The Essential Guide to Universal Education in India

Universal primary education is the second goal under the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. More specifically, it is to “ensure that by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”

As per The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), India has made significant progress in universalizing primary education. India is moderately on track to achieve this goal. Enrolment and completion rates of girls in primary school are improving and catching up with those of boys. This includes elementary completion rates. At the national level, male and female youth literacy rate is likely to be at 94.8% and 92.5%.

Source: UNDP

Historical context and need for Right to Education (RTE)

The writers of India’s constitution envisioned education as a fundamental right. Almost 6 decades after that constitution came into being, India took a step forward to make that vision a reality.

In 2001, सर्व शिक्षा अभियान (Pronounced: Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, English: Education for All Movement) was pioneered by then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In 2002, India included Article 21A in the constitution making education a fundamental right. But the amendment required a legislation to describe the mode of implementation. After 7 years of debate, ‘The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act’ or ‘Right to Education Act’ came into being on 4 August 2009.

As per the child’s rights under the act, no child will work in a factory, mine or any other hazardous place. The act enables children to pursue education as a means to dignified and healthy childhood. A childhood that is devoid of any physical, mental or financial exploitation.

Countries working towards universal education

As per UNESCO, most nations have constitutional provisions for free and fair education. With RTE act, India became one of the 135 nations to make education a “fundamental right” in practice.

Chile topped the list as it provides free education for 15 years of study(6–21 years of age). 25 countries including Britain, Canada, and Norway provide free education for 10 years. 34 countries including Japan, Finland, and Russia provide free education for 9 years. Countries like Afghanistan, Switzerland and China also provide support for education. India’s neighbours — Nepal, Myanmar, and Bangladesh also provide free education.

Challenges of RTE

Some of the major challenges that the Indian education system is facing today are:

  1. Lack of quality in government schools
  2. High disparity in quality of private schools
  3. Teacher absenteeism
  4. Lack of teacher training
  5. Lack of vocation-focused curriculum development
  6. Over emphasis on rote-learning (remnants of the British era and industrial revolution)
  7. Corruption, nepotism, and lack of transparency

These challenges have manifested themselves in the learning outcomes for children.

Source: ‘Assessing the impact of Right to Education Act’ by CII-KPMG, March 2016

RTE was meant to change the above situation. But the enforcement of free and compulsory education is still an issue. Challenges range from lack of political will to poor resource allocation. For example, India allocates 3.5% of its GDP towards education. The government’s major scheme for universal education is the Sarva Shikhsha Abhiyan. Under this scheme, Centre funds 65% of SSA’s costs and the states fund the remaining costs. Lack of co-ordination between central and state governments leads to lapses during execution.

As per UNESCO report in 2014:

  • ~5 lakh jobs for teachers are lying vacant
  • 6.6 lakh out of the existing teachers are not trained at all
  • 1 in every 3 primary schools do not follow the prescribed student-teacher ratio of 30:1 as per RTE act

The reason for the delay in implementation of the RTE act by 7 years (2002 to 2009) was the clause on private schools. Under the act, private schools have to provide 25% quota to students from disadvantaged and weaker sections of society. But increasing number of private schools are either challenging the act in court or denying admission under the act.

Source: News18

Impact of RTE

Inspite of the challenges, RTE has made meaningful progress in a short span of time. Indicators related to enrolment, inclusiveness, quality, and infrastructure have shown significant improvements.

Source: MHRD Annual Report 2014–15

Many of the states have been successful in ensuring that the schools meet the requirements as prescribed in the act. After initial hiccups, most states have shown a marked improvement in filling up seats under RTE quota.

Source: ‘Assessing the impact of Right to Education Act’ by CII-KPMG, March 2016

While the progress has been marred by allegations along the way, RTE has definitely brought education into the limelight. India has moved a step closer to achieving universal education with RTE. As per UNESCO, India will meet universal education goals by:

  • 2050 for primary level
  • 2060 for lower secondary and
  • 2085 for upper secondary

Admission procedure and guidelines under RTE

To combat growing concerns, it is crucial that parents and educators understand RTE. For them, here is a ready list on the act:

