If India wants to deliver quality education to its children, it needs an honest conversation on private schools
“If you’re gonna be two-faced, at least make one of them pretty,” Marilyn Monroe once said. She was speaking about hypocrites but she could have been referring to India’s education establishment. Our hypocrisy is rooted in many myths which will be challenged in the post- Covid-19 world where only the efficient, the nimble and the innovative will survive. Unfortunately, the latest National Education Policy, soon to come up for Cabinet approval, has not faced up to this reality.
One of our myths is that education must only be delivered by the government if it is to serve the public good. Hence, private schools are tolerated based on, one, a hypocritical lie which forbids them from making a profit, when everyone knows that most, in fact, do and, two, that the State will shackle them in a licence raj to ensure that they behave. One myth is based on the mistaken belief that education in advanced countries is provided by the State. The truth is that recent education reforms in the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), and even socialist Scandinavian countries have encouraged private initiatives. Many schools there are moving to a privately-run/publicly-funded model.
In pursuit of the myth, India made huge investments in government schools.But the outcome has been pitiable. India’s children ranked 73rd out of 74 countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment test, just ahead of Kyrgyzstan. Between 2010-11 and 2017-18, 24 million children have abandoned State schools in favour of private schools, according to the government’s Unified District Information System for Education data. Today 47% of India’s children are in private schools, making our private schooling system, with 120 million children, the third-largest in the world. In this system, 70% of parents pay a monthly fee of less than Rs 1,000 per month and 45% parents pay less than Rs 500 — busting another myth that private schools are for the elite.
Based on the speed at which government schools are emptying out, another 130,000 more private schools are needed. It is a heartbreaking sight to see long lines of parents waiting to get their child into a decent school. There are three reasons for the scarcity of good private schools. One is the licence raj. It is very difficult for an honest person to start a school. At least 35 to 125 permissions are required, depending on the state, and most require running around and bribery. The most expensive bribes are for an Essentiality Certificate (to prove that a school is needed) and Recognition. This can take up to five years.
A second reason is financial. Running a school is no longer lucrative. The problem began with the Right to Education Act, when government commanded private schools to reserve 25% seats for the poor. It was a good idea, but poorly executed. Since state governments did not compensate private schools properly for reserved students, the fees for the 75% fee-paying students went up. This led to a clamour from parents and many states imposed a control on fees, which has gradually weakened the financial health of schools. To survive, schools have had to economise, leading to a decline in quality. Some schools have shut down. More will, after the pandemic.
A third reason why an honest person won’t open a school is national hypocrisy. The law forbids a private school from making a profit but most schools do. Nine out of the top 10 economies in the world allow for-profit education. India is the only one that does not. It is high time we dropped this pretence. This single change from a non-profit to profit sector could create a revolution. Investments would flow into education, improving choice and quality. Principals would not have to lie or be called thieves. Black money will be curbed. After 1991, parents value choice and competition. Just as they pay for water, electricity and the Internet, they will pay for a superior education.
This revolution will require other steps. Opening up honest private school education will require removing the licence raj. Second, schools will need the sort of autonomy that exists in advanced countries. Today, barring a few exceptions, most Indian private schools are mediocre. Schools will only invest in post-Covid-19 technologies if there is predictable regulation and freedom of salaries, fees, and curriculum. A vibrant private school sector will deliver better outcomes for India and it will do so at one-third the cost of government schools. The principal reason is teachers’ salaries — the starting salary of a junior teacher in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in 2017-18 was Rs 48,918/ pm, or 11 times the per capita income of UP.
The latest education policy, like the previous ones, is likely to miss the mark. Reform of India’s education should have two objectives: One, improve the quality of government schools, and, two, give autonomy to private schools. To this end, the government must also separate its own functions of regulating education and running government schools. Today, there is a conflict of interest which results in bad outcomes for all. Finally, opening up the private sector will make us more honest — schools will no longer have to lie about making a profit and the establishment will not have to preach the virtue of government schools while sending its own children to private schools.