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On the 18th of August, Justice Sudhir Agarwal of the Allahabad High Court passed a bold judgement directing the Uttar Pradesh government “to make it compulsory to all those who get salary, perks and other benefits from the State exchequer to have their wards sent to Primary schools maintained by the Board” or public schools. The Chief Secretary was directed to take effective steps in 6 months, including possibly punitive action against “offenders”.
The judgement was the consequence of a series of petitions by government school teachers on issues of appointment and promotion. After dismissing the cases on merit, the court’s frustration with the current state of government elementary schools was evident when it referred to the “shabby manner [primary education] is being dealt with by the Department and Officers … which has resulted in multiple litigation also”.
The court went on to distinguish between private ‘Elite’ and ‘Semi-Elite’ schools and government or ‘Common Men Schools’. In the courts view, the elite, affluent and lower middle class people, sent their children to Elite and Semi-Elite schools. Thus, government schools, which catered to 90% of the population’, were neglected by the administration. The court, hence, felt that the stake of civil servants and government functionaries in the effective management of government schools could be increased by mandating their children to attend government schools.
This judgement comes at a time when government schools are in a deep crisis. Not just the elite or semi-elite: anyone who can afford it prefers to send their children to private schools. According to the latest round of the NSS, over 50% of students in primary and upper primary classes in UP attend private aided and unaided schools. This is a systematic shift: the proportion of UP children in private schools has been increasing from 30% in 2006 to 52% in 2014, as per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER).
More worryingly, learning levels across the board are horrifyingly low. According to ASER, in 2014, only 26.8% children of Std. 5 in the government schools in UP could read a Std. 2 level text. The figure for private schools was significantly higher at 61.4% - but even here, nearly 40% of children can’t read fluently.
Thus, most people (including me) have applauded the spirit of the judgement, despite reservations on its legal validity and violation of the rights of choice. However, moving away from arguments of legalities and “rights”, my biggest reservation is with the slightly simplistic assumption that forcing a sense of ownership amongst the elite and influential can solve the systemic issues that have been entrenched in the system for decades.
To be clear, I share the Court’s view that part of the problem is that participants in the government school system are powerless to influence change. But in my view, the solution is not to force people with power to participate in government schools, but instead, grant power to the people who already do.
This idea – that people are incentivised to perform better in places where they have a direct stake or investment – has long been argued by many, including the likes of Warren Buffet.
In India, every government school is monitored by a School Management Committee (SMC) consisting of parents, elected representatives and teachers. The idea of SMCs is based on the principle that local problems are best understood and corrected by those who are directly affected. Why, then, have SMCs failed?
One argument is the opt-out argument- SMC members come from the poorest families, and are the least equipped to demand better services. However, another equally important argument, like the High Court observed, is that control over purse-strings, power and hierarchy heavily influence how rules on paper actually work in reality. Simply put, SMCs do not really have the power to enable any systemic change.
Simple tasks like buying desks and chairs or repairing a leaking roof, as well as complicated ones such as enforcing teacher accountability, are outside an SMCs powers. On the rare occasions when SMCs make plans for their school, they aren’t integrated into the government’s plans and budgets. Most funding under the SSA comes with rigid conditions attached, leaving SMCs with control over less than 1% of the total elementary education budget. It’s clear why SMCs remain an ideal.
Everyone wants government schools which work well. However, it’s not clear how to reach this goal, because we don’t always understand how to get a system to work. The need of the hour is not just increased ownership or changed attitudes, but a change in accountability systems – reforming how teachers and administrators see themselves, their roles within the system, and relations with their supervisors and citizens. Without fixing the system, implementing the High Court’s order could result, at its worst, in new ways to game the system, further eroding accountability. At best, we will still remain unable to achieve the desired result.
As described by Prof Ajay Shah: In the West, leaders choose the direction of public policy. Government is like a car, which goes where the leader directs. But in India, the car is broken, and just turning the steering wheel is ineffective. “To do public policy in India, the skill required is that of an engineer and not the driver. It is about opening the hood, understanding what is wrong with the institution, and fixing it.”
The author is grateful to Vikram Srinivas for his assistance and insights.
Avani Kapur works as Senior Researcher: Lead Public Finance, Accountability Initiative at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Her work is focused on public finance & accountability in the social sector.
Avani tweets as @avani_kapur