The gospel of private education is attracting a growing following in India and internationally. Where government schools suffer from teacher absenteeism, high dropout rates, and a host of other problems, private schooling, we are told, often offers a better deal for the poor. Where state schooling may be lackadaisical and unaccountable, the bracing rigours of the market ensure that higher standards are maintained in private schools.
James Tooley and others have recently argued strongly for the superiority of private over state provision of education in some of the poorest areas of the developing world. But the finding that private provision is better than state provision in regions where the state is failing is hardly surprising. Extrapolating this to argue that private schooling is always and everywhere better than state schooling is highly misleading. Such arguments frequently fudge the distinction between education that is privately funded, and education that is privately provided at state expense (say, through direct subsidy or voucher schemes). They also often assume a rather narrow view of the purposes of education, ignoring how education systems are related to the nature of society as a whole.
Education is a social as well as an individual good—it should give individuals the skills they need to succeed in life, but do this in a way that promotes social stability and equity. For example, if private provision becomes the default model for basic education in a society such as India’s, the gap in the standard of education available for the richest and poorest will inevitably widen.
One of the core assumptions of the private education movement is that private schooling delivers better quality education—at all levels from primary upwards, and with no adverse effect on access for the poorest students.
The weight of evidence is entirely to the contrary. No country has successfully achieved universal provision of primary schooling, along with rapid economic growth, without reliance on the state as the default provider. In post-war East Asia (Korea and Taiwan), primary and junior secondary education was provided at state expense, and to a high standard—judging by their students’ performance in international ‘league tables’. High levels of state investment, efficient bureaucracies and high teacher status help explain why these countries could rapidly universalize basic education and become both richer and more equal societies.
Tooley also argues that private schooling is more ‘accountable’ than state schooling, since parents rather than the state are the paymasters, and can withdraw their children from poorly performing schools. But markets are only one, far from perfect, means of accountability. So, while urban parents may have genuine choices, all rural parents will not.
There is another mechanism for ensuring accountability with which Indian readers may be familiar—‘democracy’. Democratic political institutions are meant to hold to account the politicians responsible for running public services, including education. In many parts of India and other supposedly democratic countries (Britain perhaps included), political institutions sadly fail to provide the kind of accountability to public demand that they should. In other countries (Finland, Sweden, Denmark), the state is more efficient and accountable. The problem is not state provision, but the difference between state providers that are inefficient and corrupt versus those that are efficient and accountable.
Tooley has quoted Amartya Sen on the “endemic lack of accountability” in India’s schooling system (or parts of it). But Sen is no advocate of abandoning state provision of schooling. In Development as Freedom, he notes that many contemporary fans of Adam Smith forget that he did not see the market, on its own, as a guarantee of human freedom in the broadest sense. Indeed, Smith believed that provision of education was best undertaken by the state, and at public expense.
Also contrast Tooley’s reflections on the role of education in China’s economic growth with Sen’s—Tooley enthuses over the Chinese government’s embrace of private provision and/or user fees at all levels of education, even while noting that one official explanation for this is to make up for “lack of government funds.” (But note, there’s ample funding for the Beijing Olympics, defence and a space programme.) Sen, on the other hand, observes that the most significant advances in provision of basic education in China happened during the Maoist era, not in the current period of neoliberal reformism. The expansion of basic schooling and health care under Mao was not intended to provide the foundations for future capitalist growth—but it still did so. Since the government’s embrace of marketization, provision of basic services in much of the countryside has languished.
This is not to say that old-style socialism is the answer to China’s problems or India’s, nor to argue that there should be no place for a private (for-profit and non-profit) role in educational provision. The debate is over the role of state funding channelled through well-regulated private providers. The long-term answer to India’s problems with extending access to a decent standard of basic education lies not in abandoning state provision, but in reforming the state to make it more democratic and accountable.
Edward Vickers is senior lecturer at London University’s Institute of Education. He is co-author of Education and Development in a Global Era: Strategies for ‘Successful’ Globalisation (London, DfID, 2007) Comment at email@example.com