By Leena Bhattacharya, one of six GEM Report 2021 Fellows, who will be joining a panel on 21 April at the CIES Conference to present her work.
In the last few decades, the focus at the global level has been on increasing school enrolment and completion rates and reducing gender disparity. But, while there has been an increase in school enrolment, school completion rates have remained low and particularly among the poorest. The 2020 GEM Report found that adolescents from the richest 20% of households in low- and middle-income countries are three times as likely to complete lower secondary school as those from the poorest households.
During my time as a 2021 GEM Report Fellow, my study inquired whether the large-scale implementation of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, which made elementary education free and compulsory for all children aged 6-14 years in India, was able to bridge the socio-economic gap in school completion rates. My research focused on answering the question of whether the school completion rate of children from low-income families in rural India increased in the post-RTE period relative to that of children from high-income families. Additionally, it inquired whether the Section in the RTE calling on private schools to enrol marginalised communities had helped or hindered this quest.
How has the RTE Act improved school completion?
By analysing three rounds of data from national surveys, the study found that the primary school completion rate of rural low-income children increased by 6.3% due to the passage of the RTE Act, or by 4.8% for rural low-income boys and by 7.4% for rural low-income girls, relative to their respective comparison groups.
Further inspection found that low-income children belonging to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities also saw an improvement in school completion rates with the RTE Act. Among the religious groups, low-income children from Muslim families did not see any improvement, but those from other religious minority groups did. The first recommendation of this study is to increase the attention paid to the education of children from Muslim communities. This can be done by proper implementation of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.
The analysis also showed that there was heterogeneity in school completion rates by state of residence. Other than in North and Central India, the RTE Act resulted in an improvement in the primary school completion rate of low-income children in all the other regions. The result also suggests that low-income children from rural India saw an increase in lower-secondary school completion rates in the post-RTE period.
Role of private unaided schools: A possible channel?
Under Section 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act, private schools are mandated to admit up to 25% of the total number of students admitted in Grade 1 from disadvantaged groups or economically weaker sections. One question the study asks is whether these quotas might be credited for improved completion rates among the marginalised.
Using District Information System for Education (DISE) data, however, the research found that, while the total number of seats available under this quota in private unaided schools increased over time (Figure 1), less than half of the available seats under this quota are being filled.
Figure 1: Quota seats not filled at private schools under Section 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act
Source: Author’s calculation from DISE data
In 2018-19, out of the over two million quota seats that were available in non-minority private unaided schools, only 36% were filled. In 2019-20, 38% were filled. This is still an improvement from 2012-13, when 21.5% of the available seats were filled.
Among populous states that enrolled students under this quota, only Gujarat, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal filled up more than 50% of their available seats in 2019-20. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana did not report any enrolment under the RTE quota at all.
This is a missed opportunity, especially given that the effect of having a mixed group of students in the classroom has benefits for both advantaged and disadvantaged children.
Overall, the results show that while the share of enrolment in private schools has increased over time, the private sector has not fulfilled its role to help those furthest behind. School completion rates increased mostly through the public sector.