Most of us know that the state of education (or even literacy, which is a very different thing) in India is abysmal. The literacy rate (which comes with the usual fudge factor, and “if you can sign your name you’re literate”) in India is still around 70% for men, and 55 or so percent for women. Most of us have different opinions on why this is so, and different opinions on how to fix it.
There are grand suggestions that all education in India be privatized (since parents prefer private schools anyway, given that most government schools are pathetic). Others want a rapid and massive increase in the money spent on education (currently ~4% of the GDP), or private schools bearing the burden and expense of mass education. Some others want higher salaries and better options for teachers. The first suggestion, of superceding the government completely in all education is quite impractical. In fact, the countries with the best educational levels have excellent public school systems (even the United States) which does serve especially the neglected or poorest sections of society. As far as spending goes, India’s spending is decent (when compared to most countries), and falls in between the middle spenders and the high spenders. And there’s no reason to believe that the same bureaucracy that hasn’t delivered in 58 years is suddenly going to do so. The money spent is probably not going to reach its destination. It hasn’t so far. Even though on paper there’s a primary school within 5 km of every village in most of the country the results are not impressive. And it would be against basic liberties to require private schools to bear the burden of mass education. As far as the third goes, actually government teachers are rather well paid. A teacher can expect to earn about Rs. 10000 a month, with some additional perks. Surprisingly, most private school teachers (especially in smaller schools, which form the vast majority) earn between Rs. 3000-Rs. 6000. Yet, their performance is far better. Why is that?
At a very basic level (with out going in to other aspects) it boils down to two factors: accountability and power.
Government schoolteacher jobs are highly coveted positions, and here’s why. If you are a government teacher in a village, you’re amongst the most well off, and the most powerful. And you don’t need to do any teaching in your life if you don’t want to.
The position is yours for keeps. Appointments are highly affected by political or organizational connections. Once appointed, it’s almost impossible for you to be dismissed from service. There is little in place in terms of inspections (with inspectors actually having the power to dismiss teachers). Teachers are transferred routinely, but if the teacher is “connected”, he/she can avoid transfers, or transfer himself to the neighboring village, 3 kilometers away, and continue to be incompetent. There is no requirement that the teacher actually completes any part of the syllabus given, nor is there any incentive for students of a teacher to “pass” or “fail”. There are many reports of teachers never attending a single day of school, or even them having hired proxy’s to teach in the class (while they run their family business or whatever). Teacher absenteeism is massive (in some states absenteeism is up to 40%, with even more teachers present but not teaching). In contrast, in a private school, even for a teacher earning Rs 3000 a month, if the students perform badly, or there are clear cases of incompetence, the teacher is sacked. There’s no shortage of graduates in the country who want to teach. How good the education they impart is, that is a different matter. But we’ll keep the litmus test for now to students “passing” or being functionally literate.
Government school teachers also happen to be extremely powerful. Why? Because amongst other things, they become election poll officials during elections. And the schools under them become election polling booths. Clearly, the power they wield during an election is obvious. The teacher’s union is not just a small vote bank, but can actually determine the outcome of elections.
Power, and no accountability.
But how can this be fixed? The government has a number of proven and successful options. The first is obviously greater involvement of parents in the running of schools. If there is a parent association (at village levels) actively involved in the school’s functioning, with the power to question or even suspend teachers who do not attend classes or teach, teachers will be forced to do their jobs. Accountability is enforced, and learning indexes dramatically improve. Another proven method are different types of “voucher systems”. An example of a voucher system would be that all poor parents are given a “cash voucher”, with the clause that it can only be redeemed (for it’s value) as school fees for their kids. The parents would be free to enroll their kids in any school, but those vouchers can only be used in lieu of school fees. If there is a surplus, it cannot be encashed. This way the money is used in education alone.
There may be other options as well, that are just as successful. These have been successfully implemented in different parts of the world to varying degrees, and have been successful. Gurucharan Das and Amartya Sen are just a few amongst many who have argued for such reform in their columns or writing.
But how can any such policy be pushed forward in the Indian "system"? The teachers (as a single entity) are important for politicians, who are likely to be disinclined towards giving parents more control (this could cost them their seats). If parent bodies are formed in villages, will they be truly democratic? Will the bureaucracy honestly handle a voucher scheme, or will it be mired in inefficiency and corruption? Will teachers themselves try to oppose a voucher scheme (since that means the school will have to shape up or close down).
Open forum: How can these basic changes be implemented within the Indian system? These changes (I believe) are far more important and effective and likely to have bigger consequences than privatizing all education, or doubling the spending on education.