OPINION

Schooling without learning

“School quality needs to be measured by how well children are learning, not by possession of infrastructure.” Picture shows schoolchildren in a government school in Ernakulam.— Photo: THULASI KAKKAT  

Contrary to popular perception, the vast majority of the 3.3 lakh private unaided schools in India are low-fee establishments. Only about 16,000 of them are ‘elite’ high-fee schools affiliated to the Indian Council of Secondary Education and the Central Board of Secondary Education. According to the National Sample Survey 2014, the median fee in rural India was Rs. 300 per month and the median fee in urban India was Rs. 416 per month for all the high- and low-fee private unaided primary schools taken together. There are inter-State variations, however; in Uttar Pradesh, the median fee in rural and urban India was Rs. 117 and Rs. 250 per month, respectively.

By contrast, in government schools, per pupil expenditure on teacher salary alone is around Rs. 1,300 per month. At the same time, the achievement levels of children in the budget private schools are no worse (and maybe somewhat better) than those in government schools, after adjusting for family background.

Shutting down of schools

Despite giving far greater value for money (learning per unit of cost), thousands of low-fee private schools are being forced to shut down in India. According to media reports and Right to Information inquiries, by March 2014, about 4,355 private schools had been closed down and another 15,083 had received notices to close down, affecting the educational rights of nearly 39 lakh children.

The reason: the requirement of the Right to Education Act (RTE) that all private schools must mandatorily get government recognition by complying with the norms stipulated in the RTE Act and in State RTE Rules. For good measure, many additional conditions for ‘recognition’ have been added in States’ Government Orders (GO). For example, a GO of U.P. dated May 8, 2013 notifies about 40 different conditions a private school has to fulfil in order to obtain recognition.

Simultaneously with private school closures, many government schools are also shutting down because of a lack of demand for dysfunctional schools where teachers are often absent. Meanwhile, the population of children who are of school-going age is rising by 3.8 per cent per year, according to the Censuses of 2001 and 2011.

This situation where both private and government schools are shutting even as more children are going to school has created a national crisis. It has also created a paradox: an Act that vows to promote children’s right to education is itself potentially violating the same. It is also violating fee-paying children’s right to attend a school of their choice.

Consider Lucknow, for instance. As per official District Information System for Education (DISE) data, between 2010 and 2014, the number of government schools in urban Lucknow fell from 407 to 289. This is far from what is mandated by Section 6 of the RTE Act: government schools are to be established in all neighbourhoods. Thirty one of the 110 wards of urban Lucknow have no government or aided school, and mean ward population is 38,000 people. The government closed down 118 of its own schools. In this scenario of an inadequate number of government schools, the district education authorities ordered 108 non-recognised private unaided schools to also close down, as reported in detail by Lucknow’s Amar Ujala on August 31, 2015.

The text of the closure notice issued to private schools suggests abdication of government responsibility. It says (translated from Hindi): “… You are directed to stop the operation of the unrecognised classes immediately, and ensure that the displaced children are admitted in the nearest government or recognised private school, and to inform this office within three days.”

But what if the manager does not discharge that responsibility? What if there is no government school nearby? What if there are no vacant seats in the nearby government school? What if the fee of the nearby private schools is higher and unaffordable to the displaced children? Twenty per cent of the 108 schools had closed down citing “the penalty of Rs. 10,000 per day, which we could not afford.”

Meanwhile, as the DISE data show, a high proportion of the government schools themselves do not fulfil the norms and standards of the RTE Act, but are not obliged under the Act to be closed down. At one level, this is discriminatory, at another it is cynical: if the Act’s framers believed these norms to be quality-enhancing, then why was it not necessary for government schools (where 70 per cent of the poorest children study) to also comply with the norms as private schools do? Are the comfort, safety and quality of education of the 70 per cent of the poorest children not as important as those of children in the private schools?

As it happens, parents are delivering a judgment on the relative quality of private and government schools by voting with their feet. Public schools are emptying due to migration towards private schools. DISE data show that between 2010 and 2014, total enrolment in government elementary schools fell by 1.16 crore students while total enrolment in private school increased by 1.85 crore students.

Low levels of teacher accountability and low student-learning levels have caused parents to desert publicly funded schools. In 2014-15, there were nearly 97,000 government schools in India with a total enrolment of 20 or fewer students. With a pupil-teacher-ratio of 6 to 7 students per teacher, and a total salary bill of Rs. 9,600 crore per annum, these are grotesquely inefficient and unviable small schools. It is no wonder that Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh closed down 23,900 such tiny government schools during 2014-15.

The shambolic and emptying government schools should breed some embarrassment and perhaps a modicum of humility among education authorities, and lead them to admire the low-fee private schools which produce higher learning outcomes among children at less than 20 per cent of the per-pupil cost of government schools. Instead of closing them down, they should take a facilitative approach towards these high value-adding low-fee private schools.

Denying children their right

The closure of private schools without adequate safeguards for the admission of the displaced children in other nearby schools should also wake up child protection agencies to the danger of the likely denial of children their right to education. Shutting down private schools on the pretext of some infrastructure norms that have a dubious connection with school quality is unhelpful. School quality needs to be measured by how well children are learning, not by possession of infrastructure; private and public schools where learning is good should be allowed to run, while at the same time encouraging and even helping them to become compliant with the infrastructure norms.

A Right to Quality Education Act needs to be enacted, to underscore the importance of ensuring learning. It should give central attention to teacher accountability. Second, it should give attention to the use of the power of financial incentives (for instance, making government and aided schools’ funding either through a voucher or a per-student grant such that the school loses funding if student numbers fall, as happens in OECD countries). Third, it should give attention to using the power of parental information about the quality of different schools in their town or city, so parents can exit schools where learning is low, thereby giving poorly performing schools an incentive to make more of an effort to retain students. Finally, there should be strengthening of teachers’ subject-matter knowledge via restructured teacher training. Anything other than a singular focus on learning, buttressed with a Right to Quality Education Act, will squander the life chances of millions of Indian children.

(Geeta Gandhi Kingdon is Chair of Education Economics and International Development at University College London.)