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Are private schools better?

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

If private schools are indeed better, as Aser says, and cost a lot less than government ones, involving them in programmes like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act may be a good idea

Vinod RainaVinod Raina
Member, Central Advisory Board of Education

Nowhere in the world has universal elementary education been achieved through private schools — how can India be an exception?

The advocacy in some quarters to start using the central and state governments to fund the education of children in cheap, unrecognised private schools, even as the country is on the threshold of notifying the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, is either a consequence of ignorance, or an ideological campaign for privatisation of elementary education.

Two facts need to be kept in mind while dealing with this somewhat redundant demand at this stage. One, 80 per cent of the schools that impart elementary education in the country are run by the government; the remaining 20 per cent comprise aided private schools, recognised private schools and a proportionately minuscule number of cheap, unrecognised private schools. Two, the Right to Education Act, once notified, will not allow any unrecognised private school to function.

Parliament, through the Right to Education Act, has decided that eight years of elementary education is a fundamental right of all children in the 6-14 age group, and as per article 21A of the 86th amendment to the Constitution, it is the state that is obliged to provide this.

It is inconceivable that the garage shop unrecognised private schools — mostly an urban and semi-urban phenomenon — can be entrusted with this task by the state, once provided with funds. All the more so because Section 8 of the Right to Education Act clearly states that if a child is admitted by his/her parents to a school other than one established by the government, he/she shall not be entitled to make a claim for reimbursement of expenditure for elementary education from the government.

The Act, through an attached schedule, also lays down norms and standards that all schools, government or private, shall have to adhere to it within three years of its notification. It also makes it mandatory, under Section 19(1), that all private schools obtain recognition under these norms, failing which, under Section 19(5), a school can be fined Rs 1 lakh and, subsequently, Rs 10,000 for each day of contravention.

This implies that after three years from the time of the notification of the Act, only recognised private schools can exist — the unrecognised private schools running at present will either have to come up to the prescribed norms and standards for recognition, or close shop. However, all recognised private schools shall have to admit 25 per cent of students from disadvantaged sections in their neighbourhood for free education, and the government shall reimburse to the school at a rate which is equal to the per-child expenditure or the fee charged by the school, whichever is less.

This clause in the Act, intended as a measure to promote common schooling and social integration of children, does provide a modicum of funding from the state to the recognised private schools — but it cannot be higher than the per-learner cost by the respective governments.

The fear that this will spur the proliferation of cheap private schools is not valid, since in order to meet the norms and standards prescribed by the Act, cheap schools will have to invest in infrastructure and teaching personnel.

That a survey has found that their “quality” is better than that of government schools to a perceived difference in some test questions administered by an agency, apart from being contestable, constitutes at best a reductionist notion of education of equitable quality that the National Curriculum Framework 2005 (NCF) has suggested for the elementary stage. The argument that the results of such a survey should lead to a policy framework that supports government funding to these schools through vouchers has little backing from within the framework of education of equitable quality, which, apart from NCF 2005, also forms the basis of the statement of aims and objects of the Right to Education Act.

The provisions of the Right to Education Act, unless challenged in a court should end the debate about cheap unrecognised schools. History tells us that it is not an ideological debate, since no country in the world has achieved universal elementary education through private schools. Therefore, the demand that India should be an exception to this is ahistorical and illogical, to say the least.

The author is also general secretary, Bharatiya Gyan Vikas Samiti

Parth J ShahParth J Shah
President, Centre for Civil Society

It is in recognition of the merit of private schools that the Act says they must reserve seats for the poor. Why not give students a 100 per cent choice?

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act entrusts the government with the responsibility to ensure that every child gets quality education in India. Does this mean that every child has to go to a building called “government school”? Is the school’s ownership really critical to assuring education? Does it really matter to parents and children where they get quality education?

The government guarantees education but this need not be achieved only through government schools. Sadly, many believe that schools have to be built, owned and operated by the government. These educationists seem to have turned a blind eye to the changing reality of the education landscape in India.

Parents are getting tired of teachers’ absenteeism and lack of accountability in government schools where 52 per cent of class-five students can’t even read to match up to the level of class-two (Annual Status of Education Report, 2009). They are increasingly rejecting free government schools and choosing fee-charging private schools. The Aser 2009 report shows that close to 22 per cent of children in rural India attend private schools. This number is much higher in urban areas with states like Punjab and Haryana at the forefront, where two out of every three children attend private school.

Most of these children study not in elite schools but in budget private schools in poor neighbourhoods. These schools charge an average fee of Rs 70-150 per month in rural areas, and up to Rs 350 per month in urban areas. The budget private schools are the fastest-growing segment in India’s education ecosystem.

Should government undermine or support the choices that the poor are making with their hard-earned money? The aam aadmi government should support the aam aadmi. There are three good reasons for this. One, private schools provide better education; two, they are more cost-effective; and three, they are more accountable and responsive to parents. These schools also offer English-medium schooling that is preferred by parents today.

Studies by Geeta Kingdon, James Tooley and Aser 2009 suggest that private schools indeed provide better education, though the extent of the difference in quality varies in the studies. Private school students have as much as a 41 per cent advantage in English as compared to government school students even when adjusted for socio-economic and other factors (Aser 2009).

As for the cost-effectiveness, there is hardly any debate. It has been widely established by researchers from across India, such as SM Kansal for Delhi, SC Jain for Gujarat, R Govinda and NV Varghese for Madhya Pradesh and Geeta Kingdon for Uttar Pradesh, that per-pupil expenditure in budget private schools is vastly below that of state schools. A major difference stems from the fact that salaries of teachers in private unaided schools are four- to-seven times lower than that of government schools.

Private schools provide relatively better quality education at a much cheaper cost. How should government respond to this reality? The answer is simple: Fund students, not schools! Public money should follow the child, not the school, through school vouchers. The school that the parents and students choose should get the funding. The government should fix an amount that it wants to spend on every student, and transfer funds to schools in relation to the number of students enrolled. Instead of current lump sum funding, the state schools would receive their grant depending on the number of students they attract and retain.

Under this “student first” (as opposed to “school first”) system of financing, all schools will compete for all children, rich and poor, and all schools will be accountable to all parents, rich and poor. This would enhance parental choice which would further healthy competition among schools, both government or private, and improve their quality.

The new Act already recognises this reality and offers 25 per cent of seats in private schools to government-sponsored poor students. Wouldn’t it be better if the other 75 per cent of the poor children also had similar choice? We would then move from the Right to Education to what would actually assure quality education for all, the Right to Education of Choice.

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First Published: Wed, February 03 2010. 00:45 IST