Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Universal Primary Education: Is it a Pipe Dream?

Dr. Arvind Virmani
Adviser (Dev.Policy), Planning Commision

The union government recently decided to make elementary/primary education a fundamental right, with the operational goal of making it universal and compulsory. Many commentators have rightly raised the question of whether such a decision is merely cosmetic, “pie in the sky” rhetoric of the kind we have seen so often in the past 50 years, or is it a realistic goal. In this article we explore what is required to turn this dream into reality, and to improve the educational attainment of the people.

It is useful to start by putting our lack of achievement on the basic education front in international perspective. Our literacy rate ranks 30th from the bottom among a group of 147 countries. Among the medium-large countries only Egypt and our S. Asian neighbours (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal) have higher illiteracy rates than us. Gross enrolment in Primary school is relatively more favourable, with India ranked 56 among a group of 109 countries for which data is available. Data on net enrolment, which is a better measure of comparative performance, is not available on a regular basis for many developing countries. In our case net enrolment is estimated to be only 60% (as against gross enrolment of 99.8%) and net attendance is only 66% of enrolment. The picture on secondary school enrolment is even worse, where we rank 76 among a set of 103 countries.

The approach Paper to the Tenth Plan sets out two specific targets for literacy and schooling. These include, (a) All children in school by 2003; all children complete 5 years of schooling in 2007. (b) Increase in literacy to 75% within the Plan period. In addition there will have to be a major increase in the proportion of children entering upper primary and secondary schools if we are to keep up with the demand for better educated labour force. These objectives cannot be met, in my view, by a business as usual approach that pumps more funds into existing systems of government education - namely more plan funds for more government run school buildings and more plan & non-plan funds for hiring more government teachers (who don’t show up to teach). What can such a new approach consist of?

Rashmi Sharma has shown that teachers are absent from their work for 14 days a month for officially recognised reasons. Unofficial absence, when added to this, would mean, particularly in rural areas, that teachers are seldom available to do any teaching. Add to this the poor quality of teachers and you may begin to comprehend how uninteresting school is for students in government schools. The low quality is confirmed by the experience of my 17- year old son who taught in a slum in the heart of Delhi last summer. At the end of his short stint, the government teacher assigned to do the teaching at the local govt. school requested him to give her own son lessons. And all this costs the government upwards of Rs 1000/child /year. Compare this with the cost to NPOs/NGOs of Rs 50 to 65 per child/month. There are now NPOs who have offered to take on the task of teaching at 1/10th the cost incurred by government, with a guaranteed and measurable quality of output (i.e. testable levels of reading, writing and arithmetic ability). One can now begin to get an idea of what can be achieved by a radical new approach.

Primary Schools

In modern economies primary and secondary schooling constitutes one of the most important functions of local government. Primary schooling should be completely de-centralised to Panchayats over the next five years. Each Panchayat should however be required to set up a user group consisting of mothers of young children along with panchayat officials, the local teacher and a representative of the State education department to monitor and supervise the functioning of the school so as to ensure quality. The funds currently being spent on the primary school system should be devolved to the Panchayats along with the authority to hire and fire teachers. In the transition period the pool of teachers could consist of the currently employed teachers.

All existing urban primary school facilities should be handed over to Non-Profit Organisations/NGOs on an as is basis. This should be done over a five-year period (say) starting with the worst run schools. The government should provide a one-time grant to those NPOs wanting to set up schools in underserved/slum areas. This would be done on the clear understanding that they would not be entitled to any further subsidies. It would also be made clear that they have to follow some simple basic norms like free education for all those living in the neighbourhood who cannot afford to pay. The government would focus on training of local teachers (using innovative techniques and communication facilities), and in providing regulatory oversight.

Secondary Schools

Simplify the laws, rules and regulations relating to setting up and running of non-profit schools. This requires a change in attitude from control to modern regulation. Govt. should focus on ensuring transparency to parents of enrolled students and ensure that there is no financial fraud or misleading advertisement of quality of the schooling provided.

In the case of Rural areas. Govt should provide a capital grant to any NPO/NGO that wants to set up and run a secondary school in any rural area not currently serviced by a secondary school. Special focus should be on schools for girls so that they do not have to walk unreasonable distance from home (larger grant could be provided in such cases). I understand that the UP education authorities have successfully used this approach to provide a secondary school for girls in every single district of the State. Such an approach is even more important in the poor, badly governed States.

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