Saturday, April 03, 2010

Don’t close down budget schools, give them graded recognition

Unrecognised private schools, which cater to the poor in the slums and villages of India, have been under threat for a long time. With the passage of the Right to Education Act the threat is now real. The new law specifically calls for these schools to be closed or recognized within three years. In 2008, the Delhi High Court in 2008 had also wanted to close roughly 10,000 such schools in the national capital.

The reason why budget schools do not get recognition is because they do not meet standards—for example, they do not have a playing field of a certain size or they cannot pay the minimum government teacher’s salary--which is over Rs 20,000 a month after the Sixth Pay Commission. If they had to pay this salary or have such a playing field, they would have to quadruple their fee and the poor would no longer be able to afford it.

Unrecognised private schools are successful because teachers are accountable to parents who can move their child to a competing school if they are not satisfied. In a government school there is little accountability as teachers have permanent jobs with salaries and promotions unrelated to performance. Hence, one in four government primary teachers is absent and one in four who is present but found not to be teaching. This horrendous situation is obvious to the poorest parent.

No one knows how many unrecognized schools exist in India but estimates range in the lakhs. To want to close down institutions that serve communities and meet a gap in the supply of education seems bizarre and even immoral. The government’s answer is that these schools are of poor quality. This means that it thinks that millions of parents who send children to these inferior schools must be stupid. Why would parents pay hard earned income when a child could be educated free and get a free mid-day meal in a government school? The government’s answer is that parents are duped by ‘unscrupulous elements’. It is the command mindset—‘I know what is good for you!’ You can fool some people some of the time, they say, but not all the people all the time. Lakhs of private schools cannot enrol millions of children for decades unless they meet a genuine need. The irony is that while sending its own children to private schools, the establishment stridently opposes a similar choice for the poor.

Why is it that we do not trust private initiative in education? Even eminent persons like Amartya Sen, who believe in the efficiency of the market, draw a line when comes to delivering education privately. Our animus against the market may have diminished considerably after liberalization in 1991 and the fall of communism, but most Indians still suspect capitalism. People increasingly believe that markets deliver prosperity but they do not think that capitalism is moral. Even those who work inside the system feel guilty and do not value what they do.

Greater reflection will show that human self-interest goes a long way in ensuring good behaviour in a competitive marketplace. A seller who does not treat his customers with fairness and civility will lose market share. A company that markets a defective product will quickly lose its reputation and its customers. False claims will lower sales. A firm that does not promote the most deserving employees will lose talent to its competitors. A purchase manager who does not buy at the right price will soon make his company uncompetitive and it will not survive. Lying and cheating will ruin a firm’s image, making it untouchable to creditors and suppliers. Hence, the free market does offer powerful incentives for ethical conduct backed, of course, by state institutions that enforce contracts and punish criminal behaviour.

I used to believe that government schools were the only answer for universal education. Then I read interviews with parents in slums about why they had removed their children from government schools with better facilities. The answer in most cases was that teachers did not show up, and when they did, they were not interested in teaching. Parents felt helpless and could do nothing because teachers only felt responsible to superiors in the state capital. Moreover, parents wanted children to learn English and computers, but teachers were either indifferent or incompetent to meet this demand. Budget private schools may do bad job of teaching English, but at least they try. Teachers are more motivated, and there is the ever present threat of losing the child to a competitive school. Now I understand why more than half the children in India’s cities and a quarter in India’s villages are in private schools.

Government makes it difficult for private schools to function. I was baffled to learn how often inspectors visit unrecognized private schools. It is not because of an unusual dedication to standards but to be ‘made happy’, as one private school owner put it. Schools have to bribe to keep inspectors from closing them down. Hence, they believe that the main impact that the Right to Education Act will be to raise the bribe required to keep inspectors ‘happy’. This in turn will force schools to raise school fees, and the burden will fall on the poor.

