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Ensuring children learn a challenge

Ensuring children learn a challenge
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First Published: Wed, Feb 16 2011. 11 26 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Feb 16 2011. 11 26 PM IST
Budget 2011 is all set to give elementary education a significant boost. Media reports indicate the human resource development (HRD) ministry is seeking a budget of Rs34,000 crore for implementing the Right to Education Act (RTE). This is a significant jump from last year’s elementary education allocation of Rs22,667 crore, of which Rs15,000 crore was allocated to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the primary vehicle for delivering RTE.
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There is little argument that more money is needed if schools are to comply with RTE norms. The challenge lies in ensuring this money is spent efficiently and effectively to ensure that children actually learn. And if there is one lesson that SSA affords us, it is that the business-as-usual model is simply not good enough. Here’s why.
To begin with, as we reported in this series last year, significant portions of SSA funds remain unspent. Expenditure has seen some improvement—in 2009-10, 83% of SSA funds were spent, an improvement from 70% expenditure in 2008-09 (expenditure includes unspent monies from previous years). But for a 10-year-old programme, this persistent under-spending is a sign of inefficiency.
Moreover, delays are rampant. For the last two years, my colleagues and I have been tracking receipt and expenditure of SSA grants at schools through a project called PAISA. Annual surveys are conducted between October and December every year—halfway through the fiscal year. A mere 50% of the schools involved reported receipt of funds at the time of the survey. This improves to about 80% by March-end, suggesting money moves slowly through the system and reaches schools at the end of the fiscal year.
No surprise then that the bulk of SSA expenditure occurs in the last three months of the year. Late arrival of money results in schools rushing to incur expenditure to meet reporting deadlines, without giving adequate consideration to their needs and plans. The result: money gets spent poorly and often remains unspent. Pouring more money down this inefficient system without addressing the delays will only exacerbate this trend. Another structural problem with the business-as-usual SSA model is the weak planning architecture. By design, SSA budgetary allocations are made on the basis of annual work plans. The process begins, at least notionally, with school plans that get aggregated at the district and, finally, the state level. The objective is to ensure that plans and subsequent expenditure allocations reflect school needs and priorities.
Ironically, despite a move toward decentralized planning, Central government planning guidelines allow little room for flexibility and de facto, plans remain centralized. Here’s an interesting example. SSA introduced an innovation fund that provides a Rs1 crore grant at the district level. But the scheme formulated guidelines that narrowly define innovation into computer education—half the funds are meant for purchasing computers, girl’s education and early child care, among others. As a result, if a district wants to use its innovation fund to improve training, introduce a pedagogical experiment or even monitor schools, it can’t. Interestingly, computers are rarely found in schools. According to the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) report, 92% primary schools do not have computers and this is one of the reasons that countrywide only 61% of innovation funds were spent in 2009-10. This centralization pervades all the way down to schools, where rigid funding guidelines determine both the quantum of funds that ought to reach a school and how this must be spent. So schools have little flexibility in allocating resources to school-specific priorities, reducing school planning to a fictional exercise.
There are two consequences of this de facto centralization. One, that centralization creates disincentives for creative planning and, as a result, planning has become a mechanical annual top-up of funds, one which doesn’t account for financial performance and school needs. Inefficiencies of one year simply transfer on to the next. Second, states that do innovate—Punjab recently introduced various efforts to improve outcomes and Bihar has significantly improved its enrolment—do so either by adopting low-cost strategies or by finding alternative financial streams. As a result, SSA expenditure has a limited impact.
How can the plan process be strengthened? The answer lies in a radical overhaul of the current model to one that invests in planning capacity at the ground level. Greater flexibility is key but equally, plans need to be made on the basis of clearly defined goals rather than centralized planning guidelines. This requires strong state leadership. Second, planners need to have real-time information about annual expenditure and learning levels. So, a greater investment in tracking and reporting is essential.
Above all, if plans are to result in effective expenditure they need to be bottom-up. Schools need to be genuinely empowered to demand resources and allocate them based on their priorities. RTE, with its provisions for school management committees tasked with making school development plans, is an opportunity to do just this.
Focused investments on empowering school committees is the only way to alter the business-as-usual model of simply increasing budgets without addressing key structural problems. Only then will the proposed Budget expansion for elementary education result in the right to education being realized.
(Data collected and analysed by Avani Kapur and Anirvan Chowdhury)
Yamini Aiyar is a senior research fellow and director of the Accountability Initiative of the Centre for Policy Research.
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First Published: Wed, Feb 16 2011. 11 26 PM IST