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By Sujatha Muthayya


In Large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad – Friedrich Nietzsche

In India, taking education to the masses has almost always meant state provision of education. Persistent demands for increased government spending on education and the 93rd amendment making education a fundament right illustrate this pervasive assumption.

A quiet revolution is however taking place. Research now confirms anecdotal evidence that the masses are going in for private education, which no longer remains elusive for the poor.

A common assumption about the private sector in education is that it caters only to the elite, and that its promotion only serves to exacerbate inequality. Recent research points in the opposite direction. If we want to help some of the most disadvantaged group in society, then encouraging deeper private sector involvement is likely to be the best way forward.

While making the case for private education the point of departure should be an introspective look into the performance of government schools and a comparison with the performance of private school; for the latter may actually be better at providing quality education for the poor.

Teacher Accountability and performance, Standards and efficiency and equity of provision have been the three benchmarks most widely used to counter private provision of education for the poor.

The Public Report On Basic Education in India (PROBE) In 1999 looked at primary education in four states where it surveyed a random sample of village with a total of 195 government schools and 41 private schools.

The report highlighted the severe malfunctioning of government schools for the poor. These schools suffered from extremely poor physical facilities and a high Pupil/teacher ratios. Probably the most disturbing aspect was the externally low level of teaching activity in government schools.

When researchers arrived unannounced on their random sample survey in only 53 per cent of the schools was there any teaching activity going on. In 33 per cent of the schools was absent.

There were other instances of negligence. They included keeping the schools closed or non-functional for months at a time and schools where only 1/6th of the students enrolled were present. Low levels of teaching activity occurred even in those schools that had relatively good infrastructure, teaching aids and a good pupil teacher ratio.

The PROBE report on to say, "teaching activity has been reduced to a minimum, in terms of both time and effort. And this pattern is not confined to a minority of irresponsible teachers—it has become a way of life in the profession".

These problems highlight the lack of accountability in government schools. The chain o accountability in much weaker in government schools with permanent jobs and salaries and promotions unrelated to performance.

On accountability issues, private schools come out much better as they operate on commercial principles. In private schools, the report goes on to say, accountability is much stronger with job position and incentives linked to their performance.

Such accountability was not present in the government schools, and this contrast is perceived with crystal clarity by the vast majority of parents’. Other research shows the private schools not only achieve higher grades at math and reading, but also do so at half the cost of the state schools. In the poorest countries, spending on basic education is a government priority since these have yet to achieve universal primary schools enrolment.

This does not happen always. World Bank studies show that in Africa per student spending on higher education is about 44 times higher than on primary education (1995). Almost always it is found that the poorest 20 per cent of the Population gets less than 20 per cent of the public education subsidy while the richest 20 per cent gain significantly greater than 20 per cent.

More research by Geeta Kingdon reveals that private un-aided schools in Uttar Pradesh are 27 per cent more effective at teaching Math and slightly more effective in teaching language. And these results are more striking when the cost per student is taken into account. A private un-aided school spends less than half per student than a public school.

With the increasing awareness of quality education, parents, even the poorest of them, are willing to send their children to private schools. EG West in his paper "education with and without the state" points out increased voluntary individual spending towards education in developing countries and hence the case for private education.

In its work on global private education, the International Finance Corporation has found for-profit education companies in developing countries that have created " chains" of schools and colleges, often operated on a franchise basis, with strict quality control procedures in place (including using the international standards of ISO 9000 series) and investing in research and development to explore new ideas in pedagogy and curriculum. And they’re exciting example of public- private partnerships, in developing as well as developed countries.

India is a case in point. Many parents especially from rural areas are resorting to private schools all over the country. Government rural schools face problems of untrained teachers who are highly paid but teachers who are highly paid but often hampered by long commutes, and lack of motivation, poor infrastructure, and extremely poor management.

There are no precise figures available bur recent studies show that 36 per cent of the children in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states In India, actually attend private schools. Prospects of teacher accountability and teaching of good English, math and science top the expectations of these rural parents, something they do not expect from government schools.

So what makes them prefer private schools? Teachers accountability that makes the system more responsive and smaller student/teacher ratios are perhaps what makes these private schools provides of quality education for the poor.

Dr James Tooley, a professor of education from Newcastle, has been documenting what he calls the "self-help" revolution amongst the poorest in India. Behind the Charminar in the slums of Hyderabad—amongst the narrow alleys—are private schools for the poor.

Five hundred such schools belong to the Federation of Private Schools and they are mainly in poor communities charging around Rs 750 per year. Tooley’s studies reveal that the typical parents in these schools are rickshaw pullers and vendors. The schools offer 20 per cent of the seats at no charge to the poorest students. They don’t   depend on state subsidies and private charities.

Tooley has observed the same phenomenon in Tanzania, Thailand Columbia and Chile from which he concludes that cheap private schools are doing more for the poor since state education has let them down.

Drawing another instance from Uttar Pradesh, the private Organisation Akhil Bharti Vidya Bharti runs about 15,000 private schools. A.K. Shivkumar, an economist from the UNICEF, remarks, “The number of parents willing to pay tuition fees completely disproves anyone who ever argued that these ignorant rural folk are not interested in education".

But while there are ripples in the seemingly placid waters, the impact still hasn’t made waves. But it is impacting on the lives of the poor not only in India but also world-wide. In their odyssey for education lies the biggest lesson—that when all else fails the spirit of self-help alone shall prevail.

The author is an Assistant Professor of Political Science Madras Christian College.

SOURCE:The New Sunday Express, November 17, 2002

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