The farce of `school choice'

Published : Feb 23, 2007 00:00 IST

On a Bhopal street. Of around 200 million children in the 6-14 age group in India, 30 million do not enroll in school at all.-A.M. FARUQUI

On a Bhopal street. Of around 200 million children in the 6-14 age group in India, 30 million do not enroll in school at all.-A.M. FARUQUI

The voucher system is no panacea for the ills of our school education system.

ANYONE who knows even a little bit about school education in India knows that it is largely about exclusion. Only a tiny minority of children get anything resembling a decent schooling - the rest are either excluded altogether or provided poor quality education with weak infrastructure and inadequate pedagogic attention, which in turn encourage high rates of dropout.

As with so much else in Indian society, the reasons for such exclusion are dominantly, but not exclusively, economic. Of course, the poor everywhere are adversely affected because they cannot afford expensive private schools and must suffer whatever conditions prevail in the government-run schools in their areas of residence. Those living in backward regions are affected because they often simply do not have a school near enough for the children to attend regularly. But in addition, a wide range of various forms of social discrimination operates to exclude children from particular castes or communities or linguistic categories or other groups, even when the schooling is ostensibly open to all.

The sheer extent of exclusion from schooling is evident from the official data relating to schooling. Of around 200 million children in the 6-14 age group, 30 million do not enrol at all. Of those who do join school, 36 per cent drop out at the primary stage, by Class V. By Class VIII the dropout rate is 52 per cent. This means that less than half of the children under 14 years actually get the minimum schooling of eight years mandated by the Constitution.

Some of this is because the physical infrastructure for schooling is completely inadequate. Around 30 per cent of our villages do not have a primary school within the village; another 16 per cent do not have one within a 3 km radius. Even in urban areas, there are many slum settlements without access to schools. One-fifth of the primary schools in India function without a proper building, another one-fifth operate out of only one room for all the five classes, and many do not have electricity connections. Facilities such as separate toilets for girls and boys and clean drinking water are rare.

Even where the physical infrastructure is better, teachers in many parts of the country have to deal with huge and multi-grade classes. They are often forced to teach subjects for which they are pedagogically not prepared, with only the barest minimum of basic teaching aids. They have to deal with syllabi that are out of tune with their students' experienced reality and aspirations. So, it is not particularly surprising that the quality of education in such circumstances is sub-standard. Clearly, a substantial increase in public spending is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for improving the quality of education in such areas.

But of course that is still not the only reason for exclusion or for having to experience poor quality education. It will be no surprise to any reader that most of the children excluded from schooling are poor or that the majority of them are girls or that they are dominantly from marginalised and deprived social groups such as Dalits, tribal people, backward castes and certain religious minorities. Explicit and implicit social discrimination remains a potent factor in depriving such children of good education.

In this matter of discrimination, private schools in India (except for a few run by certain charitable organisations and well-meaning non - governmental organisations) have typically been even worse than government-run schools. Quite apart from anecdotal evidence, there is confirmation of this from the spate of legal judgments condemning private schools in the major metros for not conforming to the required criteria of admission so as to exclude children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Given all this, it is quite remarkable to find that proponents of a voucher system for school education claim that the purpose of such a scheme is "to empower poor students so that they can attend a school of their choice". Under the voucher system, parents are allowed to choose a school for their children (private or government) and get full or partial reimbursement for the expenses from the government.

Votaries of this scheme have been getting louder in recent times. The typical arguments presented in its favour are that it would lead to increased choice for parents and students, especially those among the poor, and the competition to attract students would force schools to improve quality. It is argued that such a scheme would, therefore, deal with both the problems of poor quality and limited access that currently plague our schooling.

Such schemes have been tried in certain States of the United States, as well as in a modified form in other countries. In some developing countries, because of shortage of funds, vouchers are not supplied to all children but to a subset (in Bangladesh to girls from defined poor families; in Colombia through a random allocation to 30 per cent of students).

Even votaries of the system admit that it presumes a great deal of institutional capacity. Obviously, such schemes make sense only when there are sufficient schools in the local area to create a real possibility of "choice"; when it is possible for parents and children to make informed judgments about quality on the basis of easily accessible information; when schools are not allowed to discriminate between students on non-financial grounds; and so on.

Even when such conditions do exist, the actual experience with vouchers has been mixed at best, with varying assessments of whether there has been improvement in school quality and access as a result. But it should be completely obvious that where such conditions do not exist - which is clearly the case in most of India - the chances are that a voucher scheme would simply shift resources away from a public education system that is already desperately under-funded, and continue to exclude disadvantaged children.

In any case, as we have seen, given the overall context of social discrimination, private schools in India will continue to exclude children from deprived and marginalised sections unless they are forced to stop doing so. The voucher system has no element of compulsion for schools, only supposedly "free choice" for all.

The basic thrust of government education spending today must surely be to ensure that all children have access to government schools and to raise the quality of these schools. The issue of access of poor and disadvantaged children can be addressed more comprehensively through common schooling in both public and private institutions. The proposal in an earlier draft of the Right to Education Bill to force private schools to admit 25 per cent of the students from "weaker sections", where education will be funded by the government, was a step in this direction. It is interesting that those who are so keen on the voucher system had bitterly opposed that particular provision.

A further assumption made by proponents of vouchers is that private schools are necessarily, or generally, better than government schools. It is true that in the recent study of schooling in different States by Prathama, a New Delhi-based NGO, private schools appear to score better in terms of test results of children than neighbouring government schools.

Yet the same study finds higher test scores of children in government schools in West Bengal, which has relatively few private schools, than in private schools in Uttar Pradesh, where such schools are coming up rapidly and account for 30 per cent of schools. This could even suggest that the main effect of unregulated expansion of private schools is to worsen the government school system.

The problem of quality in our schools is complex and multi-dimensional, which is related to resources and to a range of institutional features. It is far too simplistic to believe that it can be dealt with merely by increasing competition among schools. The voucher system would divert not only much-needed resources, but also our attention from addressing the real issues involved in improving quality in school education.

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