The answer is not to close down budget schools but to understand their situation. Since they cater to the poor, there could be a graded system of recognition. If we can have a first and a second class in the train why not officially designate ‘first’ and ‘second’ categories for schools. Since real estate is expensive, don’t insist on a size of a football field but allow budget school to operate with a smaller play area. Don’t insist on government salaries for teachers but give them autonomy to pay what the market allows. Set up rating agencies to assess the quality of both government and private schools to help parents to exercise choice. Of course, our first priority must be to reform government schools and that happens who will want to send her child to a private school anyway?

Finally, don’t be contemptuous. Don’t refer to them as ‘mushrooming schools run by unscrupulous elements’. Look at them instead as a heroic example of people solving their own problems. School entrepreneurs are like micro-finance companies who are trying to compete and ‘make a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’. What they need is a safe environment free from rapacious inspectors. They need titles to their property so that they can use it as collateral to raise expansion capital. Like microfinance, which has come of age, budget schools will one day build scale and brand names. They are symbolic of India’s unique economic model—of a nation rising despite the state.

Gurcharan Das is the author of The Difficulty of Being Good: on the subtle art of dharma (Penguin 2009)

47 comments:

Anonymous said...

A great article. Agree with it completely !

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Anonymous said...

Very well said Sir. You have brought clarity to the issue helped shape my own view on the matter.

Anonymous said...

Very well said sir. You brought clarity to the issue and helped shape my own view on the matter.

Anonymous said...

A very well written article sir ! You brought clarity to the issue and helped shape my own view on the matter.

Laxman said...

I follow this blog of yours and most of the time i agree with your arguments.Some of the points in this article are very true,but some times you really stretch it too far, like in this article where you said that Unrecognised private schools cater to the needs of the poorest. Are you serious Mr. Gurcharan Das or just for sake of argumnt you are saying this? Have you ever seen any poor sending their children to such private schools, coz however cheap they may be, they won't be affordable to the poor of india, atleast the India where i live in.

neerajpanjiyara said...

completely agree with the article,as we know that the requirements of right to education act is hard to fulfill at ground level, it is necessary to support such unrecognized institutes for complete inclusion specially at the present state of affairs. Definitely essential standards must be followed in an objective manner so that quality is maintained equally well with the quantity.

Raju said...

Very good point .How do we get this across to the policy makers ? any ideas ?

Laxman said...

This artcle was based on the premise that the unrecognised private schools cater to the poor of India.Can any one, from the commentators who have praised this article and Mr Das, tell me how far it is true? I think to support private initiative is a different matter but to support that you can not misrepresent facts. The fact is that the poor in india simply donot send their children to schools or if they send it is to the nearest government school. And i think Mr Gurcharan das is confusing the lowest of the lower middle class-like lower rung govt employees, lower private sector employees or small time shopkeepers or businessmen-with the poor in India. There are many layers of poor even below that who can not afford any kind of private schools, because the simple fact is that they can not afford that. So where is the point of complete inclusion or the matter of choice of the poor in choosing a better school for their children.

If the right to education bill comes in to effect and succeds to reserve a percent of seats for the weaker sections in private schools than the hardest hit will be the people from the lowest middle class , that i have mentioned above,who go to any length to provide their children good english medium education,and this dream of theirs leads them to the substandard unrecognised schools or if they are ready to make sacrifices than it leads to the recognised private schools who qualify in almost all the govt guidelines, though i must say that no school pays to their teachers as much as the govt stipulates though the fact is just opposite on the paper.This section of the urban society( there are almost no english medium schools in villages or remote areas, so the matter of choice or quality does not arise unless you want to send your children to some residential school in a big town)will suffer the worst because the moment a portion of seats are reserved for free than the school authorities will increase the fees to compensate their losses that they would have charged to the free seats, as had hapened with the engineering seats when supreme court ordered for 50% seats to be taken through merit in entrance tests.
So it is always a happy situation for the rich and upper middle class. The poor does not count here because they stand to gain nothing from the bill, for the simple reason is that who will pay for the transportation of the children to and fro between their home and school; their food,uniform, books etc. Let's assume that the government may pay for most of these things but whatever will be left out will be substantial, that a poor can never afford.
And in between these classes there is this section of society,neither well off nor poor, who will suffer, as always they have been suffering like the buffer between train coaches.
And plaese stop arguing for the interests of Unrecognised schools, actually i think you want to defend the interests of the big corporate schools in the garb of supporting the Unrecognised private schools.

