Deepika (15), the daughter of a taxi driver who died this year, wants to be an engineer. But first, there is karate to conquer.
Deepika is enjoying Class 10 education and a lot else at a Hyderabad private school with fees of Rs 150 a month. The city is teeming with them — 1,000 or so low-fee private schools exist across the old city of Hyderabad, all in a fierce competition to offer better education and other facilities.That could well become the story of India, if the government makes it easier for people to set up private schools in a country acutely short of schools.
Banks do not give loans to set up a private school.
It currently takes 15 tedious certificates to start one. So across the country, there is just one private school for every 13 government schools.
The pay scales at these schools are often about one-sixth what government teachers will be making after the 6th Pay Commission.
And, despite the Centre spending Rs 44,528-crore annually on education, the government’s report card is anything but inspiring.
Only about 53 per cent of students in government schools can read at their age level, as opposed to 68 per cent in private schools, according to a recent study by NGO Pratham.
And less than half of the children registered in government schools — 40 per cent, according to a World Bank study — make it past Class 5.
What the government needs to do is ease regulations and step back, allowing the market dynamic to play out.
As it did in Hyderabad, touching Deepika’s life in a way unimaginable when she was at a government-run Telugu-medium school until Class 4.
Teachers didn’t come to school or were disinterested. Students didn’t come to school or were disinterested.
But her life changed when a solid white monolith appeared in her neighbourhood on the outskirts of Hyderabad. At her New Little Scholars school, things were different: There was a computer lab, karate classes and after-hours tutorials.
And when her father died, leaving her family of five struggling, her school applied for scholarships on her behalf.
Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal agrees that there is a need for greater private participation, but there is no talk yet of easing regulations and allowing low-cost schools to flourish. View Larger Map
“Participation by the non-government sector is the best way to move forward in education,” he tells HT. “That way, all the stakeholders are involved. But the parameters within which they will exist are yet to be decided.”
The battle for students
The change could begin with banks offering loans for building schools.
“We built our school in 2003, with a home loan,” says K. Suryakala Reddy, who started New Little Scholars with her husband. The couple has since started two more low-cost schools.
Experts fear that easing regulations will result in a decline in quality. But the Hyderabad example shows that more schools only means more competition and better standards.
Take Mohammed Saleem. The 25-year-old MBA graduate has recently started a school that charges Rs 100 per month.
“The only way to survive here is to give my students good quality at a low price. I’ve introduced assignment sheets, free study material and enrolled my teachers for training,” he says.
Sounds good. But if one were to go strictly by the rules, none of these schools would exist.
Government rules say that all private schools employ at least four teachers with a BEd degree, and that they have a 1,000-sq-metre playground.
That sets off a cycle of corruption, and we recommend that several of these rules — which are impossible to adhere to in an urban setup — be eased.
The government should also allow private players to run schools, and not just trusts or charities.
“The government can ensure quality by starting an accreditation system for private schools,” says James Tooley, a University of Newcastle professor who has been studying low-cost schools.
The voucher debate
Other lobbyists, like the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), are also asking for a voucher system, through which every child will get a certain amount per year which can be used towards school fees, even at a private school.
A pilot programme by the centre in Delhi has shown remarkable results.
Of the 408 children who were given vouchers, 93 per cent showed marked improvements in learning, while 53 per cent of the parents have begun to invest more money in education.
The voucher system may even end up being cheaper for the government. India currently spends Rs 5,500 per child per year on education, while fees at low-cost private schools are rarely more than Rs 3,600 per year.
But neither vouchers nor fewer regulations are anywhere on the government’s 100-day plan. “The voucher programme will work only if there are lots of schools to choose from,” says Subhash Khuntia, joint secretary for education in the central government. “In most rural areas, that is not the case.”
“I wish my didi (elder sister) could also get a voucher,” says Rahul (8), who is now at a private school with the help of CCS. “She left her school because she didn’t like it. My new school is so much better.”
Despite spending Rs 40,000 crore a year on school education, the quality of instruction remains dismal. Teacher absenteeism is rampant and reading ability for government school students remains low.
More independently conducted teacher-training programs, with more funding towards teacher training than just paying high salaries to our teachers.