We need a common school system     

Segregation in the current schooling system is conspicuous despite the RTE Act

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Sandeep Pandey

In a recent newspaper column, Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, Professor of Education Economics at University College London and President of City Montessori School Lucknow, has critiqued the New Education Policy.

She identified poor accountability of public schools and teachers as the main cause of the learning crisis in public schools. She advocated Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) to parents while opposing any increase in the education budget, citing a lavish pupil:teacher ratio of 1:12 and expenditure of Rs 51,917 per pupil by way of teacher’s salary in elementary public schools.

She seemed to be promoting the interest of private, so-called unaided schools, over public schools. This did not come as a surprise because she heads the largest chain of private schools, CMS in Lucknow. But her arguments are questionable.

The narrative around the DBT is easy to sell as the ruling government claims to have transferred benefits with reduced corruption in many of the centrally sponsored schemes. But is the same model applicable in the field of education? Empirical studies do not support such conclusions.

A study conducted in 2018 in East Delhi with 800 households in low-income neighbourhoods finds no or negative impact of such transfers/vouchers in the learning level of the students. The results of the study are consistent with the studies conducted prior to this study.

The problem of our primary schooling is because of the different type of schools for children from different types of backgrounds, thus differentiating childhood based on their socio-economic backgrounds.

Gandhi, Geeta - not the Mahatma - repeats the mistake of not keeping the child at the centre of education policy and misses out on the importance of equity, accessibility, quality and affordability to let children have equal opportunity. She fails to mention and so does NEP, that the only model which has succeeded in achieving universalisation of primary education around the world is the Common School System which is run, funded and regulated by government and in India is a 1968 Kothari Commission recommendation.

She on the other hand believes the government cannot play the roles of policy maker, operator, assessor and regulator of schools. However, it is the same government which runs good quality Kendriya and Navodaya Vidyalayas and world class higher educational institutions like IITs, IIMs, AIIMSs, IISERs and various NLUs.

Around 65 percent of the children still attend public schools and to propose a solution which only focuses on the population which is ready to make a shift to private schools is naive at multiple levels. A deeper look at her suggestion also raises fundamental questions about her conflict of interest in pushing the interest of private schools and catering to the interest of only privileged children.

In fact, private schools can be directly held responsible for the deterioration in quality of government schools as slowly the children of ruling elites made the switch from government to private schools. Another important piece of information missing from her argument and NEP is the 2015 Allahabad High Court judgement of Justice Sudhir Agrawal which sought to make it mandatory for everyone receiving a government salary to send their children to government schools.

Implementation of this judgement, to which the Uttar Pradesh government has turned a blind eye so far, could be a step in the direction of moving towards common school system and an effective remedy to the learning crisis that Gandhi alluded to.

Except for some elite urban schools, most private schools, especially in rural areas, are known to run mass copying rackets. Students can pass their Board examinations in exchange for a certain sum of money which is divided between the school management and the education department officials. The NEP too ignores this widespread phenomenon, especially in north India, and avoids making any suggestion for elimination of this aberration.

Curiously, while Gandhi advocates DBT, her chain of schools does not admit children under section 12(1)(c) of the Right to Education Act 2009 which offers at least 25 per cent seats for free education from classes I to VIII to children of disadvantaged groups and weaker sections with their fees to be paid by the government directly to the school.

Segregation in the current schooling system is conspicuous. To deal with it, the above mentioned section was provided for in the RTE Act at the entry-level. Even a simple Google search on violation of the RTE Act brings it to the notice that her own school has not been admitting children under this provision. This chain of course is not the only one.

CMS admitted 13 children from weaker sections because of a court order in 2015-16 and two on its own in 2018-19 out of 31, 55, 296 and 270 admissions ordered by the basic education department in 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19, respectively, implying a compliance of only 2.3 per cent of the orders.

And these number of admissions ordered are nowhere near the standard 25 per cent prescribed by the law. And yet Gandhi talks of non-accountability of public schools. If CMS had honoured all the above-mentioned admissions, it would have gained Rs. 35,20,800 as direct transfer from the government in the academic year 2018-19 towards the fees of these children. Hence it is clear that it is not really the DBT that CMS is interested in. It simply doesn’t want underprivileged children to sit beside the children from elite classes. It is crass discrimination against the poor.

India spends only 4.6 per cent of its GDP on Education whereas Kothari Commission had recommended the globally accepted standard of 6 per cent. To argue against an increase in India’s expenditure on education is a prescription to deny large number of underprivileged children especially from rural areas any decent quality of education or any education at all.

By quoting average figures of pupil-teacher ratio or the expenditure per pupil, experts are glossing over the large number of schools where a single teacher may be handling more than one class simultaneously in complete violation of norms of pupil-teacher ratio under the RTE Act. The attempt to defend the indefensible by an academic is disappointing.

(The author is recipient of Ramon Magasaysay Award, founder of ‘Asha for Education’ and a mechanical engineer from UC, Berkeley)

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