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Why is schooling failing in the 'new' India?

Updated Friday, 19th May 2006

India is experiencing impressive economic growth, but has more children out of school than any other country. Dr Prachi Srivastava looks at the reasons why

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India is the world’s leader in out-of-school children, with approximately 30 million primary school-aged children not enrolled in schools. This is despite its commitment to reach the international Education for All (EFA) goals by 2015. India is also failing its duty to provide free and compulsory education to all children from ages 6 to 14, under the 86th Constitutional Amendment Act.

The EFA framework was adopted in 2000 at the World Education Forum in Dakar, by representatives from countries around the world. It has six goals which focus on access, equity, and quality from pre-school to adult education. The Forum recognised that reducing persistent educational inequalities is crucial in an increasingly globalised world, and set a target date of 2015. Most of India’s current educational policies and initiatives centre on the EFA framework.

For a country keen to be a major global player, the pressing question is: why is the ‘new’ India unable to achieve free and universal schooling at the most basic levels?

India has embraced the knowledge economy, become a centre for technological development and manufacturing, and expanded its service sector. Over the last five years it has seen its largest ever economic growth, rivalling that of many high-income countries.

At the same time, the government of India has expanded schooling provision to its highest levels, by building almost 135,000 new primary schools since 1994. In 2000, it launched Sarva Shiksha Abihiyan, its comprehensive 10-year EFA programme, throughout the country. It also increased its funding for education in the new budget, announced in February 2006.

Yet, a closer look at the Indian school system tells a very different story.

In line with EFA goals, the central and state governments’ push has been on increasing the quantity of provision, by expanding the number of schools. However, there has been very little attention on just what quality is on offer.

Ample research shows that state schools are being increasingly described as ‘dysfunctional’, rife with problems such as:

  • teacher absenteeism
  • inadequate facilities
  • casteism
  • corrupt inspection practices

It seems that, while free and universal schooling is hailed as an intrinsic good, the worst quality is offered to those most in need.

Some disadvantaged parents are so disenchanted with what’s on offer, that they are increasingly turning to what I call the ‘low-fee’ private sector. These are for-profit schools in the private unaided sector, which is self-funded and privately managed. They are run by private individuals, and they target groups earning fewer than $2 a day. Their pupils are often first generation learners.

When I asked parents during my study in Uttar Pradesh, why they were sacrificing their meagre wages, Murlidhar, a farmer, stressed that it was because: “Nowadays schooling is only good where you pay fees”. He was not alone in expressing this sentiment.

Take the example of Champa Devi, an uneducated mother whose family migrated to Lucknow City so her husband could find work as a labourer. She sent her children to state schools for two years and grew dissatisfied with their learning outcomes. She then decided to choose low-fee private schools for her three children, so that: “At least they’ll learn something, they’ll be able to make something of their lives."

But are low-fee private schools really better than state schools? And what are poor parents really getting for their money?

The results are mixed. Low-fee private school owners in my study cloaked their schools as a mixture of ‘social service’ and private enterprise. However, the incentive to retain and expand their client base was high, since funding was primarily from tuition and other school fees. This meant that they resorted to some questionable practices to keep their clients.

For example, some children were not even performing at kindergarten level but one school admitted to enrolling them in higher grades if parents insisted. Other schools marked tests leniently and kept high promotion rates even if children were not achieving. They did this because high pass marks and promotions were how parents judged the ‘goodness’ of a school.

There was some evidence of English language instruction, a draw for many parents, but its quality was questionable because teachers’ fluency was low. Owners admitted that they could not hire more qualified English teachers because it would mean paying higher salaries.

In fact, to keep costs down, low-fee private schools in the study hired mostly untrained teachers so that they could pay salaries which, in some cases, were as low as 10% of a state school teacher’s. Hiring untrained teachers was contrary to official regulations, but owners claimed that it didn’t affect the teaching at their schools because they could be easily dismissed, unlike in the state sector.

To be seen as a better option than neighbouring state schools, they kept:

  • fixed daily timetables
  • longer school hours
  • minimal school closures
  • few school holidays

They also enforced regular teacher attendance. This differed from state schools, where teachers were trained and earned much higher wages but teaching activity was low.

However, not all parents, particularly in rural areas, were convinced of the quality at low-fee private schools. Some, like Salim Ahmed, a rural father, felt that his children’s low-fee private school was the best of a questionable bunch: “It’s not that it’s good… but where else should we enrol them? In the village, all the schools are like that, I mean there aren’t any schools that are particularly good.”

In short, while low-fee private schools were seen as a better option, they were not necessarily seen as a good option.

This highlights the need to more closely examine what role low-fee private schools are playing in the context of achieving EFA goals. These schools are being accessed by children who are among the highest on the international EFA agenda, and for whom the state has taken the greatest responsibility in its development programmes and educational policy.

So what is the government’s response?

Many low-fee private schools are operating unconstitutionally, since they are essentially running for profit. Nonetheless, officials in my study revealed they turned a blind eye to them, because the government simply cannot meet its full obligation to EFA because of unprecedented levels of expansion.

Furthermore, the increased number of state schools led to fewer inspections of low-fee private schools because of time constraints. In fact, owners of low-fee private schools revealed that, in some cases, they passed inspections without meeting quality norms by paying a ‘fee’. State officials conceded that they were aware of such practices by some officers.

But officials also felt that not enough measures had been instituted as part of the EFA agenda to adequately increase and monitor levels of quality in state schools. This created a space for low-fee private schools to thrive, even if they were of minimal quality.

The Indian context of increased privatisation seems to echo some of the education sector development strategies outlined by the World Bank, the largest funder of education in developing countries. In its influential report, Priorities and Strategies for Education, the World Bank encouraged private providers.

The latest report on 2004 DISE data, a system set up to monitor EFA progress in India, shows an increase in the numbers of private unaided elementary and secondary schools, from 6.4% in 2003, to 7.7% in 2004. In a system with more than 900,000 schools, this is a substantial increase in real terms in just one year.

Furthermore, the 2004 EFA Fast-Track Initiatives Framework (led by the World Bank) outlines 10% of all enrolments in the private sector as a desirable benchmark to evaluate EFA country plans. It is likely that India is exceeding this figure.

One study, using household data from the National Sample Survey Organisation on recognised private unaided schools, estimates primary enrolments in these schools from 8%, in Assam, to the highest at 53%, in Haryana. Uttar Pradesh had the second highest at 50%. Enrolment data by level of fees are not available, so it is difficult to say how much of that enrolment is in low-fee private schools.

But a greater issue looms.

Goals 2, 5, and 6 of the EFA framework focus on the need to improve the quality of schooling for the most vulnerable. However, there are no quality standards that state schools must meet in order to receive funding. This means that schools receive funding regardless of how well they perform.

If the state sector continues to be funded under the international EFA banner without quality improvement being a condition, it has no incentive to increase its performance. Low-fee private schools have to be only marginally better than the worst sector to be considered ‘better’, leaving poor parents like Murlidhar, Champa Devi, and Salim Ahmed with few real options for quality schooling.

Further reading

Education in India:
DISE: District Information System for Education
Government of India - Ministry of Human Resource Development
Education For All in India

Education for All:
UNESCO's Education for All portal
Education for All - Dakar Framework for Action
EFA Fast Track Initiative





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