Pratham shook up the world of education in India with its path-breaking survey in 2005, and it has now released the 2006 report. The findings of this report are striking and important. In rural India, of 100 children in the age group 7-16, the survey finds that 71.3 go to a government school while 18.5 per cent go to a private school.
The share of private schools has grown sharply—by around two percentage points—over the last one year. It is believed that the shift to private schools is driven by three kinds of reasons. First, government schools have low-quality teaching. Second, government schools are mostly not English medium. Third, Dalits and Muslims are often not welcome at government schools.
Parents choose between free government schools, which are extremely well-funded, and expensive, under-funded private schools. It is important to notice that this is a survey of rural India, where a private “school” is often little more than a few benches under a tree.
Government schools are backed by the state with massive expenditures. The fact that parents choose to pay money to send a child to a private school, when they have the option of paying nothing at a government school, speaks volumes for the failure of the government education system. At all ages, more boys are sent to private schools.
In Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, UP, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Goa and Kerala, the fraction of children going to private schools exceeds 30 per cent. In other words, spending more on government schools might not be the best way for politicians to curry favour with voters.
Pratham has also done important work on measuring what children actually learn, as opposed to the enrolment rates trumpeted by the government. The picture is downright dismal. Skills that ought to be found by the 2nd standard are often achieved only by the 8th standard. This raises serious questions about the UPA’s decision to impose an education cess and spend more on Sarva Shiksha Ahibyan.
It is unjust for a government to impose taxes, and then spend only for government schools, giving citizens no choice about how their children should be educated. It would make much more sense for public expenditures to be placed under the control of parents: going to the school that parents choose, ideally with a performance-based payment linked to the test scores of the child. The education bureaucracy will not like this.
The CPI(M) excels at converting government expenditures into party funding, by recruiting party cadre as school teachers. This tactic will not work if parents are empowered. What India needs most today is a policy which puts parents back at the centre of education policy.
If reports such as this had been produced 50 years ago, and fed back into policy-making, India might not have faced mass illiteracy today, rooted as it is in badly designed public programmes like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
The biggest weakness of the Pratham report is that it only covers rural India. India’s GDP is largely made in urban India, and the problems of urban India too are important. What children learn, and the role of private schools, are equally important in urban areas since they are after all the engines of growth.
Source : 11 Jan 2007, Business Standard