The decline of public education

Print edition : August 13, 2004

The woeful state of India's public education has led to the mushrooming of private institutions that, with abysmally poor infrastructure, cater to the aspirations of the less privileged.

"There is in our time no well educated literate population that is poor, there is no illiterate population that is other than poor."

John Kenneth Galbraith

THIS SIMPLE but forceful message reiterates that education alone can be the salvation for poverty. In a populous country like India where even with education life is difficult, there can be little hope without it. The people too have realised this and are turning to education in a big way. Poor as well as middle-income people, rural as well as urban dwellers, are willing to do anything to send their children to school, particularly to English-medium ones. There is solid evidence from all over the country for this appetite for education across all social groups and across all income groups.

In a government school in Bhopal, children writing their examination sitting on the floor.-A.M.FARUQUI

A recent Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE) survey (Oxford University Press, 1999) found that nearly 98 per cent of rural parents believe that it is important to send their children to school. This burgeoning demand has led all those who can just about afford to send their children to a private school - even if it does not adhere to basic safety considerations - to go for it.

What options do people have other than private schools? Not many, considering the appalling state of the public education system. Few schools in the public stream have proper access to drinking water, electricity, toilets, playgrounds, furniture or proper buildings. They also compromise on quality; with high rates of teacher absenteeism, unfilled vacancies of teachers, absence of teaching material and shortage of trained, motivated teachers, education becomes a farce in government schools.

This, says Manabi Majumdar, Fellow, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, led people to seek a "private solution to the public deficiency" ("Classes for the masses? - Social ambition, social distance and quality of the government school system, Madras Institute of Development Studies Working Paper No.158). This trend, which gained momentum in the early 1990s, led to a proliferation of private English-medium schools not just in the urban but also in the rural areas. Thus, between the elite private schools catering to the rich at one end of the spectrum and the government schools serving the poor at the other, there has now emerged an ever-expanding category of private schools - aided (by the government but privately managed), unaided (run with private funds), recognised and unrecognised - mainly targeted at the lower middle-class segment which thinks that, warts and all, it is better than the public school system.

Ironically, such "teaching shops" have been encouraged by the government itself in an attempt to shed its responsibility of providing social good. It even subsidised them as long as the medium of teaching was English. With the increasing reliance of a vast segment of the population on these private schools, public schools, regardless of how they performed, have become voiceless monuments.

The precise number of private schools in the country is not known but available government data show they are mushrooming. While the number of private unaided primary schools increased six-fold and private recognised schools three-fold between 1970 and 2002, the number of government and local body schools fell by over 10 percentage points during the same period. According to the latest National Sample Survey Organisation data, the proportion of students attending private unrecognised primary schools has increased in the last decade. While the figure is 4.8 per cent for the country as a whole (a vastly underestimated figure), it is 18.7 per cent in Haryana, 15.5 per cent in Punjab, 10 per cent in Uttar Pradesh and 9.2 per cent in Bihar.

Yash Aggarwal in his study "Public and Private Partnership in Primary Education in India" (National Institute of Education Planning and Administration, 2000), notes that between 1986 and 1993, the enrolment (to primary classes) in private aided schools rose at a compounded annual growth rate of 9.5 per cent, while the corresponding figure for government/local body schools was 1.4 per cent.

The situation has worsened further thanks to the unregulated mushrooming of English-medium nursery and primary schools where classes are held all in one room, on rooftops, and under thatched roofs as feeders to the "teaching shops".

Quality public school education has never been India's priority. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister and an architect of modern India, laid emphasis on higher learning alone so that the country could churn out its own professionals. Primary education at the public level remained low-priority since many questioned the wisdom of educating the children of farmers, artisans and labourers, who were expected to follow their family vocation; the well-to-do sent their children to private schools, most of them founded by the British. Thus in successive Plans India spent just around 1.9 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), or about two-thirds of what was needed to educate all its children, on primary and elementary education.

The late Prof. Myron Weiner, who was Ford International Professor of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, United States and a leading authority on Indian political studies, believed that India's emphasis on higher education had not changed since the Nehruvian era; in fact, it was accentuated by the "educational restructuring" proposed in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's New Education Policy of 1984-85, he said. The last straw came in 1987, when Rajiv Gandhi said: "I do not think literacy is the key to democracy." Said Weiner: "India's policymakers have not regarded mass education as essential to the country's modernisation, leading to all the ills facing the country today. Instead they put their resources into higher education that, it believes, is capable of creating and managing a modern enclave economy" (Frontline, May 11, 1991). Weiner pointed out that India committed less of its resources on primary education than most low-income countries. The expenditure on elementary education had declined from 55 per cent of the total for the sector in the 1950s to less than 35 per cent in the 1990s. As a result, over 40 per cent of India's population is illiterate. An average Indian spends just about two years in school, while a Chinese spends five and a South Korean nine.

Even as the government refuses to change its education policy, the people are doing what they can to make the best out of a bad situation. Many have realised that education is the only thing they can give their children. For instance, today, most farmer families do not have enough land to divide among their children. Some children, out of necessity, have to get a job and for that "solid English education" is believed to be a sine qua non. English education is seen as crucial for upward mobility.

