Schooling in freedom

Education is now readily accessible. The problem is of quality and equity. Here are some ideas on how to address those issues

Parth J Shah | April 4, 2019


#school management committees   #NCPCR   #2019   #budget   #India   #school   #education   #CBSE  


This year’s interim budget allocated Rs 93,847.64 crore for education. Of this, Rs 56,386.63 crore was for school education, a hike of 10 percent over the allocation made in the previous budget. Does this materialise into tangible and sustainable improvement and enhancement, offer solutions to our stubborn and complex education challenges?

 
In education there are three key issues, irrespective of the country. One is access, the second is quality, and the third is equity. India has achieved access with more than 97 percent enrollment. Achieving quality and equity remain the key challenges. The degree of freedom of not just parents, but also of principals, teachers and education providers (or ‘edupreneurs’) continues to remain the critical determinant of quality and equity in education. All parents do not get to choose the school; principals and teachers in government set-ups get to choose the system, but not the school; and ‘edupreneurs’ cannot choose their own curriculums, language of instruction, or whether to be non-profits or for-profits.
 
So how do we enable the freedom of choice that further enables quality and equity? One solution would be that instead of funding schools, the government would fund students. Ideally, this could be through vouchers that students can use to attend a school their parents or they themselves choose. The basic idea would be to change the financing system of public or state education. The money goes to the parent or the child and they decide which school they would like to attend. The money would follow the child to the school chosen. Once parents are given the choice, schools will become more accountable to them.
 
An interesting example is Sweden. With the introduction of school vouchers, a group of say, Hindu or Muslim parents, or for that matter, parents of any religious group, can get together and open their own school. The law requires that 60 percent of the curriculum must adhere to national curriculum guidelines. In the rest, they have freedom of choice. This has been a very good and effective way of accommodating demands from different parental groups. This freedom of choice, even to create their own schools, has helped maintain better relations for immigrants across religions.
The legal and moral obligation of the government is to assure education to every child. To ensure education, it is not necessary to also deliver education. After all, only the poor, who have no choice, go to government schools. Any monopoly service provider is unlikely to be very concerned about the customer. The education monopoly would serve the interests of the providers (bureaucracy, teachers, and staff), not of the end-users of the service (parents and students). Competition among providers is necessary (Coulson 2008). It also offers choices to parents and students. Parental choice is the best way to determine education quality and also to keep the pressure for continuous improvement in quality (Shah 2009).
 
Ideally speaking, the same standards should be applied to private and government schools. According to the law, government schools must meet the same norms as private schools, but this may or may not happen in practice, since the law does not require a government school to be closed down or penalised for failing to meet the norms. This actually means that the government worries about the education quality of the children of the rich by requiring private schools to meet its standards, but feels that the poor should be grateful that they at least have a school to go to. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), as a monitor of RTE, could be put in charge of this process since the department of education itself should not be. 
Another interesting example is that of charter schools, which are schools with public funding but helmed by a private management. Quite a number of top schools in the country today fall under this category. It is certainly a good model. The only change required: convert that funding to aided schools to per-student funding, and tie them to some performance benchmarks. Once we do that, the aided school model can expand even further and charter schools will
be part of that model, in a sense.
 
For brevity, I enumerate some key reforms that could go a long way in positively changing and strengthening the approach towards education:
 
a) Empower school management committees to monitor learning outcomes and take necessary action to achieve their targets. This is vital as these committees serve as an important link between the system that imparts education and those who receive it.
 
b) Recognition of all schools, but particularly of low fee, budget private schools should be based more on learning outcomes than on input and infrastructure norms. The Gujarat RTE rules assign 85 percent weightage to learning and 15 percent to infrastructure norms.
 
c) One needs about 36 licences to open a school in Delhi. Each licence has its own price. If you add up this cost, it becomes obvious that not everyone can open a school. We should abolish the regulatory licence raj.
 
d) Open CBSE exams to all students, and not only for students who study in CBSE-affiliated schools. If learning is the focus, then it should not matter which school the student attended; the student should get a CBSE certificate if he/she passes the exam.
 
e) Conduct annual independent learning outcome assessments. The ASER survey is done annually but only in rural areas. The National Achievement Survey (NAS) is a sample survey done by the government of India across the country, but it’s episodic, not annual, and covers only government school students. We need to invest in an annual national exercise to measure and understand learning in all students, whether they are from private schools or government schools. 
 
f)  Declare education an ‘industry’ for easier access to credit and venture capital funds. If you want to make one more app to deliver food, there are scores of angel investors and venture capitalists, but none if you want to open a school. This must change.
 
g) Offer schools (and colleges) the choice to be non-profit or for-profit. Most private schools and colleges make profit and insiders say that the rate of return on investment is one of the highest in education. There are many who would be willing to invest in a non-profit activity as long as they can earn enough to become a self-sustaining school or trust or society; they are then happy to invest that kind of money without having to extract any profit for themselves. One would thus be able attract more people, talent and capital into the sector.
To summarise, the system needs to change from controller to facilitator, from producer to financier, and from inspector to informer. The role of the government is to liberate the supply side (facilitator role), fund the demand of the poor through vouchers, cash transfers and charter/ community schools (financier role), inform about the quality of education in schools and empower parents to make their own choices that are right for their children (informer role). 
 
Shah is founder president of the Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi.
(This article appears in the April 15, 2019 edition)

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