The state of India’s school education does not paint a very pretty picture. No doubt a whopping 97% of all children between the ages of 6-14 years in rural India are enrolled in school. However, national school attendance averaged just about 70%, dipping below 60% for populous states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. Performance was much worse. Amongst the standard 5 kids surveyed, over half could not read a standard 2 level text fluently and more than one-third could not do basic standard 2 level subtraction.
India’s problem is not so much about getting children into school anymore. We now face the far more complex issue of keeping them there and ensuring effective learning. Crumbling public infrastructure, poverty, corruption, lack of attractive compensation and training for primary school teachers and a lack of awareness among uneducated rural parents about their child’s progress at school are huge obstacles in the path to educational attainment.
No doubt, the going is uphill for the government. ASER 2011 found that less than 20% children had access to any print material at home. Also only about half the mothers in the sample had ever attended school. These children, therefore, have no help at home. It has been observed that in such cases private tuition has helped achieve better educational outcomes. Indeed, ASER 2011 found that 25% of children between 6-14 years of age were taking tuition. Parents are willing to spend this extra amount for quality education.
Given the increasing demand for tuition, let us find some way of providing extra help to students at a national scale. One way to do this is for government schools to run remedial classes before or after school. College students and young professionals can contribute their services part time to such activities for a nominal incentive. In addition to easing the burden on regular staff, this will also keep teachers on their toes.
As an alternative to government organized classes, these programs can be outsourced to social enterprises and philanthropic organizations. They can be given responsibility of specific districts in a state and be allowed to charge a nominal fee for classes. Private players are very effective at publicizing their efforts and achievements and this can help the initiative gain momentum. This might even bring in a spirit of healthy competition amongst participants and help ensure better quality of service.
Given the scope for private involvement in education, the government must move away from a monopolistic mindset towards schooling. Government schools must realize that they have to compete for students since alternatives are available. Perhaps a government sponsored coupon system for schooling can help ease the economic pressure of opting out of government schools for some parents. The point is that we need to consolidate all possible resources to ensure that our children are learning well. Government schools, private schools and NGOs can co-exist, while maintaining quality checks on each other. Social audits can help highlight laggards and high achievers in the education sector to keep consumers well informed about available options.
One of India’s biggest failings in service delivery is that of consistency and transparency. Most countries have approached education in conventional ways by building up an efficient public sector. And it has worked. The presence of new entities on so called ‘government turf’ can provide both complementarities and much needed competition.