Has privatisation of education widened the gaps?

I recently had the opportunity of visiting Uttar Pradesh for a field study on understanding the governance structure and the institutional framework of policies, particularly focusing on children. As a part of my study, I had the chance to meet the frontline functionaries who diligently work for children – ANM (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife), ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist), Anganwadi workers and the Headmasters of different schools (from 1st standard to 12th standard). I spoke with different people on the field but there were a few conversations which I am unable to stop thinking about.

One such conversation was with Mr. Vijay (name changed) – Headmaster of a government elementary school in one of the villages, I visited. We spoke on different topics ranging from the children studying in the school to the provision of mid-day meals, merging of SSA and RMSA and so on. However, on asking whether he prefers government schools or privatisation, his response was  “Hum toh chahte hai ki privatisation ho jaaye kyunki usmein padhai ki quality kaafi achi hai aur government schools mein itni facility nahi hai” which translates to “I prefer privatisation because the quality of education is better in private schools and government schools don’t have the facilities” – surprising to say the least, since the statement came from a government teacher. We visited four government schools and spoke to about eight-nine officials inclusive of both teachers and Headmasters/ principals and most of them were of the view that privatisation is better. Despite the highly unequal and highly privatised set-up, the fact that the government school teachers (assuming they are permanent) who are paid much more than private school teachers advocate for greater privatisation of education seems worrying to me. A situation of this sort exposes the role of misinformation and marketisation in building this perception that private schools are better than government schools when there is no proper research done to compare government schools and private schools in the country. This particularly struck a chord with me and made me think – If Privatisation is actually the key to better education?

To think of the intricacies, India is a diverse country with people hailing from different backgrounds. For a country wherein 65% of the population belongs to rural areas, school level education is the most crucial stage which sets the foundation for life. School education also serves a wider purpose – in the foundational years – it helps mould one’s personality, creates pathways of learning, peer interaction and socialisation. Education is also an indicator for inclusive growth and social change. Clearly, children belonging to the most marginalised sections, along with the intersectionality of rurality are constrained by parental illiteracy, poverty, dismal facilities, and lack of parental support. This is the reality for a majority of our children.

To begin with, one needs to think if our government schools are meeting the quality parameters required for education. Teaching learning processes facilitated within the classroom is the most common place wherein structured learning takes place. Thus, the minimum guarantee of quality education can be through adequate and qualified staff, accessibility to the school and decent infrastructure facilities. Some of the attributes for adequate infrastructure are sufficient space to accommodate 30-40 students per classroom, construction methods that ensure safety, adequate sanitary facilities, separate toilet for boys and girls, adequate electricity and water facilities. The state profile report by Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) for the year 2018-19 (latest available data) states that the percentage of schools with functional separate toilet for boys is 89 % and that for girls is 91 % nationwide and particularly for Uttar Pradesh, the figures state 92% and 91% respectively. However, in the district that I visited, the figures stated in UDISE state profile report 2018-19 are 82.1% for boys and that for girls is 82.9% which is lower than the nation and state average. Leaking ceilings, no electricity, no washrooms and no water, no desks, no sanitary napkins and no benches were a common sight in most government schools that we visited. The health implications of inadequate toilets and lack of sanitation are very serious. Girls in particular face serious challenges and often drop-out stating sanitary, safety and privacy as reasons for not attending school, which in turn deprives them of the learning opportunities and mobility. Dropping out of girls is often significant after attaining puberty.

Lack of infrastructure and sanitation facilities not only is demotivating for children attending school but also the teachers who have to work under such circumstances for at least eight to nine hours a day. Apart from this, teachers often state the problem of over burdening of teaching responsibilities and administrative work. In my own experience, I witnessed a teacher who was also the principal for a government secondary school (9th and 10th standard) and due to the problem of understaffing and administrative work, she was forced to teach multi-grade classes which had serious consequences on the quality of teaching – learning process. A situation of this sort speaks volumes about the quality of education which is being compromised.

