Time for out-of-the-box solutions

Monday, 29 November 1999
Dr Parth J Shah
Education World

After 59 years of independence, four of ten Indians are illiterate and to all intents and purposes barred from a prosperous future.

Successive governments continue to launch schemes to promote Education for All. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is the latest scheme under which the State continues to build more schools to ensure education is accessible to the poor. Yet, government schools are notorious for their problems: 53 percent dropout rates, students in class V who can’t write their own names, massive teacher absenteeism and lack of accountability, not to mention the abysmal waste and corruption as recently highlighted by the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General).

Can these pernicious problems be solved by further increasing government expenditure on education? Or should we ask the State to first uplift its schools to the standards of private schools? These are two of the questions I raised at recent meetings and conclaves held in Delhi to discuss the Right to Education Bill and national education policy in general.

At a meeting convened by the National Knowledge Commission, well-known educationists refused to even discuss the issue of quality of education provided by government schools. They believe that any discussion related to this issue is a ruse to diminish the State’s role and promote privatisation of education. And indeed, there was no discussion at all on the quality of government education. That however did not preventing them from discussing, rather deriding, the quality of private education ad nauseum.

Yet some questions can’t be perennially fudged. Why do the poor prefer sending their children to private schools when free of charge government schools are within walking distance? And what does it say about the quality of a service that cannot be given away free of charge? To these questions, establishment apologists have a standard answer: the poor are duped by advertising and want the social status that flows from children enrolled in private schools. That is the reason, they insinuate, why many of the urban poor spend as much as one-third of household incomes on private education for their children!

At all these forums, including those convened by the Union HRD ministry and Planning Commission, the dominant demand is to raise the annual government outlay (Centre plus states) on education to 6 percent of GDP, and invest more in training and equipping teachers, while hiring more qualified teachers. Well, actually it’s only one demand: spend more and more, until we say enough!

Yet quite obviously this problem requires a different analysis and approach. Municipal schools in Bangalore spend Rs.1,700 per student. Not per year but per month! Delhi state schools spend Rs.800-1,200 per month per student, and in Mumbai the outlay is Rs.900-1,100. The issue is not how much money is being spent by government, but how it’s spent.

The poor are evidently disillusioned with government schools because the fastest growing sector in education is not of private colleges, but of budget private schools. They are sprouting everywhere — in urban, semi-urban and rural areas. Typically they charge Rs.50-250 per month for tuition and enroll the children of domestic servants, auto and cycle-rickshaw drivers and street entrepreneurs. In rural areas, about 16 percent of all students are enrolled in private schools. In urban areas it is close to 50 percent and in states like Haryana, more than 70 percent of students are learning in private schools.

Private schools can play — indeed, are playing — a critical role in reaching the poor and satisfying their educational needs. Yet ubiquitous licence-permit raj makes it difficult to promote new schools and continues to have a stifling effect on education. Complex rules have the same effect on education, as was the case with business and industry prior to the economic liberalisation of 1991. Current law requires all schools to be not-for-profit institutions. Instead, why not allow schools to decide whether they want to be for-profit or non-profit entities?

The model we have used to guarantee food security to all citizens could be adapted to realise the Education for All goal. The entire food sector — from production at farm level to retailers everywhere — is in private hands with everyone working for profit. Those who can afford it, buy food in the open market. Those who cannot, patronise PDS shops for subsidised rations. The PDS shops are not the most efficient, so introduction of food stamps/ vouchers (like in the US and many other countries) is being mooted. Instead of subsidising PDS shops, the government gives ‘money’ (stamps or vouchers) to the poor directly to purchase their food from standard grocery stores. Similarly, wouldn’t education vouchers be a better way to assure quality education to the poor? Instead of giving grants to government schools which provide free education to the poor (like the PDS shops), give grants to the poor directly (like food stamps). It is important to fund students, not schools!

Innovative reforms are vital to save the next generation of India’s children from losing out in a failing education system controlled by greying educationists. The need of the hour is to think outside the box — the box of the state school and the boxed-brain of spend-more educationists.