Published in The Hindu, 26th Match 2016
The public education system (PES) has for long been under fire. It is being painted as non-functioning, wasteful and un-improvable. The Right to Education Act (RTE) was designed to improve this system. Therefore, it is natural that the RTE will also come under fire from the same quarters that have been attacking the PES. The PES and RTE do have problems, and they need to be fixed; we need to find a way to make the system deliver in terms of better learning outcomes.
However, all the attacks which arise from private schools, their supporters and the privatisation lobby are unjustified; and the solutions that are being aggressively pushed will lead us further into the morass.
The original fiction
A lie is being perpetrated through sheer force of repetition that learning is better in so-called low-cost private schools. There are some studies that claim that private schools outperform public schools; while others claim that after adjusting for family and socio-economic background of the children, the difference is not statistically significant. Amita Chudgar and Elizabeth Quin claim that they “find insufficient evidence to claim that children in private schools outperform those in public schools in India… better data are needed” (“Relationship between Private Schooling and Achievement: Results from Rural and Urban India”, Economics of Education Review, 2012). In spite of many studies conducted more or less with the express purpose of establishing that low-fee private schools do better, there is no reliable evidence to support that claim. However, there is evidence that students in private “schools are less likely to belong to low caste groups” (Sangeeta Goyal and Priyanka Pandey, “How do Government and Private Schools Differ”, EPW, 2012), which means that they are less inclusive. Therefore, the repeated claims of better learning in private schools are unfounded.
When it became difficult to empirically prove that children learn better in private schools, the attack invented a new weapon: per unit cost of learning outcomes. Most of the learning outcome researches almost always fail to understand the entire purport of education in any depth and reduce it to learning of so-called 3Rs for economic purposes. The new claim that emerged out of misplaced confidence that all that is in education can be quantified is that the ‘per unit cost of outcome’ is lower in private schools. Meaning that even if the learning outcomes of private schools are not better than the public schools, the cost of running private schools is much lower.
This argument is completely spurious and shows very little understanding of education. The costs quoted for private schools, one, have no reliable source of data and, two, they discount two kinds of hidden costs — to the family and to the nation. Often the cost of education in private schools is equated with the fee per child. This is obviously wrong as the cost of school uniform, books and stationery, and transport, which all are under the monopoly of the school, are not included. Occasionally private schools want additional money for special occasions like festivals, picnics, excursions and projects. And they often recommend tuition for the children. None of this is counted in this cost calculation. However, the family bears this burden and these items add significantly to the revenue of private schools.
Second, the low-cost private schools often run in grossly inadequate infrastructure. The teachers are paid less than minimum unskilled labour wages legislated by various State governments. This has a devastating effect on teacher status in the society, on teacher knowledge in the education system and schools become dens of exploitation. The children see all this and imbibe attitudes that are self-centred, competition-oriented, and start thinking that ethics is a hindrance in the success of a business. Therefore, the nation pays in terms of lowered teacher status and professional knowledge, abandoning a section of its citizens to exploitation, and possibly unhealthy attitudes in its future citizens.
Of course, one can argue that the PES is no better in transmitting attitudes to the children. But PES conceptually can be better if managed well; while the private system has it in its DNA as it has to make profit on fees. For low-end private schools to do better on this count is impossible even in theory. Therefore, lower comparative cost of learning is also a bogus claim.
Associated fiction: school closure
To add to the force of two spurious argument mentioned above a new falsehood is being spread: that the low-cost private schools are closing due to implementation of the RTE. The RTE norms of infrastructure, children per teacher, teacher qualifications and teacher remunerations, all are just minimum to run a decent school. Stipulation of a room for every class, toilets and a boundary wall for safety can hardly be called unnecessary demands. Nor can stipulation of trained teachers and minimum salary stipulated by the state be called unreasonable. If schools which do not have classroom, do not have trained teachers, do not have toilets and drinking water and do not pay even the minimum wages to their teachers close down, why should it be blamed on the RTE? Actually, they have no right to run. Would we justify closure of primary health centres for inefficient functioning and allow quack doctors? If no, why should we accept these schools? Further, the claim that private schools are being closed down due to RTE is false. Recently the Azim Premji Foundation conducted a study in 69 districts across seven States and one Union Territory and found that across these districts only five schools were closed due to non-compliance of the RTE and notices for compliance had been served to 7,156 schools. It seems the data being used to propagate this canard of closure are unreliable, or worse.
Pushing false remedies
The remedy suggested for the low learning levels in the PES is to encourage the private sector. Simply put, that means provide public money to the private profiteer either though the vouchers or by facilitating their compliance with the RTE norms. The vouchers are seen as the ticket to quality education as the parents can decide to take their children to any private school they like. There is no evidence the world over of vouchers improving learning of children. In reality it is a demand for letting the market regulate schools. The market is not a just god, it favours big money; and competition raising quality is a myth. Teacher education in our country is almost entirely in the hands of the private colleges. And we all know that it has completely ruined teacher education and all attempts to improve it so far have failed.
The proponents of the voucher system forget that freedom of choice requires informed decision-making. And that is possible only when the system is fair and provides space for it. The system is not fair. Poor parents do not have adequate information about schools, and that information cannot be reliably and systematically provided. Their judgment can be easily swayed by false propaganda, as is being done right now across the country.
The strength of these canards is not their truth, but the underperformance of and resultant dissatisfaction with the system. The RTE is not being implemented either efficiently or fairly, efforts are half-hearted at best. Governments have diluted it and are uninterested in making the private schools comply with it. It was constructed to provide better schools to the poor. But they have made provisions to spare themselves. Similar treatment is meted out to almost every legislation in our country. The laws against dowry, domestic violence and atrocities on Dalits are also not being implemented efficiently and fairly. That does not constitute an argument either to repeal or to dilute those laws. The issue of quality of education can be easily fixed in the RTE. It was assumed that since the States are responsible for curriculum details beyond the National Curriculum Framework, and administration and financing of education is under their purview, they would be better placed to make guidelines on these issues. They failed to meet the challenge. Therefore, perhaps there is a case to introduce some clauses on ensuring learning standards.
However, this is the fault of implementation and not of the Act. Dr. Ambedkar made a telling comment at the time of adopting the Constitution that “however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot.” What applies to a Constitution applies to laws made under it. Changing the law will not improve the bad lot that is implementing it. It requires a proactive civil society to take them to court and get public support to implement it properly — not to, as advised, junk it.
The tirade against the PES and RTE is a classic case of giving the dog a bad name with intention to kill it, so that a wolf of their choice could replace it in the name of guarding the house.