Apart from infrastructural facilities, nutrition is a very important component that plays a key role in a child’s education. General literature shows that Mid-Day Meals (MDM) is one of the primary motivations behind children attending government schools. For many children, it is the most nutritious meal of the day but to my surprise, my experience with witnessing the situation of MDM was exactly opposite than what is written in general literature. The quantity of Milk being provided to children as a part of MDM was very low – only 6 litres of milk was provided for nearly 150 students which was further diluted with water so as to make it sufficient for the students to consume. Apart from MDM, under the Rashtriya Kishore Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), girls are given iron and folic tablets every Monday in order to increase the haemoglobin level. However, it was noticed that some children faced negative side effects on their health due to the tablets such as rashes and infections.  The situations mentioned comes under the purview of the state authorities who need to make sure that children and teachers are provided with basic necessities in government schools which adds to the quality of education. This further demotivates the parents to send their children to school and teachers are equally demotivated to teach, it further compromises the quality of education that is provided in government schools thus creating a perception that private schools are better which is not the case. Why is this happening to government schools? Is it because state schools are facing negligence? Why? Is it because it has been deserted by all except most marginalised. Is privatisation the answer?

Privatisation of education claims to provide an expansion of choice of education for everyone but on the other side, it also enhances disparity to a very large extent – disparity against the very poor, marginalised and girls. In a country like India where patriarchy is still extremely prevalent and ingrained in the minds of many, girls/ women are considered to be of less importance. When it comes to education, she is “expected” to take care of the household and thus education is not important as she ultimately has to be married away. Thus, the education of boys is preferred to that of girls. The argument is supported by UDISE data where the enrolment of girls is higher in government schools in secondary schools as compared to boys, where their enrolment is higher in private schools. In certain cases, especially in rural areas, girls tend to drop out after the 8th standard because the family hails from a poor background thus depriving her of the basic right to education. Poor families cannot afford to spend exorbitant amounts to send their children to private institutions. Thus, in some way or the other private institutions risk deepening economic divisions, increase gender discrimination and bring about class inequalities. And the challenges of government schools also deepen because of the concentration of those who come from very derived circumstances or those such as girls whose schooling is not really valued by parents and therefore result in near absence of any home support for education.

Privatisation is problematic because it has a commercial/ classist approach towards education thus, giving an upper hand to children from well to do families and creating a divide and simultaneously making education as another money making medium. Another distinctive problem that gets created is the perception that students have the choice to choose from in the form of electives, athletics, participation in school clubs, debates. Although, the choices offered seem good, it ends up creating an illusion of choice which is even more dangerous because in reality it restricts the choice to people who can pay more thus creating a divide. On the other hand, government schools have an egalitarian approach working towards social equality which strives to neutralise the disadvantages the marginalised face on account of economic background, caste, creed etc by supporting them to raise themselves to a position where they can compete on equal terms with others.

It is often perceived that private schools are better as compared to government schools because it charges higher fees thus giving an impression that the quality of education will be better because majority of people think that if they pay more for something, it will be better. There is a concept in behavioural economics called the Appeal to Wealth Fallacy which essentially states that an appeal to wealth occurs when more money is involved, it also indicates that something is truer or better than the other alternative, thus exploiting the impression that money flows from intelligence or work – in the case of schools – suggesting better quality. It further goes to say that the consumers might not have complete information and thus, they use informal mediums such as television, radio or word of mouth to make that determination which in this case is price. However, there is little or no evidence to suggest that private schools are better than government schools in India.

For example, if we compare high fee charging private schools, the infrastructural facilities will be better than that of government schools but that is again not a guarantee as there are schools like Kendriya Vidyalaya and Navodaya Vidyalaya which do have good facilities. However, if the quality of teachers is to be compared then data shows that government teachers are better qualified as they adhere to Right to Education (RTE) norms. The state-run schools have been said to provide quality education at an affordable or free of cost while the private schools have been said to cater to those who can mainly pay fees thus creating an economic and social divide.

The changing educational policies in India from the period of 1999 to present reveals policy initiatives to reinvent education is based a lot on marketisation and privatisation.  However, there is little or no evidence to suggest that moving towards privatisation has facilitated any massive educational transformation.  Basic education is a human right and a constitutional right under the RTE, 2009 that no one should be deprived of. Education increases productivity and has the potential to change the social structure of a society and thus for the same purpose, there needs to be a radical shift in investment which is to be directed towards state-run schools. Along with adequate investment in terms of infrastructure as well as quality of education, there also needs to be an improvement in accountability and governance of the school management. If done with commitment and wisely, it has the potential to reduce discrimination by making education more accessible and affordable to all. This is not a utopia but the need of the hour.

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]

Shiboni Sundar
Research Assistant, CBPS

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