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Parents have a right to choose

Business Standard, 3 June 2007
By Anu Aga

There is no doubt private schools deliver a lot more value than government ones, so why not help parents to send their children to better schools?  

We have less than 10 lakh primary and upper primary recognised schools in India. These also include schools that are only registered on paper, with no physical infrastructure. At the primary level, there is only one teacher for every 61 students. Add another 85 million queuing up for admission and the question, "Do we need more schools?" is no longer moot. This raises an even more important question: do these additional schools have to be government-run? We might find the answer in the performance of government schools.  

Various state governments spend between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,700 per child, per month on education in government schools. Government accounts are notoriously opaque, making these figures underestimations at best. For example, government schools are provided land at next to no cost, the building is constructed by the state Public Works Department (PWD), the roads leading up to the school are maintained at no additional cost by the PWD, the electricity is provided by the state board at concessional rates, water is also free of cost, and so on. Without these huge capital expenses on the books, the per capita cost of school education is only a sum of expenses borne for free textbooks, uniforms and teacher salaries.  

Now, let us compare this with the per capita fees charged by a private school catering to the same population as a government school. In a study conducted by James Tooley and Pauline Dixon, University of Newcastle, in the low-income slums of north Shahdara in east Delhi, the fees charged by private recognised and unrecognised primary schools were in the range of Rs 90 to Rs 300.  

Going by the high per capita costs at government schools, we would expect that the facilities offered by government schools are also of a higher quality as compared to their private counterparts. Quite to the contrary, the Tooley-Dixon study also found that 33 per cent of government school classrooms did not have desks for children, 25 per cent did not have fans and 20 per cent did not have toilets for children's use. The students' learning outcomes were measured on the basis of standardised tests. Children in private unrecognised schools achieved, on average, 72 per cent higher marks in mathematics than government students.  

Parents view education as an economic leveller. They enrol their children in schools in the hope that they will be able to break out of their cycle of poverty. Government schools are clearly failing them in that regard. The lack of accountability and the poor incentive structure in government schools have ensured that both good and bad schools continue to survive. In light of these facts, do we really need more government schools?  

Tooley and Dixon also noted that north Shahdara, despite its socio-economic make-up, had more private fee charging schools than government schools. Sixty-six per cent of the 265 schools in the area were private unaided; 27.5 per cent of these were unrecognised schools. Poor parents are voting with their feet and choosing private education and not the neighbouring "free" government school. We have important lessons to learn from this trend. Although these poor parents are financially disadvantaged, they are comparatively advantaged to those who send their children to government schools. Government schemes should address the cause of these disadvantaged groups and give them the power to choose an education for their children - whether that education is government or private. In the current scenario, financial limits have rendered them hostage to free government education.  

In spite of servicing an important need of the poor, private schools are being penalised through a rigorous license raj and overbearing school recognition regulations. In Delhi, for instance, a school requires about 13 licenses to be recognised by the government. The bureaucracy ensures the licence is granted within not less than two years of application. Typically, students of most private unrecognised schools are also enrolled on paper with a government school. So, while they get their formal academic instructions in a private unrecognised school, they appear for their centralised exams via a government school. Clearly, the current system is failing the cause of education, making life difficult both for the education provider and for the student. Is it not possible for us to have an open school system where a child's education is recognised on the basis of his performance at the centralised exam than on the basis of which school he goes to? After all, education is not just about going to school but, about being able to read, write and think for oneself.  

The average private school is not an absolute mascot of efficiency either. Their pedagogy and achievements leave a lot of scope for improvement. However, this can only be possible if more schools are allowed to participate in providing education. The subsequent competition will weed out poor performance. The government needs to invest the taxpayer's money wisely. Instead of building more inefficient government schools, it should ease the licences for private education providers so that more schools are allowed to open their doors to eager students. These students should then be given financial support to access these schools so that no child is left out.  

Parents, rich or poor, are making their choice when it comes to which school their children should attend. The government can either hinder this process by redirecting public resources to building more inefficient government schools, or it can give needy children a helping hand to look beyond the limits of their parents' incomes to look to a future bright and full of hope.  

Read the report on The Business Standard

 

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