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UPSC Notes Right to Education Act: Significance, guarantees, gaps and reforms 

UPSC Notes Right to Education Act: Significance, guarantees, gaps and reforms 

The Act is completely titled “the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act”. It was passed by the Parliament in August 2009. When the Act came into force in 2010, India became one among 135 countries where education is a fundamental right of every child.

  • The 86th Constitutional Amendment (2002) inserted Article 21A in the Indian Constitution which states:
    • “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of 6 to 14 years in such manner as the State, may by law determine.”
  • According to this, the fundamental right to education was granted, and it was taken off the list of Directive Principles of State Policy.
  • The RTE embodies the legislation that resulted from the envisioning of the 86th Amendment.
  • The article incorporates the word “free” in its title. What it means is that no child (other than those admitted by his/her parents in a school not supported by the government) is liable to pay any kind of fee or charges or expenses which may prevent him or her from pursuing and completing elementary education.
  • This Act makes it obligatory on the part of the government to ensure admission, attendance and completion of elementary education by all children falling in the age bracket six to fourteen years.
  • Essentially, this Act ensures free elementary education to all children in the economically weaker sections of society.

Government responsibilities under RTE

  • Providing free elementary education for every child from the age of six to fourteen years; and ensuring compulsory admission, attendance and completion of elementary education by every child from the age of six to fourteen years.
  • Ensuring the availability of a neighbourhood school as specified in section 6.
  • Ensuring that children from the weaker sections and disadvantaged groups do not face discrimination or obstacles that hinder their pursuit and completion of elementary education on any grounds.
  • Providing infrastructure including school buildings, teaching staff and learning equipment;
  • Providing a special training facility is specified in section 4.
  • Ensuring and monitoring admission, attendance and completion of elementary education by every child.
  • Ensuring good quality elementary education conforms to the standards and norms specified in the schedule.
  • Ensuring timely prescribing of curriculum and courses of study for elementary education.
  • Providing training facilities for teachers.

Discussion: RTE act’s impact

I. Increase in Enrolment

The RTE Act has successfully managed to increase enrolment in the upper primary level (Class 6-8). Nationally, between 2009 – 2016, the number of students in the upper primary level increased by 19.4 percent (See Table 1).  In rural India, , only 3.3 percent of children in the 6-14 years of age were out of school in 2016.[1]

Table 1: Percentage increase in enrolment in the upper primary levels
YearNo. of students enrolled in class VI-VIII (upper primary)Year-on-year increase (in %)

Source: District Information System of Education

However, these national figures conceal massive state-wise discrepancies. For instance, in the age group of six to 10 years, the enrolment was more than 97 percent in Odisha but less than 80 percent in Andhra Pradesh.[2] While the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, for instance, have seen a steady increase  in their enrolment numbers in the upper primary section, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal saw a significant decrease in the same time period. (See Tables 2a and 2b)

Table 2a: Percentage Increase in Enrolment of Students in the Upper Primary Section (2014-2016, Top Three States)
Uttar Pradesh1.1

Source: Enrolment in Institutions and Schools (All India and State Wise), Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India

Table 2b: Percentage Decrease in Enrolment of Students in the Upper Primary Section (2014-2016, Bottom Three States)

Madhya Pradesh2.7
West Bengal1.5

Source: Enrolment in Institutions and Schools (All India and State Wise), Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India

To be sure, the RTE Act alone did not accomplish this feat. One of the most important contributors to higher enrolment is sanitation; there is a positive correlation between access to basic sanitation facilities and higher enrolment rates. This has led to an increase in female student enrolment as well as female teacher retention. As sanitation and hygiene improved, there was a decrease in sick days, and therefore, students and teachers stayed in school. While unisex latrines may suffice for the younger children, it is important to have clean toilets exclusively for older girls for reasons of privacy and safety. Female teachers are also more likely to be present in schools with clean toilets.  In this regard, government programmes such as “Clean India: Clean Schools” that focus on adequate water, sanitation facilities and the overall hygiene of a school have contributed to better implementation of the RTE.

II. Improved Infrastructure Norms 

Qualitative norms specified under Section 19 of the RTE Act include a teacher–student ratio of 1:30, ramps for students with disabilities, office space for the principal, provision of drinking water, and availability of a playground. According to the District Information System of Education, only 13 percent of all schools in India have achieved full compliance with these RTE norms. The reasons include not only inept management and lack of funds but also the failure to make the best use of available infrastructure. For instance, consider the inability of schools to incorporate a playground in their premises, especially in congested urban pockets. A possible solution is to use the municipal corporation ground as a collective, instead of ruling such a school out on grounds of non-compliance.

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There are many schools in the country that do not meet the RTE norms but remain the only option for schooling for students in the vicinity. Thus, non-compliance must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. It is counterproductive to shut down an educational institution that fails to meet the infrastructure norms without evaluating the reasons and the quality of education being provided to the students. In evaluating the performance of schools, the RTE Act must focus less on “input” factors and more on the “output,” i.e. the learning outcomes of students.

While all states are responsible for enforcing the Act, their capabilities to do so vary significantly. Therefore, it is difficult to set a national deadline for compliance, and states must be allowed to set their own timelines. The Centre must allocate budgets and incentivise adherence in accordance with these timelines.

III. The 25-percent Quota

One of the most far-reaching and inclusive aspects of the RTE Act is its objective to ensure equal opportunity for basic education for all children, irrespective of their socioeconomic status. While policy-level decisions had propelled previous endeavors towards this objective, the RTE Act has enabled the establishment of a legislative ecosystem that transforms ‘education for all’ into a fundamental right and a legal as well as constitutional responsibility.