Weiner noticed this trend even in the early 1990s. "The irony is that while the policymakers lack apparent concern for mass education, the middle classes are determined to see their children educated - so much so that the vast majority pay for private education because state education is seen as poor," he noted.

The Education Policy of 1968 focussed on "the common school system" for all children irrespective of social, economic and other differences. But the government hardly kept its promise. The 1999 PROBE report points to the existence of "multi tracks" - different types of schooling for different sections. The poor and the disadvantaged go to public schools; the middle-class and those in the lower socio-economic ladder to private schools that are either aided, unaided, recognised or unrecognised; the rich to the high-fee-charging private schools; the elite to schools offering international certifications; and some to informal or non-formal schools. This is a response not merely to the differentiated market demand, but to government policy. Most are, in a way, it is claimed, an attempt to provide social justice and equal opportunities, owing to deficiency of resources. Thus, now not only children but also schools are socio-economically differentiated.

Going by official figures, the 1990s seem to have witnessed a dramatic increase in literacy, school enrolment and retention rates. How is this possible when the government has all along been "cash-strapped" with over 90 per cent of its education budget going to meet teacher salaries? This is because States have shed their unease about donor assistance for primary education. Funding now comes from international - bilateral and multilateral - sources. With each donor pushing his own agenda and solution, primary education has become further stratified with a variety of schools emerging under different programmes. For example, while alternative school programmes such as the Rajiv Gandhi Patasalas (schools) in Rajasthan, the Education Guarantee Scheme in Madhya Pradesh, and the Sishu Shiksha Kendras in some northern States run in rented single rooms, the regular primary schools have up to three rooms. Also, infrastructure investment, teacher-student ratio, teacher training, learning materials and so on differ according to the programme under which the schools are run.

The recent fire tragedy in a school in Kumbakonam, where 93 children were charred to death and several more impaired for life, is a wake-up call to tackle the poor, even dangerous, quality of schools and education system in the country. The government has all along preferred to ignore dozens of reports - from the (Dr. S.) Radhakrishnan Commission's to the Kothari Commission's - which, if implemented even in a limited manner, could have made quality education a compelling priority. And evidence from all over the country is that the pitiable condition of public schools has made most school-going children gravitate towards private institutions which are at best of indifferent quality.

For example, according to Vimala Ramachandran ("The best of times, the worst of times", Seminar, April 2004), States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with low literacy levels, have seen an exponential growth in the number of private schools - almost every village/hamlet now has a "teaching shop". A study by Amy Louise Kazmin estimates that nearly 36 per cent of children in U.P. attend private schools ("Why India's poor pay for private schools", Business Week, April 2000). She notes that in Naini, a village in Uttar Pradesh, the government schools are a shambles, with no resources and with poor management. So, many villages in the State are pinning their hopes on the new private schools. Though teachers here are not trained or paid well, the villagers believe they are better than those in the government schools. For instance, the Akhil Bharat Vidya Bharti operates some 15,000 affiliated private schools, in which over two million students are enrolled. But, according to the study, these private schools hardly meet parents' aspirations, considering the state of the classrooms or the quality of teaching.

According to a study by Anuradha De et al (Economic and Political Weekly, December 28, 2002), in U.P., Bihar and Rajasthan no new government school has been set up in the last decade in the urban areas. There has been a mushrooming of private schools in the rural areas. In the urban areas, most government schools function in rented buildings, usually old, dilapidated and woefully cramped. Worse, two to three schools function from the same building. Often, children huddle in unprotected places - in verandahs with men playing cards near them (as in a school in urban Bhiwani). In a school in urban Daulpur, primary classes are conducted under the umbrella of a monument for the last 15 years. Aided schools are few and found only in the urban areas, and none less than 30 years old. The study concluded that "on the whole, children in the government schools were not comfortable, nor was the environment secure or conducive to learning".

But, says Anuradha De, the new private schools are no better. For instance, most schools were set up in the house of the school manager concerned, and children crowded in small rooms. Even if the school was a recognised one, the classrooms were cramped and dingy, and lacked teaching aids and other facilities such as a library. If at all there was a playground, it was the 10 feet by 10 feet courtyard of the house. Very few schools had trained teachers. The state of the unrecognised schools was even worse.

Yash Aggarwal in his study of 878 unrecognised private schools in 13 blocks of Haryana, conducted in 2000, observed that teachers were, in general, unqualified and poorly paid and had had no training. The study pointed out that the number of unrecognised schools was doubling every five years.

According to the study "Accessing primary education - Going beyond the classroom" by Rekha Kaul (Economic and Political Weekly, January 13, 2001), in Karnataka, 79 per cent of the government schools lacked the toilet facility; 35 of the 72 government schools surveyed had no drinking water; less than 10 per cent had electricity connection; and less than half a play-area. In most schools, teachers' posts remained unfilled for years. In many schools, one teacher managed four primary classes in a single room. Many parents interviewed planned to shift their children to private schools that would, according to them, only cost a little more than what they were spending now.

