On my recent travels I have become aware that in India government school education is a massive waste of resources because an ever-increasing number of parents are opting out of the system. The teachers are appointed, the buildings and other facilities are there, but the parents are sending their children elsewhere. This has always been true of the elite but now the flight goes down to the village level, where parents spend money they can ill-afford on all too often very unsatisfactory private education. When in Maheshwar I asked boys playing cricket in a back street where they went to school. All went to the same private school. I asked one how many pupils there were in his class. Sixty-four he replied. Did he like school? No, because the master beat him. In Tamil Nadu I asked a group of village activists attending a training course run by an NGO to put up their hands if they had been educated in government schools. Most hands went up. I then asked how many sent their children to government schools. Very few hands went up. Two reasons were offered for this — private schools were English-medium and government schools were very bad, teachers didn’t teach according to the activists.
Those village activists told me the spread of low-cost private education was a comparatively recent phenomenon. The educational NGO Pratham confirms that private-school enrolment is rising year after year. In its 2014 annual report it said 30.8% of rural children went to private schools.
Parents are choosing to go for private education not because of a shortage of government schools but because they don’t want to use the government facilities available to them. This surely represents a massive waste of public money. It also means that millions of Indians of restricted means are tightening their belts further when their diet is already inadequate. They sacrifice money they can ill afford in the belief that private education will provide a better future for their children. The tragedy is that private education so often lets them down, their sacrifice is in vain.
At Aligarh Muslim University I learnt something of the potential talent India loses because of the government schools’ reputation. There the academic staff told me Muslim parents didn’t choose madrasas necessarily because they wanted their children to have a religious education. Many chose them because the government schools had such a bad reputation and they couldn’t afford private schools. Aligarh has established a bridge course. In just one year it enables a madrasa student to qualify for admission to the University. If some fortunate students can achieve that imagine the hidden talent there must be in madrasas.
One answer to this problem for the government schools should be to up their game, to deal in particular with the chronic problem of teachers not turning up to teach. That is easier said than done. The Central and the state governments’ record on delivering services does not inspire confidence. The spread of private education with its malign influence on the government system is going to make things even worse. The influence is malign because private schools take the influential members of society out of the government system and so there is less pressure on government schools to perform. The Allahabad High Court recognised this when it directed state employees and beneficiaries to send their children to government schools.
Market-fundamentalist economists suggest the government should give up on providing education and the private sector should take over. The government would fund this by giving parents coupons to purchase the education. The record of the private sector in education and indeed in health care hardly inspires confidence in this solution. In health care the private sector has provided hospitals for the prosperous, which have turned medicine into a business and undermined confidence in the medical profession.
Some argue the problem would be solved if government schools were English-medium. There is no doubt that it’s the lure of English which attracts many parents to private schools. But converting government schools into English-medium institutions would be politically difficult and amount to giving up on Indian languages. This does not mean, as is so often suggested, that Indian language-medium education means giving up on English. It has been shown conclusively that English can be learnt without establishing it as the medium of education. So the answer to English lies in toning up the standard of teaching that language.
In my view that leaves improving the overall standard of government schools as the only way to stem the waste of the money spent on them. This should not be impossible with radical changes in the way governments run their schools. But this would not be enough. Governments would also need to go out and sell their schools to parents. That would mean a radical change in governments’ traditional take it or leave it attitude to the services they provide.
The views expressed are personal