in processes is a recipe for disaster. The RTE's failure to meet even the most straightforward targets is proof of this.

But the RTE's real failing is not the lack of adequate infrastructure in schools. Its real failing lies in the fact that three years after its passing, the country is nowhere near building an education system that guarantees quality education. The crux of the problem lies in the preoccupation with RTE input norms and the underlying assumption that greater inputs will result in improved quality. Even though targets remain elusive, in the last three years, the provision of infrastructure has occupied centrestage in all government planning, budgeting and monitoring activities related to RTE. But this focus on infrastructure, while perhaps necessary, is unlikely to result in learning gains on its own. In fact, the evidence, as highlighted recently by economist Karthik Muralidharan, shows that improvements in school-level infrastructure are not correlated with improvements in learning outcomes. This is the second and most important lesson to be learnt from three years of RTE — a business-as-usual expansion of inputs alone is simply not sufficient to ensure that India's children receive an education.

The need to focus on education outcomes poses a greater challenge to the state than meeting infrastructure norms. Building an outcome-oriented education system necessitates grappling with issues of curriculum reform, pedagogical strategy and teacher performance management systems. None of these reforms lend themselves to neat, guideline-driven, one size fits all bureaucratic solutions that the state knows to implement. For instance, recent empirical work conclusively demonstrates that goal-oriented targeted efforts to align curricula and pedagogical strategies to student learning levels, rather than grade level expectations, can result in significant learning gains. Autonomy, flexibility and measurement are the key ingredients of ensuring this alignment. At minimum, districts and schools should have the flexibility and wherewithal to assess student learning levels and orient pedagogy and school organisation to suit these levels. But such local level autonomy is the antithesis of the current centralised bureaucratic model. So if outcomes are to be the main focus, the state will have to fundamentally transform its mode of doing business.

The good news is that the RTE , through provisions like the mandate to create school management committees (SMCs) empowered to make school-level plans, has the potential to build an alternative education system that privileges local autonomy. However, in the current system, SMCs have very limited expenditure powers — on average, SMCs receive somewhere between Rs 15,000-Rs 20,000 annually — and almost no powers over key education-related functions like teacher hiring and retention. Empowering SMCs to do their job will require a fundamental overhaul of the current planning and budgeting system, so that more funds and powers are devolved and SMCs can make plans over which they have some decision-making control. The urgent need for initiating this overhaul is the third lesson to be learnt.

Finally, to the much contested issue of private schooling and RTE. The RTE throws up an important challenge related to how and what the state ought to regulate when it comes to private provisioning of education. Given that parents are increasingly choosing to send their children to low-cost private schools — according to Pratham's Madhav Chavan, private school enrolment in rural India is increasing at a rate of about 3 percentage points per year — the question of regulation is critical to the future of the education system. The RTE's preoccupation with inputs has resulted in building an input-focused regulatory system, which if implemented in its current form, runs the risk of closing down a large number of private schools. And while most states are struggling, Gujarat has developed an alternative model for recognising private schools based on learning-related performance standards. This is an innovative best practice that could be scaled up across the country, but it also places an important precondition on government — building a bureaucracy that is skilled to measure and monitor learning outcomes. The need to build these skills is the fourth lesson.

So does the goal of guaranteeing a right to education have any hope in India? The good news is that the RTE's weaknesses are slowly being recognised. In recent speeches, ministers of the human resource and development ministry have acknowledged the need to focus on quality and the 12th Plan chapter on education explicitly states that improving learning outcomes is a key goal. But building an outcome-focused RTE will require a fundamental transformation of how the state goes about its business. Is the government up to the task?

The writer is director, Accountability Initiative, New Delhi

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