Learning private lessons

Learning private lessons

The government’s decision to set up 6,000 high quality schools across the country, announced during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Independence Day address, has attracted much attention. However, for the move to translate into results on ground, executing agencies need to avoid pitfalls that are evident on examining the past results of state-provided education. If there is a basic lesson to be learnt, it is this: Greater spending does not necessarily yield better results. Sure, it will mean better physical infrastructure, highly paid teachers (in relative terms) and, if the existing Navodaya model is anything to go by, a large and slow bureaucracy that will do little else but process transfers and promotions of teachers. Bottom line: Little direct expenditure on teaching inputs and no attention on student outcomes. Unless the incentives of all stakeholders are aligned towards better learning outcomes, the new schools will be just another excuse to spend.

There are no easy solutions to the problem. A recent survey by the Centre for Civil Society provides useful insights.

The study, carried out by ACNielsen-ORG MARG, surveyed socio economic class (SEC) C, D and E households with a monthly household income of less than Rs5,000, government schoolteachers with a minimum of five years’ service and private school managements that charge a maximum primary school fee of Rs600 and maximum secondary school fee of Rs1,000 per month.

One interesting finding of the study is the perceived value of government schools. On an average, parents were willing to pay Rs66 as monthly fee for government schools based on the quality of education, infrastructure, facilities, etc. How much do they think the government is spending in a month per student in such schools? Rs100. The report says the government spends at least Rs800 per student per month.

The higher you go in SECs, the more parents pull their children out of government schools and send them to private ones. So, while the average for C, D and E households is 14%, for SEC C, the most better off among the lot, the figure is twice that (28%). One would think it’s all free. Hardly. About 45% of the parents, whose children are in government schools, have to spend an average Rs2,200 on private tuitions.

There is much to be said in praise of private schools for the poor. Of such schools surveyed in the primary division, the average fee charged was Rs241 per month. A large number (42%) only charged between Rs100 and Rs200. Despite the fact that these schools are unrecognized, parents prefer them to free government schools. Their teachers are paid one-seventh that of a comparable government schoolteacher, allowing them to hire more teachers, reducing the student-teacher ratio. Surprisingly, there is no positive correlation between teacher salaries and student outcomes. Studying 3,500 children in the slums of New Delhi’s North Shahdara, Prof. James Tooley, who had done a now- well-known study on low-cost private schools in Hyderabad, found that students of private unrecognized schools, on an average, scored 72% higher in maths, 83% higher in Hindi and 246% higher in English compared with their state school counterparts.

These schools not only offer lessons for primary schoolchildren, but also tips on cost-efficiency. The monthly revenue of a typical rural private school, according to Harvard researcher Karthik Muralidharan, is less than the monthly salary of a single government schoolteacher. Hiring qualified teachers and building sound infrastructure seem desirable. Ignoring evidence that none of this ensures better student outcomes is grave injustice in a country where skilled manpower will soon be the scarcest resource.

Sruthijith K.K. is copy editor at Mint. Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com