Saturday, June 10, 2006

Schools, reservations, vouchers and us

While the bogey of reservations in higher education has created many entrenched groups clamoring for or against it (with apparently little middle ground), many interesting developments have passed quietly in the primary and basic education sector, which perhaps needs the most urgent reform.

The Free and Compulsory Education Bill, which, if executed well could have truly made a difference to the mass of underprivileged, undereducated children of India, has pretty much been scuttled by our lawmakers. The Central government has washed its hands off the bill, and instead the current proposal intends to pass on the proposals to the states, which can then individually act on it. There was also a proposal to reserve 25% of all seats in private schools in India for children from disadvantaged/underprivileged sections.

The proposal concedes the fact that the government schooling system is in shambles, and parents, if they can afford it, will send their kids to a hole-in-the-wall private school rather than a government school. Gone are the days when people could expect a good education in government schools (many of our parents went to government schools, and went on to become engineers, doctors, academics, scientists and the like). Yet this new proposal (of 25% reservations in private schools) has its own concerns.

This proposal though typically invokes three types of reactions amongst people. One is outright dismissal of the idea, and the dogged refusal to concede that all is not well with primary education in India, that social inequities are entrenched and perhaps even reinforced in schools, and that often getting an education in a government school is as good as no education at all. However, many people belong to one of two other groups. Both groups are in complete agreement that the primary education sector is in an unhealthy state, and that government schools are failing miserably to impart a quality education. This is not due to teachers’ salaries (see an earlier post). It is also not due to the government not being capable of imparting good education. The Kendriya Vidyalayas, Sainik schools and some central schools still do a good job. But most schools are terrible. The need for reform and new alternatives is apparent to both groups. Yet one of these groups favors the reservation being extended in to private schools, the other does not.

Those who oppose it instead suggest an incentive based model. Their argument is that any coercion is not acceptable, and will result in further dividing the haves and have-nots. It is also the government’s job to provide good education to the masses, not the role of a private school (though educational institutions in India cannot be “for profit). Instead, if the government provided economic incentives to private schools to become more inclusive, they believe the schools might. An incentive might perhaps be some form of tax-breaks to schools for percentages of underprivileged students studying in it. Another proposal is a “voucher scheme”, where poor parents are given government vouchers that can be “cashed” only by schools, as fee payments. Even if private schools deny opportunities for kids of parents with vouchers, the market will observe that there is a clear opportunity for new schools that accept vouchers to be built, and these will serve the purpose of providing good education to the underprivileged.

Those who would accept it do not accept it outright, as an only solution. But, in this case, it is mostly “some effort is better than no effort”. They also raise some valid points. In an ideal world, the government would move towards a good central schooling system, where schools serve areas, and all children from the area study there. This would enforce social mixing of all children in the area, and “have-nots” will study with “haves”, decreasing discrimination. There is a greater likelihood of better education being imparted. However, in the absence of any government effort to do any such thing, extending reservations in private schools might ensure that at least there’s a chance of underprivileged students getting a decent education. Most also agree that the school should not bear the expense of these students, but the state must. They believe economic incentive or voucher system, though conceptually good, will fail in an Indian system. In the Indian system, with its still very rigid and prevalent class mores, educational institutions are unlikely to voluntarily accept any inclusion. The urban middle class will baulk at the though of their kids studying with kids from slums, and will not allow schools to include these children, even if the government gives schools some economic incentives. They will be willing to pay more than voucher amounts to schools, to ensure that the schools their kids study in remain “elite”, or “better”. Even if new schools come up that accept vouchers, it may be that only underprivileged kids with vouchers will study in it, creating or perpetuating a class system, without assimilation or mixing of groups. 25% reservations in schools might still perpetuate inequities (since the underprivileged will remain a minority), but some effort is better than nothing.

My own take is that in both these stands undoubtedly have valid and forceful arguments. However, both are based on anecdotal reasoning, or arguments by analogy. By saying “the Indian middle class will not accept poor students studying with their kids”, you are only creating a hypothesis. It remains the same if you say “vouchers will provide incentives for schools to accept all students”. Again, a hypothesis.

Now, a hypothesis is not just a statement or opinion. It is a reasoned explanation of a phenomena or observation, usually based on some evidence. However, any hypothesis needs to be tested to be proven to be correct. In this case, both arguments could even fall in to the trap of Occams Razor. The Indian middle class thinks it is beneath them to mix with the lowest strata, therefore all schools that use vouchers to enroll underprivileged students will not have a mix of students from all classes is fallacious. Similarly, saying that vouchers will enable all students to gain access to education is also not as straightforward as it sounds. My own view is that the only way we’ll know is if there is an independent verification of both suggestions, perhaps by selecting say two districts with similar socio-economic conditions, and trying these two systems for a sufficient period of time (five years? Ten?). Or use other means of data collection, with data that will simulate the Indian system the closest. But these things take time, commitment and effort. Do we have that?

Any views (except flaming) are welcome.

(Some (quick reading) on the topic here, here, here)


Unknown said...

you have in my humble opinion hit the nail on the head
I am a rabid supporter of the common school and I go a step further by saying that all teaching shops should be banned
in the area in which i work there is a proliferation of such shops with names like - mother kesari school and holy whatever and the base line: english medium
a nano second spent there is sufficient to see that NO one speaks english
but poor parents who want a better future for thei kids painfully gather the requird sum and put their kids - often the son - there.
we at pwhy insist everyone goes to the government school and then with local resources help the kids after school.. for 6 years we have had every kid pass and this year two of our kids secured 80% in class X..
If the government school was the only option then the social cocktail would change and kids benefit from each other. i have always held that literacy alone is not sufficient and that slum kids often have better survival and life skills than ours.
if two kids share a bench in KG then by the time they understand what divided them the bonds will be strong enough to take care of it.. I have also held that there should be an Indian education Service on the lines of the IAS so that people get attracted to school teaching..
Even if slum kids are integrated into private schools, it will not succeed if their origin is stamped on their forehead
a case of force majeure is having us put Utpal
in a private school
For me it will vindicate many things..
I have hoped that some like minded people come forward and sponsor a few such kids and then watch what happens..
let us hope one day things change
btw i am a product of common schools as my father - a diplomat - use to pack me up to the local school
bless him!

Anonymous said...

"the government would move towards a good central schooling system, where schools serve areas, and all children from the area study there."

more and more people should be demanding this in fact. it's one of the primary duties of the govt to give quality education to the future generation. the thrust on reservations, vouchers etc is only helping the current political class to shun its basic responsibility. in a welcome move, the vice chairman of the knowledge commission has requested the govt to consider setting up 400000 quality schools funded entirely by the central govt but run by the the local administration.

Sunil said...

Projec elaborate very nicely the points that a common school system will enforce......
the social change (especially in attitudes and class) that persist in India will continue....and common schools address many of those problems.'re absolutely right. But the government knows it can get away by not doing anything.......since votes aren't at stake. Its going to require a lot of committed effort and a lot of people support to change this......and we all need to play our parts in this.