The S.V. Chittibabu Commission report (2003) noted that in Tamil Nadu, nearly 23 per cent of the private schools were unrecognised, 10 per cent of urban schools and 16 per cent of rural schools functioned in premises smaller than 1,000 sq. ft, 57 per cent of the teachers were not trained, and 67 per cent of them was paid less than Rs.2,000 a month.

The study "The private sector serving the educational needs of the poor" by Prof. James Tooley pointed out that in Andhra Pradesh, while private schools had proliferated and were emerging as alternatives to the poor government schools, most were not recognised as they were unable to satisfy three important conditions - a 1,000 square yard playground, government-trained teachers and a deposit by the school society of Rs.25,000 or Rs.50,000 in a stipulated bank account depending on the size of the school.

The most damning evidence of the state of schools in the country comes from the PROBE report. According to it, schools in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, U.P. and Rajasthan were in a deplorable state. In Madhya Pradesh's Vidia, for instance, a school did not have any building. Children huddled in a tiny, dark storeroom next to an open space where the owner of the school tethered cattle. In some other places, school buildings are used for drying cow-dung, or as cattle sheds or even public latrines.

In many places in U.P., powerful vested interests are said to have prevented the opening of government schools. In Rajasthan's Vangaon village, the Rajakiya Draupadi Vidyalaya for Girls was run in four kucha classrooms that were on the verge of collapse; six children were injured in the late 1990s when a portion of the roof caved in. There was no toilet for girls in the school. Most schools had no furniture in the classrooms and had only a table and a chair for the headmaster.

According to the PROBE survey, 63 per cent of the schools had leaking roofs, 52 per cent had no playground, 58 per cent had no drinking water, 89 per cent had no functioning toilet, and 27 per cent had no blackboards. Only 2 per cent had all the facilities while 8 per cent had none at all.

Most schools had just one teacher. In Madhya Pradesh, none of the headmasters in the schools surveyed had the minimum prescribed qualification or training. In Andhra Pradesh, one school was run by a mechanic and his wife. The school did not even have a chalk piece. Another school was run by a quack who opened it only twice a week since he had to concentrate on his medical practice the rest of the time.

The survey also broke the myth that education was free in government schools - in the northern States, the study pointed out, the annual cost of sending a child to a government school was Rs.366; in Maharashtra it was Rs.385; in Rajasthan Rs.810; and in Karnataka Rs.1,200.

The Rekha Kaul study corroborates this, and puts the amount spent by parents on stationery, transport, uniforms and so on at Rs.800 for rural areas and Rs.1,200 for urban areas in Karnataka.

Not only is the quality of education in these schools abysmal (it is common to find Class V students unable to read or write), but they work for hardly 150 days a year against the stipulated 250 days. This is because, apart from declared holidays, teachers are often assigned other jobs - Census survey or election work.

One of the main reasons cited for the poor state of government schools is lack of funds. According to Rekha Kaul, the government outlays for creating satisfactory infrastructure in schools continue to remain woefully inadequate - at 3 per cent of GDP, a far cry from the 6 per cent recommended by the Kothari Commission as early as 1964.

According to Jayakumar Anagol ("Compulsory primary education - Opportunities and challenges", Indian School of Political Economy, 2001), an expert group set up by the Ministry of Human Resource Development estimates an additional requirement of Rs.140,000 crores for the next 10 years; this amounts to 0.7 per cent of the GDP every year. This, argues Jayakumar Anagol, is easily manageable if there is political will. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze argue that even a country as poor as India can find the means to ensure total literacy and adequate infrastructure for schools.

Prof. K. Nagaraj, Senior Fellow, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, feels that the education cess proposed in the recent Budget should be used to provide quality primary education for all. "But funds," says former director of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) A. Chandrasekhar, "is not a problem." According to him, a major thrust of the SSA is to improve school infrastructure and one-third of the total funds is allotted for this. But there are no takers. Prof. Nagaraj remarks that unless this programme is publicised, there is no way a school in a rural area will know about it. "Thus," he says, "it is important to decentralise the management of public education, by which information is passed on to the local bodies that approves, monitors and maintains the schools."

Myron Wiener had observed that "even the most conservative neoclassical economists will agree that the state has a very positive, very important, role to play in the promotion of mass education, which cannot and should not be left to the private sector alone."

What, then, is the way out of this situation? Says Manabi Majumdar: "There is an urgent need to `fix' the system (public education), not `abandon' it." She argues that it is no solution to let the government schools deteriorate even as the nation turns a blind eye to the deplorable conditions of the millions of teaching shops that have come to substitute the former. It is important to raise and nurture a social spirit that infuses in both teachers and the public at large a commitment to quality education for all. Transformation of the school system under decentralised conditions may be an important way of improving rather than abandoning the public education system.

According to Manabi, "there is no magic bullet to achieve this; there is no alternative to relying on the time-consuming and trouble-torn democratic practices of mobilisation, organisation, advocacy, debate, protest and demand - in short, the assertion of citizenship rights."

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