Saturday, February 16, 2002

Universal Primary Education and the Spurious issue of “Privatisation”

The bold move of the Delhi government to hand over about 30 of the worst MCD run schools to “private parties” has raised a storm of opposition. These schools are in slums and peripheral areas, where the need for education is the greatest and the quality of education provided is the worst. Sadly even well-meaning comments reveal a lack of knowledge of basic facts. This article tries to clear the fog of confusion, and goes on to addresses the broader issue of how to ensure universal education in the current environment of fiscal stringency.
The Indian constitution enjoins upon the government to ensure education for all its citizens. The courts have interpreted this provision to say that private commercial schools are not allowed. So how can the Delhi government handover its schools to the “private” sector? What about all those “private” and “government aided private schools” that we read about. The confusion arises from the definition of “private.”
Strictly there are only two types of schools “government schools” and “non-government schools.” In common parlance most of us refer to the latter as “private” schools. The flaw lies in equating “private” with “profit making.” Non-governmental schools can only be set up by non-profit organisations (NPOs) such as societies or trusts under the societies act or relevant trust act. The law as it stands today does not allow the setting up of commercial for-profit organisations to provide schooling, so the question of any school being driven by the “profit motive” does not arise.
The Delhi govt proposes to hand over some schools to non-profit organisations who can run them much better than the governments of the last fifty years have been able to do. It is extremely hypocritical of those who can afford to send their children to good quality “private” schools to rail against this effort to improve the quality of education to poor children on the specious and totally mis-leading charge of “privatisation.”
6.4.1 Universal Primary Education
The union government recently decided to make elementary/primary education a fundamental right, with the operational goal of making it universal and compulsory. Is this merely “pie in the sky” rhetoric or is it a realistic goal. The objective cannot be met by a business as usual approach that pumps more funds into existing systems of government education - namely more funds for more government run school buildings and for hiring more government teachers (who don’t show up to teach). What can a new approach consist of?
Rashmi Sharma has shown that teachers are absent from their work for 14 days a month for officially recognised reasons. Unofficial absence, when added to this, would mean, particularly in rural areas, that teachers are seldom available to do any teaching. Add to this the poor quality of teachers and you may begin to comprehend how uninteresting school is for students in government schools. In fact the teachers themselves are aware of this low quality as demonstrated by the experience of my 17- year old son in a slum in the heart of Delhi last summer. The government teacher there requested him to give her own son lessons.
And all this costs the government upwards of Rs 1000/child /year. Compare this with the cost to NPOs/NGOs of Rs 50 to 65 per child/month. There are now NPOs who have offered to take on the task of teaching at 1/10th the cost incurred by government, with a guaranteed and measurable quality of output (i.e. testable levels of reading, writing and arithmetic ability). One can now begin to get an idea of what can be achieved by a radical new approach.
6.4.2 Rural Schools
In modern economies schooling constitutes one of the most important functions of local government. Primary schooling should be completely de-centralised to Panchayats over the next five years. Each Panchayat should however be required to set up a user group consisting of mothers of young children along with Panchayat officials, the local teacher and a representative of the State education department to monitor and supervise the functioning of the school so as to ensure quality. The funds currently being spent on the primary school system should be devolved to the Panchayats along with the authority to hire and fire teachers. In the transition period the pool of teachers could consist of the currently employed teachers.
Govt should provide a capital grant to any NPO/NGO that wants to set up and run a secondary school in any rural area not currently serviced by a secondary school. Special focus should be on schools for girls so that they do not have to walk unreasonable distance from home (larger grant could be provided in such cases). I understand that the UP education authorities have successfully used this approach to provide a secondary school for girls in every single district of the State. Such an approach is even more important in the poor, badly governed States.
All existing urban primary school facilities should be handed over to Non-Profit Organisations/NGOs on an as is basis. This should be done over a five-year period (say) starting with the worst run schools. The government could provide a one-time grant to those NPOs wanting to set up schools in underserved/slum areas. This would be done on the clear understanding that they would not be entitled to any further subsidies. It would also be made clear that they have to follow some simple basic norms like free education for all those living in the neighbourhood who cannot afford to pay.
The government would focus on training of local teachers (using innovative techniques and communication facilities), and in providing regulatory oversight The laws, rules and regulations relating to setting up and running of non-profit schools must be simplified. This requires a change in attitude from control to modern regulation. Govt. should focus on ensuring transparency to parents of enrolled students and ensure that there is no financial fraud or misleading advertisement of quality of the schooling provided. These changes can transform the educational picture of the country within the next 5 to 10 years.

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