Under Section 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act, all schools—private, aided, unaided or special-category—must reserve at least 25 percent of their seats at the entry level (class one) for students from economically weaker sections (EWS) and disadvantaged groups (DG). In 2018–19, more than 3.3 million students secured admission under this provision. States are allowed to frame their own rules with regards to the eligibility and income levels for the EWS and DG, further classification of the 25-percent reservation, level of entry, and the kind of documents required for admission. The essence of this provision goes beyond the ideal of ‘education for all’. It strives for social integration: its constitutional mandate is to bring children “from different backgrounds to share interests and knowledge on a common platform.” 

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The resultant cost incurred by the schools is to be reimbursed by the central government. This reimbursement, according to the Act, will be equal to either the per-child expenditure borne by the state government or the fees charged by the private schools, whichever is lower.

In 2016-17, this provision resulted in the creation of more than 2.1 million seats for children from the EWS and the DG.[7] However, due to implementation hurdles including financial allocations as well as varied state contexts, the fill rate of these seats has hovered only between 20-26 percent since 2013 (See Table 3).

Table 3: Percentage of seats filled nationally under section 12(1)(c)
Source: The Bright Spots: Status of Social inclusion through RTE Section 12(1)(c) 2018, Indus Action

As with enrolment numbers, there are massive state-wise variations when it comes to filling up these EWS and DG seats. For instance, in 2013-14, Madhya Pradesh had a fill rate of 88.2 percent and Rajasthan’s stood at 69.3 percent. The performance of these two states was in stark contrast to that of Uttar Pradesh, for example, which had a fill rate of 3.62 percent, and Andhra Pradesh with 0.21 percent. These variations occur across parameters, highlighting the need for state-specific budgetary and policy interventions.

Since India does not have a common schooling system, even without execution hurdles, the 25-percent quota system is susceptible to inequalities at different levels. Some of the criticisms levelled against this provision include discriminatory behaviour towards parents, difficulties experienced by students to blend in with a different socio-cultural environment, reliance on the private sector to provide quality education. In addition to social inclusion issues, there are other obstacles to the full implementation of the RTE law’s quota provision.

Significance and implementation

India Today spoke to Senior Education Specialist at ChildFund India, Aekta Chanda, to understand the significance of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009.

On the significance of the act, she said, “Right to education act has deep significance for India, as it has a paradigm shift in terms of education in India, it was born out of a long movement and has direct connection with the essence of the constitution.”

She then elaborated, “In a democratic country like India, it becomes essential for its citizens to receive education, and for this to occur, universalizing education is of utmost importance.”

“The right to education made it a legally imperative and put this onus of ensuring free and compulsory education for all on the government,” she said.

How has RTE improved the education infrastructure?

Aekta Chanda explained, “The major impact that right to education has had on the Indian education system, is the fact that it led to an unprecedented increase in the enrollment rate of children in the country.”

“Physical infrastructure has improved, in terms of building, classrooms and so on. However, in terms of requirements like pupil teacher ratio and so on, not much progress has been made,” she added.

Major challenges to RTE implementation

Expanding upon the challenges to RTE implementation, Aekta Chanda put forward these points.

  • Lack of financial allocation for the implementation of RTE: For more than two decades there has been a long-standing demand for educationists to allocate at least 6% of GDP to education, but it has never reached this figure. At present, the compliance rate is a mere 12.7%.
  • Apathy towards public education system: Slowly and systematically, an apathy has been established towards the public education system. In fact, it has become a status symbol in many middle-class homes these days to send their children to private schools, sending to public school is seen as below dignity. There is a need to start visualizing the public school system as common community resources and need to be owned, monitored, and valued by the community.
  • Stratified and patriarchal society: Stratified and patriarchal society and resistance to the egalitarian view that creates and values a child’s agency and perceives learning as experiential meta-cognitive experience driven towards developing critical-thinking sensitive citizens. That’s why it places emphasis on activity-based learning, the no detention policy, and other such measures, which were not warmly received.

What reforms are needed?

Aekta Chanda suggests making the following reforms to the Right to Education Act:

  • The need to shift to a common school system: Kothari commission report that came out strongly recommended the concept of neighborhood schools based on the common school system. When the RTE came into being, it omitted this crucial aspect. Although the act incorporated the criteria of establishing schools within a specific radius, it did not establish the common school system as its foundation. This implies that only one government-operated public school would be present in any area, providing education to all children irrespective of their caste, social, or economic background.
  • Extension of age: The act needs to include 3-6 age groups and 14-18 age groups. Though the NEP-2020 has given some indications towards the same, it is important to include the age group of the RTE act, which is currently 6-14 years to 3-18 years.

UPSC Questions related to the Right to Education Act (RTE)

Q1: What are the basic features of Right to Education Act?

Answer: Some of the basic features of the RTE are:

  • Free and compulsory education for all children in the age group 6 to 14.
  • Detention or examinations will not occur until elementary education is completed. However, there has been an amendment to this (as mentioned above in the criticisms of the Act).
  • This makes providing education a legal obligation of the governments.
  • It also makes it mandatory for all private schools to reserve 25% of their seats for the EWS and disadvantaged groups.

Q2: What is the age limit for RTE?

Answer: All children between the ages of 6 and 14 have the right to free education under the provisions of the Act.

Q3: What is Article 21 of the Constitution?

Answer: Article 21 deals with the right to life and personal liberty. It is a fundamental right. To know more click on Right to Life (Article 21) – Indian Polity Notes.

Q4: What is the importance of the right to education?

Answer: Education is a significant step to achieving all other basic human rights. Education can help decrease poverty, reduce social inequalities, empower women and others marginalised, bring down discrimination and finally help individuals live life to their fullest potentials. It helps improve access to opportunities for a better life in terms of employment and business. It can also bring about peace and overall prosperity to a region. Therefore, education is one of the most important rights.

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