Pramod Biradar said...

A very well written article! And I agree with most of it.

However I would like to strike the problem at its root itself. This whole ' Right to education' bill will end up being one of the gravest mistakes that india will make. Like all governmental programs it is doomed to failure from the get go.Government doesn't operate on profit & loss. Like this article rightly pointed out, government lacks accountability. This will just squander the savings of the middle class. How? Let me elaborate...

First of all we must understand what does 'RIGHT' really mean? A right is something on exercise of which someone else should not lose his rights. Eg., Right to life: I've a right to live. But in order for me to live nobody has to die. By living, I'm not taking someone else's right to life. Same goes for right to property, right to pursuit of happyness. These are the only few rights that every human being has on account of his birth. Let me make it clear again. You have these rights, not because the government grants you these but on account of you being a human. And the sole purpose of government is to protect these rights of its citizens.

Now let's come back to 'right to education'. Imparting education requires infrastructure (land, building, black boards, chalk, text books, electricity etc.,) and human resources. And these are not available for free in the market. They come at a cost and make no mistake, somebody has to pay for these resources. Now, the only way governments finance these kind of projects is through more taxes (or even worse, by inflation). Ultimately it is the productive working class of india that will pay the price. It will reduce their savings. So if I exercise my right to free education, somebody else has to pay for my education. So I'm snatching wealth away from its rightful owners. Not only it doesn't make sense economically, it is morally wrong! So 'NO'. Nobody has a right to demand free education, health, job etc., You have to pay for these on your own. You shouldn't expect governments to tax other sections of society, so that you enjoy these 'rights'. No matter how good the intent of the government is, like all government welfare programs, it is an economic disaster waiting to happen.

So what can the government do? A lot actually! First of all its policy should be 'to do no harm' as rightfully pointed out in this article. Remove the regulations. Stop imposing minimum requirements for eligible schools. Let the free market decide these. These regulations are already built into the free market on account of profit and loss. Provide tax incentives to private educational institutions. Remove the barriers to entry. Reduce taxes on middle & lower class so that they themselves decide on what kind of education they want to spend their money on.

But alas! The debate is never whether the bill is morally & economically right or wrong and should be implemented or not, but it is already about how to implement it? We are creating a monstrous bureaucracy- Dept of education... If we don't wake up to the economic realities, generations of productive working class will pay dearly to keep this 'doomed to fail' system running.

Anonymous said...

Don't agree with the article. It seems taht the author is looking at the world through the tinted glass of his AC room.

And One question for Mr Pramod, the above commentator, i learnt that he is a Doctor from his blog profile. Mr. Pramod, if you have studied Medicine from a govt college than who paid for that subsidized degree. If it is morally wrong tahn you should burn your degree.

Why is it that everytime the government takes any initiative that is presumed to be inimical to the interest of the "haves" the elites start lambasting it?
I have not heard any poor or lower middle class person trashing this Right to education bill. There is even very less discussion about this in Vernacular press.

Anonymous said...

Sir, this article is lot better than your article on genetically modified food. I had an opportunity to visit schools across length and breadth of the country for an assignment for a NGO about a year back.

I agree with Mr. Laxman that real poor don't simply send their children to school as they consider it as a wastage of time primarily because they don't have a genuine "feeling" that there would be any change or improvement in their lives if their children are educated. Please believe me, this is as true in Assam as in Andhra or in Orissa or in Haryana. The reasons cited by them are two types.... 1) schools don't have classroom, teacher, food, environment or anything else. and 2) They found that there is no job after education and they fear that their wards wont do the minion jobs anymore and possibly go to cities to look for a living and leave them alone at the end of education etc. Simply put, I found that real poor don't think the way we think that they think. They have their own ways of thinking and please don't brush it aside as stupid or nonsense .... They simply find there is no step in the social ladder for them to climb!