A. Admission procedure

  1. The Act uses the terms “Free” and “Compulsory”. The government has an obligation to provide free education to all children from age of 6 to 14 years in India. This education should be accessible in any neighborhood school, within one kilometer. No prohibitive fees or expenses should prevent access to education. This includes provision for uniform, textbooks, and special materials for children with disabilities.
  2. RTE mentions a list of schools in each neighborhood along with the availability of seats. This will help the parents who wish to admit their children under the RTE quota. In urban areas, parents have to decide on any preferred five schools in their area. In case of rural areas, the radius is 1 km. The parents will have to show residential proof or Aadhar card for enrolment. Parents can approach the block education officer or apply online with these documents.
  3. All schools including private ones should have 25% of seats for LKG or class 1 for admissions under the Act. Out of this reservation, 7.5% is reserved for SC and 1.5% for ST children. The rest has to be reserved for the weaker sections of the society.
  4. In the absence of a private or unaided school in the ward, the parents cannot claim seats in other ward. In such a case, the parent will have to approach the government or aided school in the same ward. But in the absence of a seat, parents can switch to another unaided school in the neighboring ward.
  5. Parents from SC, ST or other backward classes have to show caste certificates. Others will have to show income certificates. Families with income below INR 3.5 lakh (300,000) per annum are eligible to apply.
  6. Special preference will be given to children who are either: orphans, HIV infected or affected, transgenders, special needs, migrants, and street children.

B. Implementation and monitoring

  1. The act states the norms and standards are to be complied in every government run school. Every school should follow the standards set by the Act. These norms include prescribed student teacher ratio, separate toilets for girls and boys, drinking water provision, defined working hours of teacher, and number of working days in school.
  2. Every dropout child should be admitted in an age appropriate class. Or, the child should be trained to meet that age-appropriateness before admission. No child admitted in any school shall be held back in any class or expelled from school till the completion of elementary school.
  3. To ensure that there is no rural-urban imbalance, the act defines a student teacher ratio of 1:30. The act lays out the training and academic qualifications for each teacher. If a teacher at the commencement of this Act does not possess the minimum qualifications, he or she shall acquire such minimum qualifications within a period of five years.
  4. To ensure every child’s health, the act prohibits physical punishment or mental harassment. These are harassment on grounds of religion, caste, creed or sex. Demanding capitation fees or screening process is considered at par with harassment.
  5. The act states that the curriculum needs to be regularly updated. While laying down the curriculum, the academic authority shall ensure comprehensive and continuous evaluation of child’s understanding of knowledge and his or her ability to apply the same.
  6. All government and aided schools shall set up a School Management Committee consisting of elected representatives of the local authority, parents of children admitted in such schools and teachers. 75% of members must be parents or guardians.
  7. Each school needs to take adequate action in case of complaints or non-compliance of any part in the act.

C. Post-act rulings

  1. Supreme Court of India has ruled that the act does not apply to minority institutions and boarding schools.
  2. 7 states including Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka, MP, Maharashtra, Punjab and Uttarakhand have extended the RTE act to preschool education ie. 3–6 years as of August 2017.
Source: Photo by Pan Xiaozhen on Unsplash

Concluding thoughts

The quality of education remains a major concern. Another issue is the large numbers of children remaining out of school and failing to complete primary education. Particularly in the case of girls, children with special needs, rural children, and those belonging to minority communities.

RTE is a step in the right direction. A spirit of optimism and can-do is required to take it to the next level. But the quest is much bigger than education itself. The goal is to build towards a brighter future everyday for each of the 27 million Indians born every year. Isn’t that an idea worth fighting for?


  1. “The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Amendment) Act”, 2017, Department of School Education and Literacy, MHRD, Government of India
  2. “The Right of Children to Free And Compulsory Education Act”, 2009, dated 27th August 2009, Department of School Education and Literacy, MHRD, Government of India
  3. “Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act”, Wikipedia
  4. “10 things you need to know about the RTE Act”, OXFAM India
  5. “UNESCO report on Universal Educational Goals” Press Release, dated 8th December, 2016, Press Information Bureau, MHRD, Government of India
  6. “India joins list of 135 countries in making Education a right”, The Hindu, published on April 2, 2010
  7. “Assessing the impact of Right to Education Act” by CII-KPMG, March 2016
  8. “The UNESCO report on Universal Educational Goals, 2016”, posted by Team Bal Utsav, dated 19th December, 2016, in Education for Children
  9. “RTE Act may cover pre-schoolers too”, Hindustan Times, dated 9th November, 2012
  10. “Reservation at preschool level valid under RTE Act”, The SCC Online blog, Case Briefs High Courts, published on 11th May, 2017
  11. RTE not applicable to minority schools: SC”, Hindustan Times, dated 7th May 2014
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