Beware of those who say one thing and do another,’ says Vidura in the Mahabharata. He was advising King Dhritarashtra against hypocrites but he could easily have been referring to India’s education establishment, whose hypocrisy is rooted in many false myths. This hypocrisy will be challenged in the post-COVID19 world where only the efficient, the nimble and the innovative will survive. Unfortunately, the latest National Education Policy, soon to come up for Cabinet approval, has not faced up to this reality.
One of our myths is that education must only be delivered by the government if it is to serve the public good. Hence, private schools are to be tolerated based on (1) a hypocritical lie which forbids them from making a profit, when everyone knows that many, in fact, do make a profit; (2) the state must shackle private schools in a license raj to ensure that they behave. The myth is based on the mistaken belief that education in the advanced countries is only state provided. The truth is that all the recent education reforms in the US, the UK, and even socialist Scandinavian countries have encouraged private initiatives; many schools in developed countries have been moving towards a privately run/publicly funded model.
In pursuit of this myth, India has made huge investments in government schools. But the outcome is miserable. India’s children ranked 73rd out of 74 countries in the international PISA test, just ahead of Kyrgyzstan. Less than half the students in class five can read a paragraph from a class two text; more than half the class five students cannot do an arithmetic sum from a class two text. In some states, less than ten per cent teachers pass the Teacher Eligibility Tests (TETs). In UP and Bihar, three in four teachers cannot do percentage sum from a class five text. In the average government school, one in four teaches is illegally absent and one in two, who is present, is found not to be teaching.
As a result of this sad situation 2.4 crore children have abandoned government schools between 2010-11 and 2017-18 and moved to private schools, according to government’s DISE data. Today 47% of India’s children are in private school, making our private schooling system, with 12 crore children, the third-largest in the world. In this private system, 70% of parents pay a monthly fee of less than Rs 1,000 per month and 45% parents pay less than Rs. 500. This destroys another myth that private schools are only for the rich elite.
Based on the speed at which government schools are emptying, there is a need for 130,000 more private schools. It is a heart-breaking sight to see long lines of parents waiting to get their child into a decent school. There are three reasons for the scarcity of good private schools. One is Licence Raj. It is very difficult for an honest person to start a school. 35 to 125 permissions are required, depending on the state, and each permission requires running around and paying a bribe. The most expensive bribes are for an ‘Essentiality Certificate’ (to prove that a school is needed) and Recognition and the whole process can take up to five years.
A second reason is financial. Running a school is no longer lucrative. The problem began with the Right to Education Act, when government commanded private schools to reserve 25% seats for the poor. It was a good idea but poorly executed. Since state governments did not compensate private schools properly for reserved students, the fees for the 75% fee-paying students went up. This led to a clamour from parents and many states imposed a control on fees, which has gradually weakened the financial health of schools. To survive, schools have had to economise, leading to a decline in quality. Some schools have actually shut down. More will, after the pandemic.
A third reason why an honest person won’t open a school is national hypocrisy. The law forbids a private school from making a profit but most schools do. Nine out of the top ten economies in the world allow for-profit education. India is the only one that does not. It is high time to drop this pretence. This single change from a ‘non-profit’ to ‘profit’ sector could create a revolution. Investments would flow into education, improving choice and quality. Principals would not have to lie or be called thieves. Black money will be curbed. After 1991, parents value choice and competition. Just as they pay for water, electricity and internet, they will pay for a superior education.
This revolution will require other steps. Opening up honest private school education will require removing License Raj. Second, schools will need the sort of autonomy that exists in advanced countries. Today, barring a few exceptions, most Indian private schools are mediocre. Schools will only invest in post COVID19 technologies if there is predictable regulation and freedom of salaries, fees, and curriculum. A vibrant private school sector will deliver better outcomes for India and it will do so at one-third the cost of government schools. A private school is less costly for society because of huge escalation in government teacher salaries -- the starting salary of a junior teacher in UP in 2017-18 was Rs 48,918/- pm, or eleven times the per-capita-income of UP.
The latest education policy, like the previous ones, is likely to fail. Reform of India’s education should have two objectives: 1) improve the quality of government schools, and 2) give autonomy to private schools. To this end, government must also separate its own functions: (1) regulating education (2) running government schools. Today, there is a conflict of interest which results in bad outcomes for all. In preparing for the post-Covid world, India will need a more innovative school. This will only happen if we give more freedom to our private schools. These steps will also help to shed hypocrisy and make us more honest.
(The author is former CEO, writer of well-known books, Commentator and a Public Intellectual)