There is little doubt that one of the most crucial tasks of the Indian state at present is to ensure that its young people receive an education sufficient to meet their aspirations. Given India's demographic profile, it could well end up with an under-educated generation if it does not scale up its educational infrastructure and effectiveness of policy. However, it is increasingly clear that the various approaches taken by the government to meet this need are inadequate to the task. Neither the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the government programme that funds school education, nor the Right to Education (RTE) it implements is working as it should - and the problem lies, essentially, in their design and even their objectives.
A report released last week from the New Delhi-based Accountability Initiative as part of the Annual Status of Education Report, or ASER, conducted by the non-governmental organisation Pratham, explains how the SSA does not even meet its own limited goals of funding schools properly. The report surveyed almost 14,600 schools across India and has discovered that 43 per cent of the SSA allocation is spent on teachers, but with no accountability built in. An additional 35 per cent goes to school infrastructure. Both the areas see no decentralised decision making; the state capitals decide what local schools need. School grants are only two per cent of the SSA spending - Rs 67,000 crore in 2012-13 - and those are the only funds that can be spent as the school thinks best, depending on its particular needs. Nor, the report found, does the money always arrive; and if it arrives, it rarely does so on time. Just half the schools reported receiving their grants by November of the year. Funding, when it arrives, is usually spent on short-term, visible projects such as whitewashing at the expense of, for example, girls' toilets - a quarter of schools still don't have a girls' washroom.
In essence, the United Progressive Alliance's much-vaunted investment in education has produced schools that are whitewashed and teachers who are paid - but those in which very little education is imparted, given that teacher absenteeism continues to be a problem, and education standards have not notably improved. As the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Abhijit Banerjee said in Kolkata last week, the RTE is basically a payment scheme for teachers and little more. It is not focused on what the children of India need; it is focused on funding the education bureaucracy. It has little space for local innovation and capacity building, although best practices in education worldwide feature decentralised decision making. The word "learning", Professor Banerjee pointed out, does not figure anywhere in the RTE. The legislation has long been criticised for emphasising inputs but not outcomes at all. As time goes by, it is clear that such criticism was more than just theoretical; empirical truth validates it. It is time for a major rethink, or the young people that the RTE was supposed to help will find themselves in adulthood without having learned what they should have. But can any government stand up to politically powerful teachers, and graft accountability on the RTE?