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India is free, its schools are not – Reform must have two legs: Autonomy for private schools and quality for government schools

melgupta [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Another Republic Day has come and gone, with an unhappy reminder of the tragic gap between our aspirations and the harsh reality. For 70 years we have wanted our children to grow up into free thinking, confident and innovative Indians. But our education system has done everything possible to disempower them. It is a heart breaking sight to see long lines of parents waiting year after year to get their child into a decent school. Most of them are doomed to failure as there aren’t enough places in good schools.

Every year the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) brings the sad news that less than half the students in Class V can read a paragraph or do an arithmetic sum from a Class II text. In some states, less than 10% teachers pass the Teacher Eligibility Tests. In UP and Bihar, three in four teachers cannot do percentage sums from a Class V text. No wonder India’s children ranked 73rd from 74 countries in the international PISA test of reading, science and arithmetic.

Because good government schools are scarce, parents are compelled to send children to a private school. Between 2011 and 2015 enrolment in government schools fell by 1.1 crore and rose in private schools by 1.6 crore, according to government’s DISE data. Based on this trend, there is a need for 1,30,000 additional private schools in 2020. But they are not opening. One reason is the great difficulty to start a school for an honest person. 30-45 permissions are required, depending on the state, and most require running around and bribery. The most expensive bribes are for an Essentiality Certificate (to prove that a school is needed!) and for Recognition.

Another reason for the scarcity is fees control. The problem began with the Right to Education Act. The government realised that state schools were failing and it commanded private schools to reserve 25% seats for the poor. It was a good idea but poorly executed. Since state governments did not compensate private schools adequately for the reserved students, the fees for the 75% fee-paying students went up. This led to a clamour from parents. Many states imposed a control on fees, which has gradually weakened the financial health of schools. To survive, schools have had to economise, leading to a decline in quality. Some schools have actually had to shut down.

The latest assault on school autonomy is the threat of a ban on private textbooks. In 2015, the HRD ministry advised schools to use only NCERT books published by the government. Parents worry about the decline in quality and late delivery of books. Oxfam reported that in half the schools they surveyed in 2015 in ten states, textbooks had not arrived. Although NCERT books have improved, the old rote method of learning persists. Teachers are oblivious of wonderful apps like Hello English and Google Bolo that could rapidly make an Indian student fluent in spoken English. Educationists fear that a ban will cut off Indian children from the learning revolution happening in the world, especially digital learning, and disconnect them from job opportunities in the knowledge economy.

Ironically, most high-performing education systems in Asia have gone in the opposite direction – to a liberalised multiple-textbook policy. This has improved student performance by breaking the link between one textbook and one examination. Since Asian teachers now have access to diverse materials, they use interactive teaching methods to develop critical thinking and problem solving in students. China moved away from a national textbook policy in the late 1980s and encourages the use of multiple local textbooks to “connect with real-life interests and experiences of students in a modern society”. In a liberalised system, a student doesn’t have to buy multiple texts – many countries rent books to students and reuse them for many years. Successful Asian countries routinely work with book publishers to continuously improve textbook content, curriculum and teacher training.

70 years into the Republic, it is time to give autonomy to private schools. The 1991 reforms gave freedom to industry but not to our schools, who are still groaning under the burden of licence raj. Despite all this, however, the contribution of private schools to the rise of India is incalculable. Their alumni fill the top ranks of professions, civil services and business. Their leaders have made India a world class power in software.

It’s time that India dropped its socialist hypocrisy that forbids a private school from making a profit. In order to survive, it must make a profit (and it does!). Profit allows it to improve its quality and to expand to meet the huge demand for better schools. This single change in designation from ‘non-profit’ to ‘profit’ sector could bring a revolution. Investments would flow rapidly into education, improving choice and quality. Principals would not have to lie or be called thieves. The Indian citizen today understands the value of choice and competition. Just as she pays for water and electricity, she is willing to pay for a superior education. In a free country, why should she be prevented from paying more for a school or buying a superior textbook?

Instead of over-regulating private schools, the state should focus on improving the quality of government schools. To begin with, it should separate its two functions: (1) to regulate education impartially, applying equal standards to both the public and private sector; (2) to run government schools. Today, there is a conflict of interest, which confuses the administrator and results in bad policies. It’s time to give freedom to private schools and look forward to a Republic Day when those long lines will be shorter and reality comes closer to our aspirations.

Gurcharan Das, February 14th 2020

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