Yes, the Private schools in semi-urban areas serve a very important need for those people who understand the meaning of the word "aspiration" .... And in that area I fully agree with Mr. Das that private schools serve a very important need to fill the void.

But here also, please tell me honestly if you really feel that these schools are free enterprises run under a proper system of regulation? Most private schools / small hotels / diagnostic centers etc in small towns are run by local politicians or their close cronies .... Can you really expect a remedial measure for a bad service delivery as argued by you? See who are their clients? What are their options? What power equations under which they live in the society?

Sir, I am sure a person of your stature knows and feels about these but possibly the space / time constraints debar you from writing in detail.....

Warm regards,

Illusionist said...

I worked with Janpath, an NGO as a part of our academic requirement. there, the children being educated are devoid of books, lest a shed which has been just built to accommodate socially outcast tribal children. They are not taught for monetary benefit nor for social recognition but as a social requirement and a sense of social responsibility. How can the Government justify this act if it has made the right to education a necessity?
The article though well said and stated... but, has overstretched a bit on the capitalist side than the socialist side.

santosh gupta said...

kudos for a great concern!Though well written the article is lacking practical touch.It is now a matter of grave concern that what these budget schools are doing with our future generation.Even a laymen could judge that most of the teachers in the budget school are untrained mediocres. If you think that quality education can be provided with little or no basic infrastructure and a meagre salary to the teachers than you are basically wrong!Even different courts of law have every now and then emphasized the need of proper teacher training.In most cases the so-called budget schools are nothing but a business entity with profit motive and often exploiting teachers.You must remember the tragic 'Fire' in a school in Kumbhkonam In T.N.,the main cause of the fire was lack of adequate infrastructure.I am not against the budget schools but there must be a set of laid down norms for infrastructure,eligibilty of teachers and standard of teaching.Again it is true that our government schools lagging but we must not forget that a vast majority of our population is still dependent upon them.There is an urgent need to bring reforms and innovatieness in these schools.The govt teachers are deputed in election work ,census ,BPL survey,electrol roll work and in many other works every now and then.This situation needs to improve.The motivaion level is low.The sixth pay commission has brought a ray of hope and let us hope that the talented lot would not hesitate being a teacher in the coming future!

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Anonymous said...

sir well written that don't close down budget school n give them graded recognition .But u never talked about unpaid salaries i mean the schools not paying 6th pay commission even after being well recognized and teachers putting all their efforts.

karan a said...

A nicely written article!

Lot of points have already been made. I have one concern, will it make sense to close down thousands of unrecognised schools just on the ground that they do not match with the quality standards. Playing grounds are essential but that should not be a criteria for checking the quality standards. I am also of the opinion that there should be assessment body which periodically checks such schools.

We are already seem to be short in primary education institutes and we want to close the exhisting ones based on quality grounds!

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Rakesh Sukumar said...

We need more initiatives like 'super 30' http://www.rediff.com/news/2008/may/30iit.htm though such initiatives are difficult to achieve when it comes to providing primary education as there is no real incentive (monetory or otherwise).. Besides unlike super 30 where there is no guarantee of return on investment.. Still risks need to be taken

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Sukhdeepak said...

I could not understand why these schools are being closed. If they are giving something to poor and needy who cannot afford to send their children to good schools.Very good blog.

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Rohan Wagh said...

Nice article.
My view is that unrecognized schools which Sir is talking about should be from metropolitan areas only.
People in cities from lower middle class or even in slums care about education and send their children to unrecognized private schools with affordable fees and good teacher.

I have studied in one of such school in Marathi medium till 7 th std in Mumbai.

I had many classmates from slum areas. parents in city cares about education.

On the other side unrecognized schools also do not will to operate in remote rural areas. But situation is changing slowly. Even English medium schools are opening in rural ares now.

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raja said...

mr gurcharan to comment on this sensitive issue,u need to first step in a class and teach,i mean teach in some rural areas to some group of kids at primary level then u can comment better,the parents who cant control their own kids at home complaining about teacher who is not able to control class sounds absurd to me,learn the ground reality,u need to come down a lot to understand this grim reality,its not all about writing books
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