What should be the government’s role in the Indian education system?

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The enactment of Right to Education in India for children up to 14 years of age was a watershed moment that turned education from a virtual non-issue to a fundamental right enshrined under Part III of the Constitution. With the Unnikrishnan case of 1993 providing impetus, it was sustained advocacy that resulted in the RTE legislation in 2009. Consequently, school enrollment rates soared. However, the education system still remains saddled with the challenges of quality, student-teacher ratios and gender parity.

The Annual Status of Education Report documents the appalling deficit in learning levels among school children, the issues of abysmal attendance and sub-standard implementation of the education policy (Pratham, 2016). The HRD minister acknowledged in a Parliament statement in 2016 that 18% and 15% teacher posts remain vacant in government-run primary and secondary schools, respectively. Clearly, we need to move beyond merely getting more children into schools.

The role of government in the education system begins at the policy articulation stage itself, which involves engaging stakeholders in the formulation process. Advocacy groups, NGOs, lobby groups, media, judiciary and think tanks are major actors in this process. The government should hold formal and informal consultations with activists, interest groups, experts and other concerned stakeholders to fine-tune the policy.  Over time, policy formulation in India has shifted from the business of a powerful few to a more participative and transparent process.

However, even the best policies would prove toothless without effective implementation. If the government remains the key machinery of implementation, the intended objectives would be far from getting realized. The entire bureaucratic hierarchy is mired with manpower shortage, administrative challenges, and lack of incentives and monitoring. As per the provisions RTE Act, School Management Committees (SMCs) should be constituted to improve school functioning and encourage community participation. However, in implementation, no state has spent even more than 1% of their Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan budget to empower SMCs (Mint, 2017).

The Indian government’s current education spending has stands at about 3.71 percent of the GDP. Whether or not that is adequate is another discussion altogether, but proper attention needs to be paid towards the right spending of the allocated funds. SMCs could play a major role in monitoring student and teacher attendance, utilization of grants from government and other sources, and preparation of school development plans, while making the process of fixing accountability easier. But part of the problem is that these SMCs hold no real powers of decision-making. Unless they have the power to hire and fire and to spend funds as per their requirements, little would improve at the local level.

In order to overcome the systemic deficiencies, there is a need to strengthen participation in decision-making at the local level. Moreover, implementation would improve when the beneficiaries get to monitor the impact, either through political channels (legislators) or civil society organizations (NGOs). Thus, the biggest responsibility of the government lies in striking a balance between local needs and national goals, and that is possible only through proper stakeholder engagement.

(Written by Arushi Sharma)

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