The huge demographic dividend India is expected to gain in terms of the proportion of persons in the working age group, is crucially dependent upon the quantity and quality of skilled manpower. Here, only when more students complete primary classes, can access to secondary and higher education be increased. As recent data indicates, the number of out-of-school children in India is an all-time low of 70 lakh (other estimates vary), and retention at the primary level is up from 53% in 2003-04 to 71% in 2005-06. Here, the key is not only universalizing primary education, but also universalizing good quality primary education. In addition to bringing the out-of-school children into the system, the focus should be on improving learning outcomes.
The government has been an important player in this sector. As of 2004, the number of schools in the country was 1.04 million (for a 2001 population of 1,027 million), of which 85% were run by the government and the balance 15% by private managements. If primary education is a merit goods and the government is committed towards Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), should we even have private schools at the primary level?
A few have gone to the extreme end of recommending takeover of all government schools by a responsible private entrepreneur such as N.R. Narayana Murthy so that the success of the IT revolution may be replicated in education. Others recommend vouchers seen in some countries—poor parents are given vouchers and they choose their own schools.
However, there are several advantages if the state continues to be actively involved in primary schooling. Only government schools are sensitive to social objectives such as raising the enrolment of girls, SC/ST students, and those from lower income groups. Private institutions admit students primarily on merit or commercial considerations. Initiatives such as mandatory reservation of admission to the economically weaker sections in private schools are very recent and limited. Even in terms of total enrolment, the share of enrolment in government primary schools—though declining both in rural and urban areas—was still more than 85% as of 2005. It is neither easy nor practical to dismantle such a large existing system.
Decentralized schooling is also needed from a quality perspective, since it is able to reflect local preferences. There are none, or at best, limited, incentives for private entrepreneurs to develop a system that effectively targets local preferences. Since education is in the Constitution’s concurrent list, the present arrangement is that it is partly a state subject, with variation across states in school structure and definitions of progression. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments provide for decentralization and the transfer of power and participation of local self-government bodies. States are expected to evolve institutional arrangements, both in rural and urban areas, for undertaking these activities.
However, state departments of education still manage 66% of all primary schools, and local bodies manage only 20%, with the rest managed by tribal social welfare departments, private aided and unaided institutions.
Thus, from both the quality and equity perspectives, more government primary schools are needed at a decentralized enough level. But the problems with government schools are well known. The share of girls who passed with 60% and above was only 40% in government primary schools, based on the exam results for 2004, against 60% in private primary schools. Even in terms of infrastructure, private schools score over their government counterparts. The average number of classrooms in the latter was only 2.4, compared with nearly five in the former in 2005.
It is desirable that the relatively well-paid government schoolteachers be required to be part of a best practices learning programme to private primary schools (where their counterparts are paid much less). Some of these best practices are: Easy access to teachers for parents; teaching beyond textbooks; a classroom environment where children are self-motivated to understand concepts and apply these to real-life situations; continuous assessment, which reduces the burden, stress and fear of one-time examinations; and balanced co-curricular activity, equally important for the overall development of the child.
To enable their teachers to do this, government schools would need more funds, training and resources—especially those managed by local governments. Since some states are hard-pressed to meet even their current 25% share of SSA spending, and local governments have no access to revenue sources apart from the property tax, states are justified in asking the Centre to foot half the education bill, against the proposed 75 (states): 25 (Centre) formula. Given the exigencies of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, this might strain the Centre’s finances, but then decentralization is possible only with financial devolution.
Kala S. Sridhar of NIPFP, New Delhi, is currently visiting the UN University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER). Lakshmi S. Ravi teaches at Padma Seshadri School, Bangalore. These are their personal views. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org