One is apt to get inured to the routine harrowing statistics on the condition of education in the country, from pitiably low — and falling — learning achievement levels of school children, to mass cheating in board exams to high teacher-absence rates. However, analysis of the ‘District Information System on Education’ (DISE) data reveals a hitherto unknown tragedy which should prompt a determined policy response. Analysis of the raw DISE data for 21 states shows that in the four-year period after the implementation of the RTE Act, between 2010 and 2014, despite the number of public schools increasing by 13,498 in the country, total enrollment in such schools fell by 1.13 crore, and enrollment in private schools rose by 1.85 crore.
Over the same period, the number of “tiny” public schools — those with a total enrollment of 20 or fewer students — rose sharply. In 2014-15, these nearly one lakh tiny public schools had an average enrollment of only 12.7 students per school, a pupil-teacher ratio of only 6.7 students per teacher, a per-pupil teacher-salary expense of just under Rs 80,000 per student per year, and a staggering teacher salary bill of Rs 9,440 crore. The number of public schools with only “50 or fewer” students rose even more dramatically to 3.7 lakh small schools, that is, to 36 per cent of the total 10.2 lakh public elementary schools in the country by 2014-15. These 3.7 lakh “small” public schools had, on average, only 29 students per school, a pupil-teacher ratio of only 12.7 pupils per teacher, a per-pupil-teacher-salary expense of Rs 40,800 per year per child, and a monumental teacher salary bill of Rs 41,630 crore in 2014-15 — a grotesque squandering of tax-payers’ resources on pedagogically unviable public schools.
Why are public schools sick and emptying? A high teacher absence rate of 25 per cent nationally, low time-on-teaching even when teachers are in school (identified in the PROBE-2 Report) and the inability of education officials to implement the sanctions, specified in the rules, against erring teachers, because teachers are supported by powerful unions and sheltered by teacher-MLAs/MLCs, are the chief reasons. The truancy of public school teachers is also not because they are low-paid; they are significantly better-paid than private school teachers, and also better-paid than teachers in other countries: As per a NUEPA study, their average salary was Rs 4.8 lakh in 2014, which was more than seven times the per capita income of India. Compare this with China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, where teacher salaries are less than two times the per capita incomes.
The formulation of the National Education Policy (NEP) provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to cure the sickness. Education policymakers in India have historically prescribed the wrong medicine. While inputs-based policies are largely discredited internationally, in India, inputs-enhancing policies that neglect accountability have sadly been given legislative force under the Right to Education Act 2009. For starters, the draft NEP needs to adopt “increase of accountability” as its central organising theme. The government must also embrace proven policies that have worked elsewhere to raise accountability.
Per-student funding, used in educationally advanced countries, is the single most powerful way of improving school/teacher accountability — and teachers who slacken in effort stand to lose out financially under this scheme. Further, instead of giving per-student funding to schools directly, giving it to schools indirectly via a school voucher to parents (Direct Benefit Transfer or DBT) empowers parents. Where teachers are lax, parents withdraw their children, taking their voucher with them (to another school), thus lowering the government grant receivable by that school. This ability of parents to impose a financial penalty ensures that schools and teachers remain accountable, even to poor and uneducated parents — accountability structures are inherent and inbuilt within per-student DBT funding.
DBT voucher schemes can improve equity, compared to the counterfactual (current) situation, by entitling every BPL child in the country to attend a private school of their choice, or at least, to fill 25 per cent seats of private schools under the RTE Act 2009 — since there is no lobby to oppose this DBT way of reimbursing private unaided schools. In due course, this could be extended to public and aided schools.
The shambolic accountability system governing publicly-funded schools requires that the NEP includes even more far-reaching and courageous political economy and governance reform. It requires amendment of Article 171 (3c) of the Constitution that guarantees teachers representation in the state legislatures; this has turned many teachers into politicians (for example, 17 per cent of all MLCs in the UP Upper House are teachers); it requires that publicly paid teachers in aided schools be recognised as holding an office of profit under the government, thus debarring them from contesting elections. This will dismantle the culture of political activism which diverts teachers’ attention from teaching; this also requires the Election Commission to reduce the proportion of teachers in the official team manning polling booths during election time.
The NEP must steer the education system away from being run for the promotion of teachers’ interests, towards being run for improving children’s outcomes. This requires the government to take a firm and principled rather than an expedient stance—with DBT school voucher funding and governance reform. The children of India deserve it.