Sociologist and writer Andre Beteille once pointed out that the very idea of ‘equality of opportunity’ is a recent one, an outcome of the liberal movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And in a country long divided by caste and class, it has not been an easy idea to implement. The Indian government’s success in making this Constitutional promise a reality, particularly through its education efforts, has been limited. As I observed in the previous blog, the quality of our public schools remains one of India’s great challenges.
Addressing this requires more than increased budget allocations. We need to re-evaluate our approaches in school regulation, teaching, and success metrics in the light of declining learning outcomes across the country. Potential solutions are not hard to find, but are yet to scale up. Some successful reforms have already been tried out in parts of India.
For instance, public schools are more effective when school management was decentralised to the local governments and panchayats. This was already tried out in the Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) in Madhya Pradesh, where decentralisation made the schools in the state more accountable to the students and parents in syllabus, teacher and textbook quality.
Such decentralisation successes have also been seen elsewhere in the world, in the US, Brazil and Chile. Localised management and school policy increased parent involvement in schools, bringing their inputs and community oversight into syllabus design, school infrastructure planning, and teaching quality. Overall, such direct connect between school policy and local stakeholders substantially improved the performance of schools.
Decentralisation may be a challenge in poorer areas where very large segments of the parent population are illiterate. In these cases, such decentralisation, and coordination with parents could be supported by NGO partnerships and consultants, which would provide additional expertise.
School vouchers, an idea first suggested by the economist Milton Friedman, has shown promise in the US as well as in Sweden, Ireland and countries in Latin America. The idea of a school voucher is to fund the student, not the school. As a result of this, money follows student choices in which school to attend, be it a private or a public school. This gives poor families options they usually don’t have when it comes to their child’s education. And it encourages schools to justify the expense that they receive from the government, in their quality.
Benefits like school vouchers are however, successful only if there are competing schools, and this is often not the case in our villages. To provide ballast to school vouchers, we can do two things – one, provide school entrepreneurs with financing options and infrastructure support when it comes to opening rural schools, and second, have more schools in the PPP model, which will allow governments to quickly open additional schools that are well-funded through a combination of public and private funding.
In US charter schools, and in the UK and Latin American PPP experience, we have seen that private participation can bring in reform in curriculum and teaching quality – attracting better teachers with higher salaries and more oversight through regular student testing and measurement of outcomes – and also its own challenges in ensuring low costs. A PPP funding model can work with careful design, if such schools bring in the expertise and skills of the private sector, while ensuring the oversight and the access that the public role guarantees. Both BOT (Build, Own, Transfer) and BOO (Build, Own, Operate) PPP models can be tested for success.
School vouchers and PPP efforts would also shift the conversation away from private versus public schools. Schooling becomes not about ideological battles, but about quality and effectiveness.
Government regulations should focus not just on infrastructure requirements (such as toilets) but on actual learning outcomes for students across all schools.
Learning outcomes can be tested in partnership with various NGOs, and through a variety of mechanisms – in-school, at home and online testing. This will allow us to answer the hardest questions: what is it that really drives learning? What kind of student-teacher engagements and community oversight work best in India?
Finally, we know that teacher shortages are endemic in India, and we need to address this with some urgency. One aspect could be the introduction of an easy to take teacher certification that is consistent nationwide. We should realign requirements so that teachers can hold any degree, but must take an easily accessible, standardised teacher certification test, as well as regular certifications and training throughout their teaching careers.
This will help increase the pool of available teachers and also reduce the barriers for entry into teaching. Regular training will help teachers feel supported in the challenges they experience within their schools, keeping them at a high standard and focused on student outcomes. Across states this should be combined with dedicated teaching time, without other state duties like election work, so that teachers don’t have to skip school for such requirements.
At the heart of schooling is a promise to a young generation: of not just basic literacy and job opportunity, but also fundamental social change. Throughout history, we have seen that universal education has led to social reform. In Britain, an educated working class brought about a transformation in voting rights and worker’s rights. The revolution in imperial Russia was led by educated farmers and teachers. In the US, educated blacks were at the forefront of the movement for basic rights, and its no surprise that some of the biggest battles in the black Civil Rights movement were for school access – de-segregating American schools and colleges. More recently in the US and Europe we have seen large percentages of educated women who are now demanding equal pay, and access to seniority and management positions long denied to them.
Education has undeniable power in destroying old, discriminatory systems. It makes progressive ideas popular, rooting the ideas of liberalism and opportunity deep into a society. If India is to move forward in the 21st century, our schools will be an indispensable piece of that story.