Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Childhood Trials, Sept. 11, 2005

A recent study by respected members of Harvard University and others has shocked us. It shows that one out of four teachers in our government primary schools is absent and one out of two teachers who are present are not teaching. We had suspected this rotten state of affairs when the Probe team surveyed North Indian states ten years ago, but we thought this problem was confined to the Bimaru states. Then Pratichi Trust’s study confirmed this unhappy situation in 2002 in Bengal—it found that less than ten percent of 5th graders could write their name in Bangla.

Now this larger study proves that we have a national problem. Jharkhand (42%), Bihar (38%) and Punjab (34%) have the worst absence rates, while Maharashtra (15%), Gujarat (17%) and Madhya Pradesh (17%) are the best. But India’s aggregate teacher absence rate is worse than all Third World countries, except Uganda (27%) in an eight-country comparison for which comparable data is available. Bangladesh (16%), Indonesia (19%), Zambia 17% and Peru (11%) rank better than India. (The full study is available at http://post.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/kremer/papers.html.)

How are poor Indian parents coping with this tragic state of affairs? With typical Indian ingenuity it seems, according to another study by Prof James Tooley of the University of Newcastle. They are pulling their kids out of government schools and enrolling them into cheap private schools that are mushrooming in slums and villages across India. Of 262,075 children in 918 schools in the slums of Hyderabad’s old city, only 24% of the children were in government schools, 11.4% were in private aided schools and 65% were in private unaided schools (half of which were unrecognised). Although teacher salaries were a third in private schools, parents (many of them rickshawallas) preferred to spend Rs 70 to Rs 103 in fees because they found children learned more in private schools.

Mean scores in mathematics were 22% points higher in unrecognised private schools than in government schools. Teacher-pupil ratio was double in private schools, and roughly half the pupils were girls. Toilets, drinking water, blackboards, desks, and fans were in better condition in unrecognised privates schools than in government schools. Against the common assumption that private schools are run by fly-by-night operators, those in Hyderabad had been in operation between 8-18 years. Moreover, 20% of the children in these private schools were on scholarships. Amazing, the poor are subsidising the poorest to get educated!

Official data assembled by NIEPA confirms that two-thirds of the children in urban Maharashtra, U.P. and Tami Nadu are now in private schools. Hence, Jean Dreze predicts that government schools in Indian cities will soon be history. All this contradicts the Left establishment view (expressed in the Oxfam Education Report and UNDP’s Human Development Report 2003) which trashes these ‘mushrooming private schools’ without any data. It would close them down, and destroy any little hope for the poor. The lower bureaucracy takes advantage of this prejudice and extracts bribes, which average 5% of the school’s running cost. So, it is we who must change our elitist mindset. The parents may be poor but they are not stupid--they will certainly not spend their hard earned money unless they get results.

If insolent teachers in government schools leave one depressed, the revolution in private slum schools is something to celebrate. It represents the triumph of the human spirit when the state makes it so difficult to survive. It also explains why India is succeeding against all odds. If China’s success is induced by the state, India’s is despite the state. Hence, it may well be more durable.

gurcharandas@vsnl.com

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They are pulling their kids out of government schools and enrolling them into cheap private schools that are mushrooming in slums and villages across India.

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