Comment

Setting standards for schools

DISPLACED “The cancellation of appointments of Shiksha Mitras hasput the life of 1.72 lakh families in disarray.” Picture shows SikshaMitras or para teachers staging a protest in Kannauj following theHigh Court judgement in September.   | Photo Credit: PTI

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A voucher system can be leveraged to improve accountability in government schools

Two recent judgments of the Allahabad High Court have created chaos in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) educational system. In the first, Justice Sudhir Agarwal’s >order on Aug. 20 asked the State government to create a framework to ensure that children of government employees are enrolled only in government-run primary schools. Then, on September 12, a three-judge full bench, headed by the Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, >cancelled the appointments of 1.32 lakh Shiksha Mitras (Para Teachers) on the grounds that they had not cleared the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET), prescribed by the Right to Education Act 2010. the judgment also halted the assimilation of the remaining 40,000 Siksha Mitras.

Both the judgments show the annoyance of the judiciary over mismanagement of government schools by the State government. The first decision was welcomed in several quarters, as a measure to increase accountability that would lead to improved teaching standards. However, even if the government shows the political will to frame effective guidelines, the decision will be challenged in the Supreme Court and is unlikely to pass scrutiny for two reasons. First, for a government employee, sending his/her child to a government school is never part of the terms of employment at the time of the induction. Second, even if it is made part of the service contracts in future recruitments, it will infringe upon the rights of the child to have a free choice.

The second judgment on the cancellation of appointments of Shiksha Mitras has put the life of 1.72 lakh families in disarray with reports coming in of teachers committing suicide. These para teachers have been teaching in government schools since 2000 at meagre salary of Rs. 3500 per month and many of the schools are dependent on them. Considering their 15 years of teaching experience, the government needs to come out with an appropriate solution.

Steady decline

Beyond the immediate impact, the judgments have forced attention on the appalling condition of government schools in UP. As these schools have declined, specially in the rural areas, >private schools have mushroomed, given the lax regulatory and administrative environment. The lure of private schools in rural areas started with the aspiration to learn English in the late 1990s when government schools did not teach the language at the primary level. In the first phase, children from the educated/affluent classes migrated to private schools. This class used to hold teachers/officials accountable for standards in government schools. With their departure, the quality of education started declining; soon the middle class followed suit in favour of private schools. As a result, the social profile of students in government schools has undergone a significant change with most of these schools now catering only to students from socially and economically marginalised sections.

Lack of access to government schools also led to an increase in the number of private schools. Despite a substantial increase in population, the number of government schools in rural areas has not increased in the last two decades. Private schools have filled the void. The situation was aggravated by the apathy of government teachers and the administration. The bandwagon effect has been so strong that the parents who send their children to a government school now carry a sense of guilt.

However, there have been questions over the quality of education in the burgeoning private schools. A majority of these schools in rural and semi-urban areas charge around just Rs. 100 per month as fees. Even at that level, 15 to 20 per cent of the students default annually. As a result, these schools do not generate enough revenue to pay decent salaries, with a majority of the teachers earning less than Rs. 3,000 a month. Low salaries deter the hiring and retention of qualified teachers, which then translates into poor quality of education. While some parents are genuinely unable to afford higher fees, even those with higher incomes are unwilling to pay more. The key reason this is lack of information about the quality of education in the school. As a result, a dedicated person running a school is treated on par with a fly-by-night operator.

Losing the best

The depressing and counterintuitive aspect of this whole situation is that large-scale government hiring such as the ongoing recruitments of qualified teachers, while necessary, is not contributing to enhanced quality. The best teachers escape the exploitative conditions of private schools and become part of a dysfunctional government school system where the accountability is very low.

For the last two years, Buniyaad, an NGO, has been evaluating the performance of schools based on a test in the rural areas of Sant Kabir Nagar (UP). Around 40 schools, both private and government, have participated in the test. The tests have revealed the following four important points: While the performance of private schools was relatively better than that of government schools, in absolute terms, the performance of a majority of private schools was poor; parents’ willingness to pay for better performing schools increased significantly depending on performance; with increased resources, schools were able to hire/retain better quality teachers; the incentive for performing well has created competition among schools resulting in significant improvement in the quality of education.

Systemic overhaul

Even if the UP government resolves the legal tangle, the possibility of improvement in education in government-run schools in the near future is bleak. A major systemic overhaul is required to improve standards. A voucher system could be introduced wherein every child is given a voucher/coupon of say Rs. 300 a month for the monthly fee, which can be redeemed for cash by the school. However, lack of information about the education quality in schools will continue to persist.

To overcome this challenge, the government should establish five or six affordable residential schools in each district, modelled on the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas, with an intake of around 2000 to 3000 students at various levels through an entrance test. This will not only motivate students but also act as a mechanism to assess the quality of other private and government schools in the district. Schools with better results in the admission test will potentially attract more students with vouchers, which will augment their financial resources. The competition will incentivise private schools to provide quality education through better trained and dedicated teachers.

Voucher system can also be leveraged to improve accountability in government schools. The salary of government teaches should have two components; fixed and variable. Let the government schools compete with private schools for students with vouchers. A system can be created to distribute the resources generated in a government school from vouchers among the teachers.

(M. Shuheb Khan is a researcher at ICRIER. The views are personal. shuhebkhan01@gmail.com)

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2017 11:03:56 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/setting-standards-for-schools/article7735243.ece