Licence permit raj, renewed: Industry was liberated in 1991, but education's shackles are growing heavier
On April 7, private schools from across the country converged on the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi for Shiksha Bachao, ‘Save Education’. Never before in India’s 70-year history has this happened. Schools were protesting the ‘license-permit raj’ in education and demanding autonomy and respect. The majority of the estimated 65,000 attendees were principals, teachers, parents of low fee schools, but also present were minority institutions such as Catholic schools, brought together by the National Independent Schools Alliance.
India is unique in having the largest number of children in private schools in the world – almost half of urban kids and a third of rural kids attend private schools, and this is growing rapidly. Between 2011 and 2015, government schools lost 1.1 crore kids and private schools gained 1.6 crore; at the same time, 11 times more private schools have opened – 96,416 vs 8,337. If this trend continues, India’s state schools will soon become ‘ghost schools’ with plenty of teachers but no students. There are already 6,174 state schools with zero students.
Why is this happening? It is because government schools are failing – one out of four teachers is absent and one out of two present is not teaching. Helpless parents have realised that ‘schooling’ is not ‘learning’. The middle class abandoned state schools a generation ago but now even the poor are doing so. They are able to do so because affordable private schools have come up whose median fee is only Rs 417 per month.
Their quality may be indifferent but, at least, teachers show up and try their hardest to teach because they are in a competitive market in which parents compare their children’s learning with peers from other schools. And so, parents now spend 24% of their household budget on private primary education and 38% on secondary education at the same time as government schools offer free tuition, mid-day meals, uniforms and text books.
One reason for the protest at Ramlila grounds is that government is threatening to close down more than 1,00,000 schools based on false reasoning in the Right to Education Act (RTE). Schools argue, ‘Close us down based on an assessment of what kids are learning, not the size of our playing field. If a private school in the slums produces “toppers”, why should you care if we cannot pay a teacher a monthly salary of Rs 45,000 (which is present official entry salary in Delhi).’
By coincidence, on the same day as the Ramlila rally, the World Bank held a dialogue in Delhi on its World Development Report 2018, whose main message was exactly the same: schooling is not learning. Learning requires regulators to deeply engage with classroom pedagogy and improve the capacity to assess and regulate. The good news is that India’s new generation of regulators understand this and have begun to assess children under the National Achievement Survey as a diagnostic tool to improve every child’s performance. The bad news is that they are not assessing private schoolchildren. Aren’t they also children of India?
A second reason for the Ramlila protest is that while industry was liberated in 1991, education was not. From 30 to 45 permissions are still required to start a school depending on the state, and many require a bribe. One of the most expensive bribes, costing up to Rs 5 lakh in some states, is an Essentiality Certificate, which is meant to ensure that a school is needed.
A school principal in Gujarat was in tears that she has to keep 70 pieces of paper up to date at any given time from the fear of an inspector suddenly descending on her. Many permissions have to be renewed every year. An idealistic friend of mine, who was teaching in one of the best private schools in America, returned to her hometown in India to start a school. But rampant corruption drove her back to America. No wonder so many politicians set up colleges and schools while the idealistic young stay away; as a result, the entire private sector gets demonised.
A third reason for the protests is the growing demand to control fees, which have risen recently because RTE requires that 25% of the seats should be reserved for the poor. This is a laudable objective but the schools are caught in the middle. States reimburse schools intermittently and not fully. Meanwhile teacher salaries have doubled and tripled.
To cover the loss, the brunt has fallen on the 75% fee paying parents. Politicians have mistakenly jumped on ‘fees control’ bandwagon without realising that only 3.6% of schools charge fees over Rs 2,500 per month and only 18% above Rs 1,000. Gujarat government’s draconian fee control affects only a minority of elite parents. Fees control will either lead to closure of the best schools or a cut back in their programmes.
States should follow the enlightened law of Andhra Pradesh which gives autonomy to schools but insists on transparency. Schools are required to make extensive disclosure on their websites regarding facilities, staff qualifications, details of infrastructure, fees, etc – everything that a parent wants to know before selecting a school. Misrepresenting of facts results in severe penalties.
The final demand at the Ramlila rally was a plea that reimbursements for the 25% seats reserved for poor children in private schools should be paid to the child as a Direct Benefit Transfer, not to the school. It would be a ‘scholarship’ which gives the student a choice to attend any private school. Since the student would bring revenue to the school it would give her dignity as she walks into the school with her head held high.