Reforming school education in rural India

M. Shuheb Khan

In July, the Supreme Court quashed theappointment of 1.32 lakh primary teachers in Uttar Pradesh (UP) who were regularised from ad hoc Shiksha Mitras by the previous state government. The Court quashed their being made full-time teachers, citing that they did not fulfil minimum qualification criteria and weren’t appointed against sanctioned posts.


The judgment has created uncertainty not just for the Shiksha Mitras– people who hadn’t passed any teacher eligibility test and originally hired on contract to assist professional teachers – but also for the primary education system in a state, where almost 52 per cent of students at the elementary level are already enrolled with private schools.The recent past has seen large-scale migration of students from government to private schools, even in rural areas. The latest ruling, if anything, may only further accelerate privatisation of primary education.


The key factors responsible for the above trend areapathetic attitude of government teachers made worse by abysmal qualifications of new recruits, low and uneven teacher-pupil ratio,and lack of sanitation, classroom infrastructure and other basic amenities.  Private schools, on the other hand, have marketed the presence of committed teachers, focus on English language, transport facilities, etc. to lure parents. This was given added impetus by rising rural incomes, particularly during the last decade, as captured by a story in this newspaper (http://bit.ly/28Yd1Jb).


One indicator of the extent of deterioration that has taken place is a draft report (‘Guidelines for Rationalisation of Small Schools across States for Better Efficiency’) from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). It shows as many as 2.50 lakh primary (class 1-5) and upper primary (6-8) government schools in India having less than 30 students. These numbers have, in fact, risen significantly in the last few years (see chart). Moreover, thepicture could be even grimmer, with an ongoing Aadhaar unique identification number-based enrolment of students likely to throw up many fictitious/ghost pupils in the government schools system.



Source: MHRD (July 2017)


Given the resultant wastage of resources, the MHRD has proposed rationalisation through merging of small schools. As enrolment levels in these schools are in any case low, the move is unlikely to encounter any major public opposition. But such rationalisation might improve the student-per-school numbers in the short run; if the systemic issues remain unaddressed, the problem of low enrolment would only resurface in the medium and long term.

It is often argued that one way to check privatisation – especially of the unhealthy kind now being witnessed – is to simply hire more teachers in government schools. But that, under the prevailing incentive and accountability systems, is unlikely to work, more so in rural areas.Theauthorities can also ensure that teachers attend schools, but can they be made to take on more responsibility? Government school teachers can always justify poor academic performance of students by citing lack of motivation because of their coming mostly from marginalised sections of the society. It is really difficult to separate the impact of lower teacher commitment fromthe apparent poor motivation of students in government schools. Even if teachers’ slackness is established, service rules make it virtually impossible to reduce their salary, leave alone terminate employment. On the other hand, the system isn’t equipped to identify and reward committed teachers. 

It’s not that the situation in private schools is radically better. The Government should not leave the functioning of private schools entirely to market forces for two reasons. First, information about the quality of product is keyto the functioning of any market. In the absence of any comparable quality indicators at elementary school level,one cannot expect the market to deliver efficient outcomes. Second, left purely to market forces, school fees and salary of teachers would also be determined by the average income level of a region. It follows then that low-income regions with lesser ability to pay school fees would also find it difficult to attract quality teachers.

According to National Sample Survey (71st Round) data, the median tuition fee in private rural schools of UP in 2014 was just Rs 117 per month. Governments, including that in UP, are seeking to address the burden to families from high school fees – which they should. However, there is no discussion on the low fee problem, despite it ultimately impacting learning outcomes in private schools, especially in the rural hinterland and mofussil towns.   

The UP government should view the apex court’s recent verdict as an opportunity to look at creative hybrid solutions to improve the functioning of primary schools in rural areas. There is a need for increase in government expenditure on education, but in an efficient way. An incentive structure can be created, wherein government giveseducation vouchers/coupons worth, say, Rs 500 per month, to parents. To help them choose schools – so as to address the information asymmetry problem – the government could involve external agencies to assess the performance of individual schools and make these results public, in a format comprehensible to laypersons. Based on this information, parents can present the vouchers to schools of their choice – government or private – for the latter to then get these en-cashed.The Aadhaar enrolment process shouldtake care of duplicate/fictitious students in schools, making it easier to implement the voucher program. 

Also, future hiring of teachers in government schools should be done on new terms and conditions. The government could hire maybefive teachers for every primary school at a salary that is lower than what permanent assistant teachers are now getting, but higher than what the Shiksha Mitraswere being paid. The newly-appointed teachers must be given full autonomy to manage the schools, which includes the freedom to utilise the resources generated from the vouchers.  The teachers may want this money for enhancing their salaries, but the fact that the vouchers are coming from the parents would also force them to invest in improving the school’s long-term earning potential. The latter, in turn, means being assessed by an external agency for quality not only of education, but also of sanitation, security and transport facilities. 

The ultimate aim is to promote accountability of teachers, something that’s really missing in our public education system today. An improvement in standards at government schools will automatically raise the bar on private schools. The latter will be forced not just to improve the quality of their teachers, but also reduce the premium for the better infrastructure they are claiming to offer. This is a far superior solution for controlling fees chargedby private schools,rather than theeducation department or proposed district committees looking into their accounts. 

M. Shuheb Khan is a researcher at ICRIER and also associated with Buniyaad Trust, which is focused on education in rural India. The views are personal. shuhebkhan01@gmail.com

the Indian Express

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